Almost exactly 21 years ago, my family’s life took a turn. At that point, I was a stay-at-home mom, loving my days with my little ones. Haley was five and thriving in kindergarten, Jake was two and loved going to play with his friend Ben, and Nathan was almost one, a happy, chubby baby who made me laugh with delight every day. I had a big circle of friends who also had littles, so we took our kids on outings together to the park and to community events. Kendell and I were starting to talk about maybe selling our house and moving to something larger in an area with better schools. I had started running that summer. My parents were healthy, my kids were learning and growing, we were doing OK financially. It felt like we had been given a happy, good life. (Did I think, deep down, even though I would’ve never said it, that we deserved this good, happy life? Because we were good people, because we went to church, because, I don’t know, we paid our taxes and voted in elections and kept our yard pretty? I did. It is uncomfortable for me to admit to, but it is a part of this story. I thought I had somehow earned the good things in my life, that they were rewards for me trying to be a good person.)
And then, on the Tuesday after Labor Day when he was driving his mom to a funeral in Idaho, Kendell got a phone call from his job, letting him know he’d been laid off.
I didn’t really understand, at first, how sharp a turn in the road that would be for us. Kendell immediately started looking for jobs, of course, but discovered that his lack of a degree was a hinderance. (The tech world can be a bounteous industry to work in, but it can also be brutal, and twenty years ago, aside from several big companies, Utah County was just starting to become the tech-rich place it is now.) So he went to work for a friend who had just opened a start-up company, all of them with big dreams about creating a company that would thrive. He worked there for 15 months and was paid four times. We didn’t have health insurance. I stopped buying orange juice. The severance package he had received from his old company dwindled rapidly. My group of friends dwindled, too, as it grew harder for me to go and do things with them. I’d listen to them talking about their new Dooney & Burke purses and Ugg boots and upcoming trips to Tahiti and then think about the panic I had every time I went to the grocery store; there was too much contrast. I’m not sure if I pulled away or they didn’t want to be friends with a poor person, or if it was a combination of both, but almost all of those friendships faded.
A year later, in September of 2001, I was a much different person. I had started trying to find a job and discovered that having an English degree was fairly useless unless I wanted to teach, so I was figuring out how to go back to school to get my teaching credentials. I had an intermittent gig with a scrapbooking magazine, which meant sometimes I could write an article and earn a bit of money. Kendell grew angrier and angrier over our situation. We had registered for CHIP, the free insurance through the state, and WIC, which was a way to get some groceries for free. We had started considering selling our house and downsizing. We fought every time I spent any money. One time a friend left groceries on my porch, and that Christmas my sister-in-law played Santa for us. It was a horrible, horrible time. Not only because of the constant thread of “what will we do, what will we do?” always running through my mind. But because I had been thoroughly stripped of any sense of value. That beautiful, happy life I had had was taken away from me, and all I could feel was self-hatred. I combed through my memories of everything I had done in my life, trying to understand what bad thing I had done to make God take so much away from me.
On the second Tuesday in September I had an 8:00 a.m. appointment. Kendell stayed home from his job (could we even call it a job at that point? After all the promises continued to fall through, after so much time of working as an “investment in the future” that never actually put food on the table or paid our mortgage?) that morning with the kids so I could go alone. Everyone was still asleep when I left at 7:30 to drive to Provo, where I would do something I had so far been far too proud to do. I drove in silence, with the radio off, and cried the whole way. My appointment was with the Department of Workforce Services and I went there to apply for food stamps. I had told literally no one that I was doing this, except my husband. I was so humiliated.
When I walked into the office, the TV over the receptionist’s desk was on. And that was the moment I found out about the attack.
Like everyone else, I watched in horror and couldn’t make sense of what was happening. I stood watching until they called me back for my appointment, when hearing my name brought me back to my little part of the world with a jolt. Isn’t that strange—New York City and the Pentagon were exploding but I still went into a cubicle to talk to a person about getting food stamps. I went through the motions, filling out the application and waiting for the woman helping me to look at it. I found out that I didn’t qualify, because we had too many assets: we still owned a car, we still had a mortgage rather than renting the place we lived, we still had a bit of money in the bank left from the severance. Once all of those things were gone (she said this like a fact, like it was a thing that would happen, not that might), I could come back and apply again. All of this conversation felt muffled and far away, my thoughts still in a city I had never actually stepped foot in.
Before I drove home, I sat in my car. I tried to name the emotion I was feeling. I didn’t have one word for it then, and I still don’t, and it took me a long time to understand it. Partly this is because I don’t feel like 9-11 was my thing to write about. I mourned for the strangers who died that day, but I didn’t know anyone personally who was lost. Me sharing my emotions about it felt like grief appropriation. The people who lost people are the ones who own the grief, and my sadness and mourning felt like an offering to them rather than my own trauma.
I have thought about that day so many times over the past twenty years. I do still feel reluctant to write about my response, but I also understand that this was an American tragedy, even for those of us who didn’t lose people we loved. What we lost as a nation was similar to what I lost during those long two years of rebuilding from Kendell’s unemployment: the sense that because our nation was “good” (freedom-loving, built on democratic ideals, a place where anyone can succeed if they try hard enough), truly bad things wouldn’t happen here. We didn’t deserve it.
I have learned, changed, and grown so much since I was that 29-year-old woman crying in the Workforce Services parking lot, in both good and negative ways. I had no idea how many more difficult things I would go through. I have never fully regained my belief that good things happen to people simply because they are good, nor that sense of confidence and hope I used to have. My inherent belief that the Universe rewards goodness is very, very dented. I now understand that good things happen because they just do, same as difficult things. There is hatred, greed, resentment, violence, and anger inside of people, racism and sexism and ignorance, and these sometimes drive people to make destructive choices. Some people who do negative things still thrive financially and seem to have an abundance, while many, many good people struggle their whole lives. The same goes for nations; the United States does good things and horrible things and is no more immune from the violence of others than any other country in the world.
These are wounds that perhaps never heal. Even as I write this I have tears streaming down my cheeks, feeling again what I felt at 29, the desperate hope that if I just did something better, prayed more or read more scriptures or served others better, I could get back what I had so briefly, my perfect few utopian years before everything changed. (I did not get it back.) The World Trade Center attacks are not about me, but in a sense they are because they mirrored, very largely, what my small life was also experiencing. An innocence was lost, along with all of those lives, that day for this country where I live at the same time I was losing a similar innocence of my own.
Fifteen years after 9-11, I finally made it to New York City. I visited the 9-11 Memorial Museum, and as I walked through, I again found myself crying. I’m a museum crier no matter what, but this was different. Being so close to the actual iron and steel that was brought down by airplanes and hatred, I again mourned for those who died. My husband just moved away from me and left me to my crying, and I’m not sure anyone else noticed or cared, one weeping woman in the crowded memorial obviously not the point of anyone’s experience. I also mourned for myself and for how I have changed, for how hard it is to move through this life and not have parts of yourself decimated along the way.
And just as I am not the same, the United States has changed. There is more hatred and division now. That unity we had for a few brief days after the attacks is long gone. We have all had to learn to live with difficult truths. What will happen in the next twenty years? I wouldn’t begin to hazard a guess, not for myself or for the country. I can only continue forward, trying to find the goodness that is also here, even if I can never be free of the sadness.