I was feeling rather smug that morning.
I stood on the tee box of the seventh hole, under the bluest sky I’d seen in some time, the crisp early fall air like a tonic in my lungs. And I was playing my brains out – 2 strokes over par after the first six holes of a nine hole golf tournament.
I was even nervously allowing myself to think, “I could win this thing!”
I stood on the tee box in the casual pose I’d seen pro golfers strike, arm on hip, hand on the end of the club, leg crossed over. I posed like a woman who was going to win, baby.
But then I saw something. Coming over the ridge, a golf cart. I squinted. It was the young golf pro, and she was barreling directly for me. She screeched to a halt and breathlessly said, “Mrs. Woodward, you have to come in. Your husband called.” She must have read something on my face, because she quickly added, “Your kids are fine. Everyone’s fine. It’s just that both World Trade Towers in New York have collapsed, there’s a bomb at the Pentagon, there’s a bomb at the State Department and something up at the Capitol.” Panic started to well up inside me. “Your husband wants you to get the kids and go home.” I nodded, processing it all, and threw my bag on the back of her cart and we sped off. My playing partner stepped out of the porta-potty just in time to hear me say, “I concede. I have to go.”
And I didn’t think about golf again for a very long time.
It took well over an hour to drive the six miles home. I picked up the kids – confused, frightened – on the way. During those gridlocked minutes in the car, I felt like a sitting duck. The local all-news radio station was reporting on fighter planes scrambling, and commercial planes landing. They also reported that there was one more plane, on the way to The White House.
The White House, where I had worked, and where so many friends were working that day.
Crossing the Chain Bridge, I glanced to my left and saw a column of black smoke streaming over the tree tops. The Pentagon burning.
I could smell it.
It was surreal.
Our house is about a quarter of a mile from the Potomac River. Between the house and the river is the busy and noisy George Washington Parkway, which is traveled by 80,000 people every day. Usually, the hum of the cars whizzing past creates a gentle susurrus that can be as comforting as sitting by the ocean. And we also live under the flight path for Reagan National Airport, and the steady rumble of landing and taking off every six minutes is a part of the environment. It’s a noisy place.
But that morning, under the bluest sky, I stood in my front yard and heard… nothing. No traffic. No planes. Nothing. I held my arms out, as if I could embrace the world and share our pain, when I heard the first one. One deep tone. Then another. The National Cathedral had begun tolling its bells. Then the bells from other churches began to ring. Mournful, yes. But hope, too, in each tone. Hope. Hope. Hope.
I stood there, barefoot, broken-hearted, on one of the most beautiful days of the year. Worried. What could possibly come next?
I did an inventory: I had a husband I loved, I had great kids I could parent full-time. I had my family, my friends. We were blessed. We were safe. We were going to be okay.
That’s what it looked like under the bluest sky. But the reality of the next ten years proved to be quite different than I ever could have imagined.
If a visitor from the future had told me, that morning out on my front lawn, that in the next ten years:
I would divorce the man whose ring I wore on September 11, 2001, after learning some hard truths.
He would move away, remarry and start a new family.
I would be a single parent.
I would give up being a full-time mom and go back to work.
I would be diagnosed with cancer.
I would struggle financially.
Family and dear friends would die unexpectedly, some painfully.
My children would face challenges which would stop us in our tracks.
If the future visitor told me all that on September 11, 2001, I would have said, “You have to be kidding. It can’t possibly go that way.”
But if that visitor was telling the truth, he’d also have had to tell me the fantastic parts of the coming years:
That I would be known as a writer, with blogs and books.
That I would work with people all over the world – from Asia to Europe, from Canada to Mexico, from Alaska to The Keys – and help them find more fulfilling work, and meaningful lives.
That I’d meet strangers who would grow dear to my heart.
That a certain 8-year old third grader would become a happy, thoughtful, kind, six foot tall college man with a thriving business he created from scratch.
That a little kindergartner would grow into a willowy high school athlete who studies Latin and history, and never forgets a friend.
That I would fund my own retirement account.
That I would own my resilience, know myself and grow comfortable in my own skin.
If the visitor from the future had told me under the bluest sky that I would grow to be more myself – more happy, centered and creative – than I’ve ever been, I would have said, “Dude, you’re talking to the wrong person.”
Because I hadn’t a clue on September 11, 2001. I thought I was happy. What could possibly change?
And always for the better, I’ve learned. No matter how it seems in the moment.
Looking forward the next 10 years, to September 11, 2021, what will happen? What change will I meet, and how will I handle it?
I have no idea. None. But I do know this: I am not afraid.
Because even all the pain of the last ten years has been exponentially outweighed by all the love. By all the connections. By all the growth. By all the learning.
On September 11, 2001, three thousand people lost their lives. They had no chance to experience the last ten years of living. But we did. We still do.
Don’t you think we owe it to them to embrace whatever it is that’s coming? And embrace it with love? With kindness? With creativity?
Yes, we do. And I will. I will live with my feet in the grass under skies both blue and gray, and remember the sound of bells tolling, hope, hope, hope.
Stand with me?
Photo: Jamie McIntyre © 2001