Five years ago this month, my father and I were on the last leg of a trip from his summer place in Maine to his Florida home. As we drove, we reminisced about his years in civil defense after a 22-year Army career, my mother's experience during the London blitz in World War II, and the incredible good that terrible times can often uncover in people.
Then, as we were passing through Atlanta on Interstate 75 we spied an electronic highway message board that read: "National Emergency – All Airports Closed."
As I turned on the car radio, information was instant and omnipresent. During the time that we'd been talking and out of touch with national events, there had been an awful – unfathomable – cascade of them too large to actually grasp mentally.
The dangling detail of the still- unaccounted-for United Airlines Flight 93 chilled me most. (Of course I hadn't yet seen the images of New York's skyline.) I recall experiencing a feeling of smallness and vulnerability unlike any I remember, as all my illusions of safety fell at once, like those decimated towers.
This was my father's first return to the South since my mother's death 10 months before. How grateful I was that he hadn't been alone on this day that would come to be known worldwide simply by its date.
What, I wondered, was our life as a nation going to be like now that it had, like those four flights, taken such an abrupt and terrible turn?
My first thought was, as my father and I had just been discussing, that such magnitude of terror and pain can often unleash a commensurately large outpouring of human goodness – the kind that seems to flood to the surface when things are almost too dreadful for us to bear.
I hoped that larger numbers of us would deepen our resolve to cultivate that greater and higher part of us – the one that contributes to the most lasting, beneficial outcomes. And I hoped that this kind of response would last well beyond the weeks and months to come.
Four days later, after a Category 3 hurricane had made landfall near my dad's home, I took my place in a long line at Tampa International Airport.
I was praying that this might be the day that I'd be able to get home to New Hampshire. If so, I'd be on one of the first flights in the country after the terrorist incidents. It was a day when many wished they didn't have to fly at all.
Every child I saw looked scared. Most of the younger ones clutched their backpacks like stuffed animals, if they didn't happen to be holding those, too. Their parents looked grim.
Almost everyone seemed to be holding it together, though, except for a boy of about 9, who, with his parents and younger brother, was waiting to board the same plane I was.
His terror had simply become too large for him to contain. His poor parents, exhausted after days of canceled flights, were doing their very best to calm him – but with no effect.
Gradually, others stepped forward to try and reassure him. Obviously a polite child, he would hear them out, but then his sobs and desperation would return. He was convinced that if he got on an airplane, he was going to die.
The pilot and flight attendants spent gentle, patient time with him, yet gained little ground. The person who finally made the difference was a grandmotherly passenger with a soft Southern accent who took that flight every other week for business.
She introduced all of the flight crew to him by name as her friends and then asked him a question I didn't hear, but that he tooka while to consider before answering. She told him it was OK if he felt afraid, and she told him that she'd felt that way, too.
Then I heard her say, "We need you to come with us, because it's important to be with your family and to go home. We need to be together, because we all have to help each other now. That's how we can stay safe and how we can feel OK again."
When she put her arms around him, he relaxed against her as though relieved.
When boarding began, he joined his family quietly. He suddenly remembered his younger brother and took cards out of his pocket so they could play together.
I'm sure this wise and compassionate woman's words ultimately made sense to the boy. They definitely helped him realize that he wasn't alone in his fears. And that everyone there had things they needed to do, and he was part of that. We were all in this together, helping one another.
I think the essential wisdom in the woman's response is enduring. It didn't apply just to that day or to how we'd cope after something as unthinkable as Sept. 11. But I do know that I need to be reminded of it every so often, so that I won't forget.