I was eleven weeks pregnant with my first child on 9/11. Each day, I drove from Brooklyn to a middle school in Westchester where I taught seventh grade English, sometimes stopping to puke into a baggie along the way. My husband, Brett, and I were waiting until we passed that safety marker of twelve weeks to tell everyone about the baby, who I decided was a boy.
That morning, I made a quick phone call to Brett after the first tower was hit and before the phone system completely shut down: He was okay. I then spent the rest of the day assuring students that their parents – who worked on Wall Street or near Grand Central – were also fine. I didn’t know if they were fine, but I looked into panicked twelve-year-olds’ eyes and decided that, until we knew for certain otherwise, they were all safe. (And, luckily for our community, they were.)
The bridges and tunnels into New York City were closed, and so I stayed overnight with my 90-year-old grandmother, whose apartment was close by. She lived near a giant Bloomingdale’s, so I decided to swing by there for some new underwear. Thousands of New Yorkers had died that day, but for whatever reason, my mind told me to buy clean underwear.
And here was the amazing thing: Bloomingdale’s parking lot was empty. Not a single car. The building closed. Closed, at 3 on a Tuesday afternoon! That’s when it hit me: my city had been attacked, terrorized. The world had shifted so significantly in just a few hours that a major department store 20 miles north of Manhattan had shuttered its doors for the day. And here I was, about to bring a baby into this lunatic world. I sat alone in my car and sobbed.
The next day, I wore my grandmother’s underwear to work. (Yes, literal granny panties.) I told everyone that I was pregnant.
I am the mother of a high school senior
Today, I am the mother of a high school senior. Oh, the high school seniors. I have been thinking about them a lot, about him, about these children who were just starting life when disaster hit all those years ago, who are now just starting life again, as 18-year-olds about to be sent off as adults into this lunatic world.
Mine, Andrew, has had a particularly rough year. In November, he was hospitalized for 8 days when his left lung spontaneously collapsed. He eventually required lung surgery and missed playing the comedic role of the king in Cinderella, his final high school musical.
Why is this happening to me? He asked several times, in terrible physical pain, emotionally drained, and in desperate need of a haircut. This is a growing-up moment for you, we told him. This will help you see how important it is to make the most of every day, because you never know what’s waiting around the corner. He listened and nodded from his hospital bed. And then he got well. He got a haircut and a girlfriend, and, our former schoolwork-obsessed hermit began going out on weekends.
A few weeks ago, facing the fact that he most probably won’t have a prom or graduation, didn’t get to celebrate with others when he got accepted to his dream college, and, most egregious of all, that he can’t spend time with his girlfriend, he again asked why this is happening. We tried some re-hashed version of the same refrain: This definitely sucks, but it will teach you important life lessons. He rolled his eyes.
And then, last week, Andrew’s other lung collapsed while he was on a lunch break from Zoom school. I watched in terror as it happened right before my eyes, while he sat at our kitchen table, hand on his chest as if saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Andrew’s doctor told us to go immediately to the ER.
The ER? Like, the emergency room of a hospital? With a lung condition? Now? Hadn’t the doctor heard? Things were incredibly serious out there. Bloomingdale’s was closed.
But we went, masks on. Andrew was given oxygen and admitted overnight. This time, the lung healed itself and he was released the next day. It could happen again, the doctor warned. It would probably be best to schedule lung surgery soon, sometime during a lull in the worldwide pandemic and before Andrew leaves for college. (In other words: on Neversday?)
My son had to write an essay for his English class about faith
This week, Andrew has to write an essay for English class about faith, based on A Prayer for Owen Meany. What or who does he believe in? What gets him through difficult times? Brett and I brainstormed with him over dinner. Your friends, we said. Yeah but no, he answered. An innate ability to be optimistic, even in dark times. Nuh-uh, he argued. Sheer self-motivation? Temple services?
And then my husband said: Story.
Story? Andrew asked, perking up.
Yes, story. In particular, The Hero’s Journey. Brett elaborated – for my writer son, and for me, his writer mother – that which we knew but needed to be reminded of: You are living your own version of The Hero’s Journey, going on adventures, facing crisis after crisis, and your belief in yourself and your victorious return home is what you have faith in.
The Hero’s Journey is what I experienced on 9/11, newly pregnant and scared and sick and unable to get home, charged with helping children navigate their own terror. It’s what I transferred to Andrew in utero.
It’s what all of us feel now: high school seniors and beyond, you are experiencing an epic tale of suffering and loss, of unknowing and doubt. Trust in yourself to be the hero in your journey. Know that your story contains forces against your will, but that you can vanquish them and triumph in the end. The Hero’s Journey is the human condition; it is our story to live and then to share.
In my particular epic adventure, Bloomingdale’s reopens.
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Julie Gerstenblatt writes about parenting, marriage, culture, and suburban life for The Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Kveller, and other publications. She holds a Doctorate in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and teaches writing at Roger Williams University. You can find out more about her at juliegerstenblatt.com.