A guest blog post by Dena Smith Ellis
20 Years 💝
I remember that day as if it were yesterday. Like most people, I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news.
I was working as a telecommunications operator at Commerce Insurance Company in Webster, Massachusetts. It was one of three jobs I had at the time, working this one four 10-hour days a week trying to stay afloat as a newly-single mom. I was also putting myself through college four nights a week with my sights on getting an MBA at nearby Nichols College. I had just created an eight-year plan that included buying myself and my two children a home and getting our lives back on track after divorce.
But what I didn’t realize as I drove to work early that morning was that the events of 9/11 would shake me to my core and change my life forever.
Just a week prior, I had a very vivid dream of hundreds of airplanes flying through the sky above a city and then watching in horror as bodies were falling out of the buildings. I awoke abruptly in a cold sweat, my anxious heart pounding and my mind replaying the scene for days afterwards.
I had just met a guy a month prior who had seen my newly-posted profile on Yahoo Communities (which was created as an assignment for a computer course I was taking at college) and then sent me an unsolicited email that ended up in my spam folder. Very long story short on that topic: he pursued me, offered me a ticket to fly to Pittsburgh to meet him and his five-year-old daughter, which I did…over Labor Day weekend of September 2001.
Early mornings at CIC were very quiet until around 8 am when the insurance adjusters and other telecommunications staff started arriving. But that morning, there was more chattering than normal. I remember suddenly hearing a nearby gasp and pained voice say, “A plane just crashed in New York City!” In between incoming calls, I strained my ears to get more snippets of information: “Lower Manhattan”…”American Airlines passenger plane”…”North Tower”…”hijackers.” My anxiety was rising and my body and brain shifted into autopilot, robotically answering calls (“Commerce Insurance Company, how may I help you?”) and mindlessly transferring the call off to someone else. Time warped and the movie of my life suddenly became slow motion, like in a dream state when your legs become heavy and you can hardly run, let alone walk. My thoughts immediately turned to my children, ages 7 and 9 at that time, who were in school that day an hour away in Niantic, Connecticut where their dad lived. I was already missing them terribly as I’d missed the holiday weekend with them due to my trip to Pennsylvania.
I was suddenly snapped back to the present moment as a caller asked if I’d heard “the news.” Then the full reality of the situation struck as they clearly relayed it to me: a hijacked American Airlines passenger plane had just crashed into the North Tower in NYC.In a nearby office, someone had tuned into CNN on a TV. Just after 9 am, the second plane hit and most (if not all) of the operators paused our phones, tossed our headsets on our desks, and gathered around the TV with dozens of other employees. We stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the shocking images being replayed over and over on the screen.
The normal drone of ringing phones suddenly quieted down as the news was apparently spreading around the world and callers were likely gathering around their own TVs. Sobs could be heard rising above the partitioned cubicles in the cavernous room. People started to gather in small huddles where they cried and hugged. More gasps and sobs erupted when news of a plane hitting the Pentagon quickly spread around the office.
Around 10 am, we heard that yet another hijacked plane had crashed just outside of Pittsburgh. Thinking that I had just been on a plane from Pittsburgh myself a week prior, and that this new guy I met lived near there, suddenly made me feel weak and wobbly. I took a seat just in time to watch the room spin around me.
Sometime before noon, we were told that the office was closing. Staying open was pointless as no one was at their desk anyways and there wasn’t a dry eye in the company.
But as I drove in a daze back towards the huge house where I was also working as a live-in home healthcare giver, I was suddenly struck with deep grief and an immense sense of loneliness. I didn’t want to go back to the rich grumpy old man that I cared for and listen to his Parkinson’s-induced delusions of elephants and hot air balloons in our backyard.
I was living in harsh reality. I needed community…family…support.
But since I didn’t really have that outside of CIC at that point in my life, I was instinctively drawn to the little white chapel in the center of our village in Thompson, CT. I was surprised to see that I wasn’t the only one there. About a dozen people were already sprinkled around, kneeling or sitting in the pews with their heads bowed low, with more walking or driving into the parking lot. Sniffles and quiet sobs reverberated off the rafters and modestly clear windows. I took a seat on the hard wooden bench and held my heavy head in my hands. My heart was aching for my family. I realized that I was still deeply in love with the father of my children but I knew reconciliation wasn’t possible as he had a live-in girlfriend.
As my tears fell onto the dusty wood floor, I suddenly remembered my dream from the previous week. Goosebumps covered my skin and a sudden chill shook my body. I mourned for all of those innocent people. I was deeply grieving their family’s loss…and that of my own. I wanted to be with my parents but they were across the US in Washington State.
What was happening to the world?! What kind of future were my children facing? As odd as it may sound, those thoughts not only haunted me but they also suddenly gave me hope.
The idea of the bright, beautiful, and soulful Millennial generation of rumored indigo and other “starseed” children was like a candle in the wind. I could feel that something huge was shifting. As I hugged myself, I found my hands instinctively rest upon my womb.
Out of darkness comes life.
I suddenly yearned for a third child. I was shocked at this feeling as it not only seemed like completely inappropriate timing (in so many ways) but I had also felt quite content and fulfilled with the children I already had. Two hands, two kids. Worked for me. Not to mention that I was already struggling as a single mom and I had no desire to rush into another relationship.
However, that day reminded me that I was lonely, far from family, and probably feeling the most vulnerable that I had ever felt in my life. I took comfort and solace in the budding relationship with the man from the internet. Little did I know that in only three months time, that yearning would become reality just three days after being told by a reproductive endocrinologist that I had PCOS and I would never conceive again.
A miracle and a beautiful gift.
That guy from Pennsylvania was the father and, over the next eight years, we would go on to have another three unexpected children after that, including a set of twins.
Twenty years later and I’m just now getting back on track with that goal of getting my MBA.
Many other goals have come and gone in that time. Lots of life lived. Many joys and challenges. Many celebrations and mournings. Wins and losses.
Gratefully, I’m no longer lonely. Rather, I’m blessed with a big, beautiful family. A wonderful loving soulmate. And a global community of amazing ohana.
Looking back, at what often feels like the “mess” of my life, I can also see the “messages.”
Of hope, courage, humility, strength, forgiveness, unconditional love, and resilience.
9/11 represents all of that…and more.
It has shaped all of us and yes…we will never forget. 💝