Shan's Shoes Redux

TALKING TO MYSELF: 11 SEPTEMBER 2013  A repeat today of a piece I wrote back in 2006. I saw my daughter early this morning, and she was  wearing her shoes. 

This story makes no political point.   It’s not about great personal tragedy.   There is no moral other than the going on – unless, of course, that going on is easier when one is walking in sensible shoes.       

On 9/11, my husband Ernie and I were having breakfast at the Georgetown Cracker Barrel when we heard that terrorists had flown planes into New York’s World Trade Center and then shortly afterwards into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  I mention the Cracker Barrel not because it is important to the story, but because it seems such an incongruous – even ridiculous -- place to be when one hears news that alters history.

 But Ernie and I were not thinking about history as we stared into our coffee cups.  We were thinking about our oldest daughter, Shan, who worked for a law firm with offices on Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks from the White House.  She was already on our worry list because her marriage to her schooldays sweetheart had broken up several months earlier.  We fretted about our gentle daughter alone in a distant city coping with the emotional turmoil of divorce.  Now, perhaps, she was in physical danger, too.  The frantic look I saw on my husband’s face was a mirror reflection of my own.

 Ernie began trying to call Shan, but when he finally got through, her cell phone cut off after we heard a phrase or two that sounded like “I’m alright.”  Then, we both sat looking at the Cracker Barrel floor for a silent minute as though some ancient, forgotten formula for strength was scrawled across it.

 “We’ve got to get home,” one of us finally said. 

 The rest of the morning is a blur in my memory.   Later, we would all realize that Shan was driving past the White House lawn on her way to work the minute that the hijacked plane buzzed over it.  Historians will debate forever, I suppose, whether the pilot intended to hit the White House and missed, before crashing into the Pentagon instead.  In my heart, though, I believe that is the true scenario.  I believe Shan escaped death because of the pilot’s error.

 It was hours before we heard from her again.  “I finally found a pay phone that works.”  Her rapid words tumbled across the miles to reassure us.  “Walking north – away from government buildings – it’s all we can think to do.   We don’t know where we’re going, but I’m not alone, I’m with others from the office.”

Then she asked me, hovering 800 miles away in Kentucky, a surreal question.  “Mom, can you tell me what’s happening in D. C?  What are the newscasters saying?”  And then she was gone again.

Walking north – away from government buildings – with little information and no assistance whatsoever.   I felt as though I had slipped through a black hole into an old 1950s sci-fi movie. 

Through the day, through eternity, Ernie and I huddled by the TV.  I was horrified at what was happening in New York City, but was desperate for more news from Washington.  The word from D.C. was sparse, and what we did hear was terrifying.  There were “unconfirmed” reports of car bombs exploding on the streets, of chaos, and of attacks on multiple structures.

 Late that afternoon Shan called again.  “We walked to Maryland.  Someone knew someone with an apartment here.  And Mom—” she paused before continuing.  “I only now remembered to think about him, to wonder if he’s safe, too.  All I could think about today was keeping on going on.”

 And then – inexplicably - she laughed.  “Fortunately, I wore low heel, comfortable shoes to work today.”

 And then I laughed, too.  I tried to picture what it would have been like walking from Pennsylvania Avenue to Maryland in prissy high heels, and I laughed until I cried.  Because my daughter had worn sensible shoes to work on September 11, 2001.  Because my daughter was alive and whole.          

 Shan moved back to Kentucky later that fall.  She’s gotten on with life, with a new job, with new friends.  But every year on the anniversary of 9/11, she pulls those old shoes out of the closet and wears them one more time.  Just so, she says, she won’t forget the feel of keeping on going on.