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Karen Dukess

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September 11 and the Triumph of Hope

Posted: 09/11/2012 2:07 pm

My husband missed his train today. It was there when we drove into the station, but pulled away as he stepped out of the car. He didn't seem too bothered; another train would come in 12 minutes and he'd only be a few minutes late to his meeting.

Eleven years ago this morning, my husband overslept and missed another train. One that would have gotten him into the city in time to catch the subway downtown, to a conference in the Marriott beneath the World Trade Center.

That same morning, my brother-in-law decided to buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks before taking the subway down to his job on the 84th floor of the South Tower. The express train came and it was crowded; he didn't feel like standing, so he took the local. By the time he was climbing the stairs out of the station, the towers were burning.

Random minutes mattered that day. Unpredictably, unreasonably, and for so many people with unfathomable cruelty, the minutes made a difference.

For months after September 11, it was hard not to think that small decisions could have big consequences. If one of my boys lagged on the way to school and I realized I might miss the 8:17 train to Grand Central, I'd wonder if that was going to be the best delay of my life or the worst. Living with that kind of anxiety was exhausting. It would be months before I stopped flinching every time a plane passed over the house, before I could put the fresh, raw awareness that awful things can happen to anyone at anytime, back into a deep, neglected corner of my mind.

When my boys were in elementary school, each went through a period of extreme anxiety. When my older son was in fourth grade, he worried about getting sick. Every cut or scrape sent him into a panic. For a few weeks, he was hyper-aware of his body, afraid of every unfamiliar feeling or flicker of discomfort. A year later, my younger son suddenly became anxious about going to school; for a month or so, it was like there was a force field preventing him from crossing the door into his third-grade classroom.

While I tried to understand what set off my sons' worries, I came to see their anxious phases as a kind of developmental gridlock. For each, the worries kicked in when they suddenly were old enough to have the intellectual understanding that terrible things could happen, but didn't have the emotional maturity to cope. They didn't know what to do with this new awareness that everyone doesn't live happily ever after. And so they worried.

I got some insight into this one day at lunch, when my younger son, until that year an almost unbelievably sunny child, looked up from his tuna fish sandwich and said, "I think I know what I've been worrying about, Mom. I'm afraid of dying." He told me that he had seen a photograph in the newspaper of a 10-year-old girl in the Middle East who had been killed. Before that, I don't think he had really comprehended that children could die. With this new knowledge, how could he not worry?

With some support and advice, but mostly with time, my boys each moved beyond anxiety. The random cruelty of the world may make them flinch, and sadden them, but it doesn't overwhelm them anymore.

Driving with my 12-year-old a few days ago, we heard a radio report that a New Jersey man watching his grandson's soccer game was struck by lightning and killed.

"Maybe he just wasn't meant to live," my son said, attempting to find reason in something so unfair and inexplicable. But then he said. "No, I don't believe that. It just happened."

It is sad that growing up means learning to accept that the world is full of misery, violence, illness and accidents. It is tragic for children, like those whose parents died on September 11, for whom death and loss are not theoretical worries, but realities they must deal with every minute of every day. But that any of us can have the awareness of how little control we have, yet continue to find joy and to hope for the best and even believe that everything will be all right, is also a triumph.

 

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