What I remember most about September 11, 2001, is the overwhelming need to keep looking up.
I don't know what I thought was going to happen up there; after all, this is Des Moines, and by the end of that Tuesday, it had become clear that the terrorist attacks that had occurred earlier in the day were not likely to spawn further immediate incidents, especially in my neighborhood. And yet, I kept looking at the sky.
Like many people in the Midwest that day, I had been driving to work when the first plane hit and at my desk when news came of the second. My co-workers and I had gathered in a conference room then, and we did little for several hours but silently watch the horror unfold.
My kids were in the fifth and seventh grades on 9/11, and my first impulse after I had heard the news that morning had been to go and pick them up. But emails had come from their schools asking parents to refrain from disrupting the day, and I was confident that the Johnston school district would handled the whole situation reassuringly and sensitively. So as eager as I was to see my kids' faces and hug them tightly to me, I allowed them to stay put.
I was a single mom then, and I found myself thinking as I watched the TV screen about the single parents who had lost their lives that day as the world watched. Who would console their children? Who would pick them up from school and gather their clothes and make sure they were fed? Who would sign their permission slips and take care of their pets?
I left work early that day, looking up as I walked to my car, and arrived home around the same time the school bus pulled up. The kids seemed OK; Scott prepared to be picked up for baseball practice, and Caroline wanted to play with a friend. They had watched the news at school, and they knew what was happening -- but in their worlds, New York was so far away.
They had their mom, and just a couple of miles away, they had their dad. We talked at length, and kept talking, about what had happened. But the only one looking up was me.
I had CNN on in my bedroom around the clock for days. My heart bled for all the victims and their families, but I continued to be especially preoccupied with thoughts of the single parents who had died. And it wasn't just because of the children; it was because they had no one, no spouse, who loved them best.
It's hard to explain if this you've never been an ex-spouse, but if you've been one, you know that you're somewhat of an odd-person-out. Married friends aren't sure how you fit in; single ones who don't have kids don't understand why you can't go bar-crawling on the weekends. Your family of origin worries about you; your ex-spouse wants you, at best, to go away.
Your kids love you and rely on you, and that's nothing to be discounted. But during the times they're with their other parent and you're walking through an echoing house, you know how absolutely alone you are.
I remember wondering for quite some time about the 9/11 single parents. Had they been alone the night before, missing their children? Or had they taken their children to school, then gone to work thinking about what they'd serve for dinner or how they'd fit in homework and activities, or maybe how they'd afford to pay for school lunches for the next month?
Did they feel, as I often did in those days, that they were a tiny speck in a vast, vast expanse of people who knew who they were and where they belonged?
In the past 10 years, much has changed; I wonder what happened to the children of those single parents. I hope that to them, the parents who died are more than just the "other" parent -- the one whose house they traveled back and forth to, the one who was maybe just too tired to read that extra story. I hope that people in the lives of those single parents loved them enough to keep their memories alive for their children.
As I watch all the 9/11 remembrance specials, I'm no longer a single parent. I've been remarried now for six years, and it hasn't always been easy. But it's somehow comforting to know that if something were to happen, there would be another person in my life who would want to help me live on in the lives of my kids.
And as much as I believed in myself as a single parent and valued my single-parent life, I have to admit that it's also comforting to have someone sitting next to me on the couch as I'm watching those specials tonight -- someone who could, in the event of something unexpected, step in and help finish the job I don't think I'm done with yet. And someone next to me as I'm walking outside this weekend, looking up.