On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at work in my office on the 5th floor of the Department of Justice, in downtown Washington, DC. I remember in vivid detail the images of the World Trade Center on the small television in my office, and then, in the skies outside my office window, the plume of black smoke rising from across the Potomac River. The Pentagon had been hit. America was under attack.
All hell broke loose that day, and amidst the threat of attacks on the nearby U.S. Capitol I was evacuated from downtown along with thousands of others. It took me over two and a half hours to make the 7-mile trek home, a journey that took me past the Pentagon with smoke still rising from its devastating wound.
People wandered down the highway on foot, many of them dragging suitcases. They had been evacuated from Ronald Reagan National Airport nearby, and all flights had been grounded.
I had the radio on in the car as I crept toward home. My breath stopped as I heard the grim announcement that the first tower had fallen.
Life as I had known it to that day was over.
For the next few months my days were consumed with supporting the Department’s response to the terrorist attacks and the prevention of further attacks. It was a time that could have broken my colleagues and me – physically, emotionally, and psychologically – but we were bonded together in an all-consuming mission. The strength of that purpose and our shared commitment to it and to each other carried us through some of the darkest days in our country’s history.
For some reason I awoke today thinking of that time, and was struck by an abrupt thought: “I survived that horrific season, yet E’s diagnosis has nearly crushed me.” It’s hard to admit that to myself.
The strength forged in crisis years ago has crumbled nearly completely in the wake of his diagnosis. Just as on 9/11, on the day of E’s diagnosis, life as I had known it to that day was over. A new reality was beginning.
It’s been about seven months since E’s diagnosis, and there are some days I think I am getting past the initial trauma of that day. But too often my days are like today, where the immensity of this new reality sucks all of the oxygen from the room, and I have to remind myself to breathe.
“BREATHE, honey. Take a deep breath,” my Mom had said to me on 9/11, amidst her tears. She had finally reached me by phone after trying unsuccessfully for three hours. She knew I would have been at work, but also knew that I drove past the Pentagon every morning to get there. When she heard of the attack on the Pentagon she started calling but couldn’t get through. Systems were overwhelmed that day.
Her words finally cut through my shell-shocked brain, and I realized I had been holding my breath unconsciously. I gasped for air. Mom tried to pull herself together on the other end of the phone line, knowing she needed to be my strength in that moment.
Fast forward 11 years, to the day seven months ago when we were given E’s diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.
“BREATHE, honey. Take a deep breath,” Mom had said as I sobbed uncontrollably on the phone line. While I choked out the news through my sobs, once again she set aside her own emotions and chose to fill those moments with strength. With comfort. With hope.
“It’s going to be all right, honey. God created that little boy Himself. He made him for a unique purpose, and he chose YOU to be his mom. This diagnosis doesn’t change ANY of that. Trust me, honey, he will be all right, and so will you. Take a deep breath, sweetheart. We will figure this out.”
I’m repeating those words to myself again today, as I’ve done so many times in the past seven months. Speaking truth out loud has a way of silencing fears. Of drowning doubt. Of building faith.
While I will never forget 9/11, nor the day of my baby boy’s diagnosis, I will not be suffocated by the fears they foment. No, I will breathe.
I will breathe the oxygen of life, love and hope into each day, so that my little boy knows nothing else. The fears stop with me.
He will know hope. And hope will win.