Hunkered down at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, my son asked me: “Is this what 9/11 was like?”
Only one of my three sons was born before Sept. 11, 2001. Ford was just 10-months-old, and we were both awaiting my husband Dustin’s return from a deployment on the USS Enterprise, a deployment that was, of course, extended that morning.
And, yes, this is a lot like after 9/11.
But, then, no, no it’s not.
9/11 was an emotional ambush. We woke up, and our morning was normal. In fact, I was feeding Ford mashed bananas and singing Happy Birthday to our dog when my mom called to tell me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. There was confusion and misinformation.
But then, BAM, another plane, the towers fell, and our lives changed forever.
From that moment forward, changed as we were, for the most part, things increasingly — if slowly — got better. There was the immediate shell shock of it all: The empty streets. The speechless newscasters. The shuttered stores. But day by day, our lives were put back together. We rebuilt.
On Sept. 12, we saw strangers in the grocery store and shared gentle, knowing looks. Everyone was thinking about the same thing, and we knew it. Today is the same. We venture to the hollowed-out shelves for more milk and bread, and everyone we meet is carrying the same worries and burdens.
But after 9/11, more distance grew between us and strangers with each passing day. More memories and experiences that weren’t collectively shared crept in.
And suddenly, we looked back and realized that life had gone on.
Of course, I’m over-simplifying it in hindsight. But the point is, today, with COVID-19, it’s 9/11 in reverse. Instead of moving forward and away from a shared horrific experience, we are moving toward one, wondering when it will hit. The streets and shelves are empty, and instead of knowing that each moment will get easier, we know that each one is getting more difficult.
The worst difference between the events, however, is the distance.
After 9/11, we huddled together. That’s how we coped. Ford and I were 800 miles from our nearest family, so I packed up his diaper bag and rushed to a fellow Navy wife’s house. There were dozens of us there with our babies. We shared dinners and hugs and held hands while we watched the news.
It’s a whole different kind of horror when the collective experience we share today is a thing that means we remain 6-feet apart.
Imagine going through 9/11 without hugging your neighbor?
When do we get to the part where it gets better?
Twenty years from today, what I hope will be the same is that babies born in 2020 will ask “What was the pandemic like,” just as my son asked about 9/11. And they will have to ask to know because life will be (mostly) the same again.
As I sat with baby Ford on Sept. 11, 2001, I didn’t know the way forward. Life felt like it would never go on. And yet, here we are. Ford is a college student sent home for online classes due to COVID-19.
There is always a way forward. Today is a lot like 9/11, and it’s also different. But we will move forward.
Sarah Smiley of Bangor is the author of “Got Here As Soon As I Could” and “Dinner With The Smileys.”