I flew to London the evening of Sept. 10. I had business meetings that week, and decided to spend a few extra days in one of my favorite cities. Tim, who would become my husband (but wasn’t yet) decided to come with me. I was always somewhat anxious about being far away from Emma, who was 8 at the time, but by that time I had done enough international travel that I didn’t think about it a lot.
We landed early in the morning, took the train and then the tube to our hotel in Leicester Square, and took a nap for a few hours. When we woke up, we went to a coffee shop to get some caffeine. The radio was on in the coffee shop, and I could hear W. talking about a bombing in the World Trade Center. At first I assumed it had something to do with the 1993 bombing – maybe someone was coming up for trial or something – but as I listened, I realized that something was happening in real time.
Tim and I quickly headed back to our hotel, and I stopped at a pay phone along the way to try to call Emma’s dad to make sure they were ok. But I couldn’t get through. When we got to the hotel, I tried again on the hotel phone, while Tim turned on CNN. Again, the lines were busy. I contacted the hotel operator to tell her I was having trouble getting through to the U.S., and she said something like, “You and everyone else, honey.” (I’m sure that it was a more polite British way of saying it, but that was the meaning.) As I sat down on the bed to watch TV, Tim handed me a glass of Jack Daniels from the mini-bar, with a look on his face that said, “You’re probably going to need this.”
At this point, it was probably 11:30 a.m. New York time. Both towers had fallen, but Flight 93 was still missing. I remember that it was impossible to understand what was going on – what had happened, the sequence of events – because there was so much going on, and so much confusion, that CNN wasn’t really reporting as much as showing images. Images of people holding up pictures of their loved ones, images (over and over and over) of the towers falling, images of people covered in white dust. Eventually I got through to Emma’s dad and my mom, so I knew that everyone was safe.
That evening, we gathered in a bar with all of the American ex-pats who were working for Unilever in London, and those of us who had traveled there for meetings that week. We just wanted to be together and laugh and cry.
For the next several days, I was in a state of constant anxiety. I didn’t know when we would get home…at times I wondered if we would get home at all. I wondered if World War III was about to break out. It was unclear if or when international flights were going to start again.
I kept praying over and over, “Please, God, send me a sign that everything is going to be ok.”
On Thursday, we went to the American Airlines office, because…actually, in retrospect, I have no idea why we went. It just seemed like the right thing to do. And while I was there, I saw the mom of one of Emma’s grade school classmates. Someone from home. Someone I recognized. And I had my sign.
(I didn’t know this woman well, and I can’t even remember her name. But after the fact, when I told the story to people, I referred to her as my angel. I ran into her years later, and started to cry when she told me, unprompted, that I was her angel that day. She had been praying for the same thing I had.)
After days of uncertainty, we were able to fly back to Chicago on Sunday, with our original tickets, as American had started flying to the U.S. again on Saturday.
Because all I felt that first week was anxiety, it wasn’t until I was back in Chicago that I was able to grieve. Able to feel like the work I was doing was pointless and futile. (When I expressed this to some others at work, they said, “Oh, yeah, we felt that last week. You’re a week behind.”) I remember that for a long time, the sound of sirens caused me tremendous anxiety. My heart would pound and I would start to sweat.
To this day, I feel like I missed something by not being here when it happened. I missed the opportunity to grieve with my family, friends, neighbors, and church community. I missed news stories. I missed being part of this collective outpouring of grief. The people of London were tremendously understanding and supportive. But it wasn’t the same.