Baby boomer Phyllis Edgerly Ring of Exeter, New Hampshire, shares a timely story about something she saw back during the terrible days of 9/11/2001, with a lesson that still works today. The lesson is, the remedy resides in us.
Thirteen years ago, my father and I were reminiscing about World War II— my dad’s years in Civil Defense after a 22-year Army career, my mother’s experience during the London Blitz, and the incredible good that terrible times can uncover in people.
As we were passing through Atlanta on I-75, we spied an electronic highway message board that read, “National Emergency — All Airports Closed.” As the car radio revealed a cascade of events too large to grasp, I experienced a feeling of smallness and vulnerability unlike any I remember as all my illusions of safety came down at once, like those two destroyed skyscrapers.
Just four days later, after a Category-3 hurricane had made landfall near Dad’s Florida home and I’d truly begun to wonder whether the world was coming to an end, I took my place in a blocks-long line at Tampa’s International Airport. I was praying this might be the day I’d finally be able to get home to New Hampshire, on one of the very first flights in the country after eerily quiet days of empty skies.
Every single child I saw that day looked scared. Most of the younger ones clutched their backpacks like stuffed animals, if they didn’t happen to be holding those, too. Their parents looked grim, if not equally frightened.
One boy of about nine, who with his parents and younger brother was waiting to board the same plane I was, seemed unable to contain his terror. His plaintive sounds were agonizing, perhaps because so many of us also had them muffled way down deep. His parents, exhausted after days of canceled flights — a trip to Disney World that had become a nightmare from which they couldn’t seem to awaken — were doing their best to calm him, with no effect.
Gradually, others stepped forward to try, including airline employees. Obviously a polite child, he would hear them out, but then his sobs and agitation returned. He was convinced that if he got on that airplane, on any airplane, he was going to die.
The person who finally reached him was a grandmotherly passenger with a soft Southern accent who takes that flight every other week for business. She introduced all of the flight crew to him by name as her friends, then asked him a question I didn’t hear, but that he took a while to consider before answering. She told him it was okay if he felt afraid — told him she’d felt that way, too.
Then she gave him powerful truth:
“We need you to come with us, because it’s important to be with your family and to go home. We need to be together, because we all have to help each other now. That’s how we can stay safe, and how we can feel okay again.”
When she put her arms around him, he relaxed against her as though relieved, and stayed there for an unhurried while. When boarding began, he joined his family quietly. He suddenly remembered his bewildered younger brother and took cards out of his pocket so that they could play together.
This woman seemed to know exactly what we should say and do for our children — and each other. I don’t think the essential wisdom in her response has changed very much at all, or that it applied only to that day, or to how we go on, together.