I will never forget what a beautiful day it started out to be. Sunny, bright, and clear, a day that begged you to stay outside. And so I did, even though I usually go straight home after dropping off the kids at school. But that Tuesday felt special, so I jogged around the quarter-mile track for half an hour, grateful for the morning, then did a few errands that were in walking distance from my car, just to extend the moment.
At 8:45, I used my cellphone to call home and check for messages. There weren't any. Just before 9 o'clock, I was driving up the hill to my house. I turned on the radio and heard about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I pulled into the driveway as the man on NPR was saying that details were sketchy.
I went inside and saw I had two messages, one at 8:48, one at 8:53, both from my husband. He said that he was all right, but the World Trade Center was on fire, and that I should pray. The second call, five minutes later, was a request that I call my mom to ask her to pray. I almost didn't recognize his voice. I called my mom, and told her what I knew. I almost didn't recognize my own voice.
I ran upstairs and turned on the TV, just in time to see the second plane fly straight into the second tower. The newscaster didn't even know it was happening behind her. All this time, I was also trying to reach my husband by phone, but all I got was that rapid busy signal that tells you something is wrong.
My husband works two blocks from what is now known as ground zero. His 59th-floor office faces uptown, giving him a panoramic view of both rivers, all the bridges, and - on that morning for the last time - the twin towers. I called his cellphone; same problem. No calls were getting through. I called the main number at his firm. I called his private line. I prayed.
Finally, I thought "I'll send send an e-mail - it's a message in a bottle at best, but maybe somehow he'll get it." I told him I was praying. I told him to come home.
My husband has something called a Blackberry. It's a hand-held device that can send and receive e-mail. I love his Blackberry. I always have; it allows him to stay in touch with his office while remaining on vacation. I love it even more now. He had it with him that morning. He took it with him when he evacuated his office.
At 9:30, he e-mailed me that he was all right and was driving home with a woman from his office who lives one town away from us. I knew he was no longer in his building, but I didn't know anything else. He kept e-mailing me that he was OK.
Then the first building fell. Then his mother called. I told her he was all right, but still downtown. He was trying to drive home. Then I heard all the roads were closed.
The phone rang; it was him. He was in his car, but before he could tell me where he was, we got cut off.
A friend of mine showed up at the door with her 18-month-old son. I told her I had just gotten a call from my husband, but I didn't know where he was. She said she wanted to stay with me. I told her that would be great.
We both saw the second tower collapse. Her little boy didn't - he was happily playing with some toys he had found. We kept him away from the TV set. I checked my e-mail for some new word. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing for the longest 15 minutes of my life.
Then a message that he was safe in a parking lot on the Lower East Side, trying to get on FDR Drive.
My friend went home. I turned off the TV and prayed. Just prayed. Nothing directed or fancy, just "God God God." At 11 o'clock, still morning, though time now felt like granite, the phone rang again. It was him. He said, "You know I always call you when I'm 20 minutes away."
He told me to go get the kids. I said, "Funny enough, I'm bringing them home for lunch today. I'm picking them up in 30 minutes." I was trying to sound almost casual, so emotion wouldn't get the best of me.
He said, "Go get them now." He had just driven through a war zone. His was probably one of the last cars to get out of the city that day. He needed to see his children.
I couldn't begin to comprehend what he'd just been through, what he'd seen or how he felt. But I understood that life had changed, and I went to the school.
I called my mother before I left. She lives five minutes away. I told her what I was doing and asked her to come over. I said, "I don't want him to come home to an empty house. Just in case I got stuck at school, or in traffic. Just in case."
We live in a commuter town, 30 minutes from Grand Central Station. Many people work in the city. Many parents work downtown. I was worried about what I'd find at the school - panic, confusion, fear?
Instead, I found calm and order. Also disbelief and shock, but muted.
I asked a friend of mine - a second-grade teacher, a mother - if she thought it would be OK to get my kids out of their classrooms early. She said, "Go ahead. Other parents have already been here. Take your kids home."
I walked into my son's class, and found them all working quietly. His teacher told me they knew something was going on, that the World Trade Center was burning. Other parents had already been there to take their children home. The word "terrorists" wasn't mentioned.
I told my son that everything was fine, I just wanted to pick him up early. I told his teacher he wouldn't be back after lunch. We both acted as if this was just a normal day, except for the fact that the world was falling apart.
Then we went to get his sister. Her class was also calmly at work. They didn't know anything about what was going on. Their teacher did, but had kept it from them. No need to get them upset.
I told my daughter I was taking her home a few minutes early. She wanted to know why.
I said, "I'll tell you when we get in the car."
"Is everything OK?" she asked me.
"Daddy's fine," I said.
We drove the few blocks past the school and turned onto our street. At the bottom of our hill is a traffic light. Our light was red. I looked to my left and saw my husband, in his car, waiting to make the turn up our hill. He saw me, too.
I wanted to jump out of my car and run over to him. But I didn't because I knew I had to act as though it was just an ordinary day. For his sake, for our children's sake. For the world's sake.
I gave him the thumbs-up sign. He gave it back to me. He turned as the light changed. I followed him home. We drove up the hill together.