Like so many other folks I remember exactly where I was the day the planes flew into the World Trade Center towers that fateful morning of September 11th, 2001. The loss, destruction and devastation that drifted from the rubble across the country with a unmistakable stench of fear, sadness and anger will never be forgotten.
I flew to Toronto soon after the airspace was re-opened from the attacks as my earlier flight to catch some of the Toronto International Film Festival was cancelled. I arrived at the airport ridiculously early, and it was very much like wandering around in a foreign movie where I felt unsure of what was happening, unsure of the things people said, and not quite sure what it all meant, everyone seemed on high alert. I remember the security search, it was so thorough that they found the seat belt extender I had purchased on-line to keep in my pocket so I could access it quickly once I boarded the plane and could be as prepared as possible to squeeze myself in the seat and prayed for a skinny person or no person to appear in the seat next to me. It was a rude exchange and in the moment I was not aware that it was my way of nothing more than self preservation.
It went something very much like this…..
Security Officer: (holding up the seat belt extender and waving the buckle piece around like a flag) What is THIS?
Me: It’s a seat belt extender.
Security Officer: Why are you you trying to sneak it on the plane?
Me: (such a smart ass) So that the seat belt will fit around my morbidly obese body and click into place so it is secure and the flight attendants don’t have to make a scene if they happen to not have one on board, which has happened in the past and I can fly to my destination without being embarrassed or made to feel ashamed about my size.
Security Officer: Oh.
Security Officer: Arms up. I am going to use the wand on your upper body, is that okay?
Security Officer: May I feel the small of your back?
Me: Be my guest….if you can find it, you can feel it.
We both exchanged the nastiest of looks and he sent me on my way.
It was a small distraction in a very bare airport where fear and sadness permeated everything. The televisions were all tuned to CNN blaring the images of the inconceivable. When the announcement was made we all slowly boarded the plane and I made my way to the very back of the plane toward my usual spot when I would fly, hoping no one would sit next to me. The seat next to me remained empty but across the aisle from me would sit an older woman with the most beautiful grey hair, smelling like summertime laundry hanging on the line as she approached her seat. Smiling at me as she settled in, I smiled back. The trip took less that an hour and the flight attendant made the announcement that we would be preparing to land in Toronto shortly. As people put away their electronics the plane began the descent, and as I looked in front of me I could hear a woman two rows in front of me begin to weep. I tilted my head against the hard plastic frame of the window seeing the profile of others with their heads turned to watch us breaking through the clouds as the turbulence forced us to remember where we were, tears streaming down faces as we wondered what it must have felt like that fateful morning. There was complete silence and stillness among us. Honoring those in our own small way, those who would forever be part of an event that changed everything. It happened all at once, I looked up and saw that people were holding hands, with their seat mates and people were holding hands across the aisles and just as I was thinking some of these folks are total strangers, these people don’t even kno… her warm soft hand slide into mine as her tiny body slide into the seat next to me. The tears fell over and over and my sobs could not be held back. I wept in her shoulder for what seemed like an eternity. We all wept.
As we walked off the plane and toward customs the smiles were warm and in some way the comfort felt in those last few minutes in the sky will live in my mind forever. A tiny bit of hope in such destruction that we can heal just a little by loving each other through the pain, even strangers can hold the space for you in a time of need.
I called my mom from a pay phone at baggage claim, to tell her the eagle had landed and that I loved her very much.