By Susan Buttenwieser
Up until this morning, your anxieties revolved around your parenting abilities. You’d been consumed with fear, even before your daughter was born, never felt so inadequate.
You are on the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street when it happens. Right in front of Ricky’s, pushing your three-year-old daughter in her stroller, as you head home. Just like hundreds of other days, weeks, moments.
This time, however, things are different. Thirty minutes ago, you were on the roof of your building. Watching with your neighbors in stunned silence, as if unable to decipher what you were witnessing. The tallest building in New York City pancaking down on itself. It was there, the South Tower was just there, with a burning airplane inside. Then it was totally gone, replaced by an enormous cloud of smoke, like the aftermath of a detonated nuclear bomb. How many people had been in there, people who were certainly no longer alive. You couldn’t conceive of it, no one could.
The first person who spoke was a woman instructing her boyfriend to take a picture. “I can’t,” he said, though his camera was on a tripod inches from him. Then everyone was in motion with the sickening realization that the other tower could fall down too.
You were frozen at first. Finally it hit you. Your daughter at Pre-K, several blocks away. Even though you didn’t feel remotely safe, she should be here, with you.
In the stairwell, you could hear a neighbor’s tortured moans. Her boyfriend worked at Windows on the World. It was a sound you never heard a human make before. Her wailing continued throughout the entire day, a never-ending soundtrack.
The streets and sidewalks were complete pandemonium. Filled with people crying and clinging to each other, helplessly looking downtown at the smoke and debris snaking through lower Manhattan, and a blank space where the South Tower used to be. The North Tower still stood.
You ran the whole way to your daughter’s Pre-K. When you got there, she said good-bye to her teacher and calmly got in her stroller. She didn’t seem afraid as she sat there, waiting to be taken home, expecting you to make it okay for her. Expecting your most basic function. To protect her. No matter what. Even right now.
Up until this morning, your anxieties revolved around your parenting abilities. You’d been consumed with fear, even before your daughter was born, never felt so inadequate. All the other parents came across as organized and cheery and prepared. You were none of these things and less. Lackluster, late and always making emergency stops at delis because you forgot something at home or lost it on the way. And in the dawning of this new millennium, retro-domesticity was an obsession with the other parents. The list of their skills felt endless, everything from making bagels and play dough from scratch to hand-stitching their own children’s clothing. Meanwhile, you were barely getting through the day.
But then, there is this moment that changes everything. Rushing home from Pre-K with your daughter in her stroller, you reach the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street, right outside Ricky’s, just as the North Tower falls down. People go crazy when it happens, start running uptown, away from it, as if it will come crashing down and smother you all. The grouchy cashier from Ricky’s bolts outside, looks downtown and screams when she sees that it too has completely collapsed. That the World Trade Center no longer exists at all.
You try somehow to get through the next few hours and days. You take your daughter to the nightly candlelight vigils in Union Square, to the school next door housing out-of-town firefighters, and help set up makeshift beds. You do regular, every day things, like going to the playground, to friends’ homes. There is even a party, all the parents welling up when the children sing “Happy Birthday” in their high, hopeful, three-year-old voices. A week later, you find out you’re pregnant with your second daughter.
But during that moment outside Ricky’s, as people are literally running for their lives, your parenting anxieties have become a vanished luxury. There isn’t time to worry about what the other parents are doing. You have to go with your instincts.
Maybe there is more to being a mom than craft projects and baking. And maybe what your daughter really needs is for you to stay focused on what is right in front of you: her.
For once, you have no hesitation about what to do. Bending down, you pick her up out of the stroller. Arms wrapped all the way around her, you cradle her face in the crook of your neck, in the midst of this swirling, panicked, out-of-control crowd.
“That’s right,” a man rushing past says. “Hold onto her.”
And you do.
Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women. She read this piece at a Listen to Your Mother, NYC event in 2013.
Photo by Scott Boruchov