Butterflies: in Memory of 9/11
At first I didn’t see her.
I was watching the crowd of parents, silent and pensive, coming into the auditorium. Not the usual loyal few who attend these things, but several hundred, I estimated, as they filled the chairs and began to line up along the walls, leaning against the brick and waiting for me to begin.
So at first I didn’t see the little blond girl sitting in the front row, her legs dangling at least six inches above the floor, swinging back and forth. When I did, I signaled silently to Cherie White, the principal, who knew every student in this K-3 elementary school. She nodded, mouthed “kindergarten” to me silently, and then began the introduction.
“We are here tonight because so many of you have called to ask what we can do to help our children during this horrific time. Dr. Plouffe will talk about managing trauma in young children, and we’ll leave plenty of time for questions at the end. ” She added a few sentences to soften the formality, telling the group that she and I had worked together for more than 15 years; that I was a parent as well as a colleague in the schools.
Just a few years ago, that part would not have been necessary. I would have known every face, and they mine. My own children had run around this K-3 auditorium that doubled as a gym in cold Maine winters, but now my youngest was a ninth grader, and the parents I met in my role as school psychologist looked younger each year.
“Oh, and please feel free to bring your children to any of the three classrooms just down this hall. We have volunteer teachers and high school students providing activities for them while we meet,” Cherie added, looking directly at the family in the front row. They did not move.
I paused for a moment and Cherie and I exchanged glances. Just go ahead, her expression said. Not much we can do.
I took a deep breath. I have done this more times than I can count, I thought, but tonight is different. The expressions of fear and sadness I see in the faces in front of me mirror my own feelings, just behind my eyes, just below the calm strong voice I will use to begin.
Two days before, the Twin Towers had fallen. The Pentagon had been attacked. And a plane full of brave Americans had sacrificed their lives to prevent a third plane from hitting another Washington D.C. target.
In our little town of Freeport Maine, seemingly so far from all of this, 9/11 hit us hard. A teacher in the middle school lost both her parents on the plane that hit the Pentagon. My next- door neighbor lost a nephew who worked at the towers. And the whole town was grieving with
the young minister of the South Freeport church, who headed to New York within hours of the attack to comfort his sister, whose husband phoned his good-bye to his wife and four sons from the 103rd floor of the towers just before they fell. Their oldest was eight.
And these were just the few I knew about in the first 48 hours, I thought as I looked at the large silent group in front of me and took another deep breath. I was not here to tell my own story, but I was feeling it in the tightening in my chest and the lump just behind my throat. OK, relax, I reminded myself.
Carefully, I began. “I think we are all pretty traumatized” I offered, “but you came here tonight because you are frightened for your children, because you want to put them first. Let me begin by addressing what trauma looks like in this age group.”
I went through the broad strokes of trauma symptoms: sleeplessness, regression, anxiety, and fearfulness. There will no doubt be some children who, by virtue of temperament or sensitivity, will be riveted to the terrorist attack and unable to shield themselves from letting it impact their lives. But this is not what I really want to talk about, so I reviewed the information quickly and focused on what to watch for at different ages, how to respond to normal curiosity and concern, and how to know if your child needs more help than you can give.
I tried to avoid looking toward the front row where the little girl sat attentively. I talked over her head, I hoped, my gaze averted and my thoughts willing a protective shield around her.
“Maybe because you cannot protect your own anymore,” my inner voice intrudes.
I flashed back to that morning, just two days before. My daughter was with me, out of school for an early morning appointment. When we heard, she wanted to go immediately to be with her 9th grade class, to surround herself with friends as she absorbed the news.
“But what about Matt and Justin?” she asked.
I tried to be reassuring, but my heart was racing as I realized that I really did not know the geography of Manhattan well enough to guarantee that her two brothers were not near the attack. “I’ll call them as soon as I get home,” I promised, “and let you know that they are safe.”
But it was she who called me first. In her freshman Spanish class, the students were frozen; their focus on the young boy who sits next to Margaret, whose father was on a plane that morning. When the principal came and took James from the room, they knew the news was bad.
I tried first to reach Justin, in his last year of law school and interviewing that month with law firms all over Manhattan. I had no idea where his interviews were from day to day. I wanted to get to him as soon as I could.
But when I called my husband, his voice told me it was Matt, an NYU sophomore, who was in more danger. “His apartment is two blocks from the towers,” he said urgently. “See if you can reach him”
Within the next 24 hours, we had reached them both. Justin’s interview had been in upper Manhattan, far from the attack, but when I told him my fears, he pulled out his schedule
and drew in a startled breath. “Mom, tomorrow morning... my interview was at One Liberty Plaza, the building at the base of the towers. It doesn’t exist now.”
Waiting to talk with Matt was excruciating, but all the cell towers were down, and he stood in a long line for a public phone late in the day. We spoke for only a few minutes but his story was frightening.
“The loudspeakers woke us,” he said.
Truck drivers trapped on lower Manhattan streets decided to fan out and alert everyone in the apartment buildings. They aimed their loudspeaker systems toward the sky so that Matt and his roommate awoke to the words, “The city is being attacked. Get out of your apartment. Repeat, the city is being attacked.”
“We ran outside, Mom, and people were all standing around in pajamas and bathrobes, crying and watching the towers burn. Some of the kids had parents who worked there. And when they fell, Mom, oh Mom, a wail just rose from the crowd...it was the sound of Hell itself.”
My impulse was to pull him home but he insisted. “Oh no, I need to be here. Some of the NYU dorms are uninhabitable, and school is looking for apartments that will take students in. “And Aaron, Mom”, he said, referring to an old high school friend, “he could see people jumping.... from his balcony.” His voice broke, then, “I need to be here” he said firmly.
All of this flashed through my mind as I continued to speak, glancing at my notes when the images in my head began to intrude.
“What I really want to talk about tonight is protecting children from secondary trauma.” I announced in a raised voice. “I want to talk about those children who are not asking questions, not showing symptoms, and why we need to protect them as well”
It is secondary trauma that parents often do not understand. This is the trauma of watching your parents afraid or rageful or desperate. It is the trauma of seeing the people you trust to keep you safe overwhelmed, broken, not in control. It is the sense that whatever has happened somewhere else in the world is a real and powerful threat to your small world as well, and that the grownups do not know what to do.
“I know we are all feeling fractured and frightened” I acknowledged. “Some of us want to avoid the television replays of the attack, others of us are drawn to it over and over, trying to absorb what has happened. Whatever you need, remember that what your child needs is different.”
I wanted this to be my strongest message. Keep your children outside of that circle of images, and conversations. Do not ask them to share the burden of your fear. But this is not a popular message in our culture. Openness is encouraged. Silence is denial.
So I made my case with as much energy as I could muster. And I kept trying not to see the little girl in the front row.
“Secondary trauma not only takes away innocence and naiveté. It also takes away the sense of safety that children need to grow and develop. It replaces security with apprehension, comfort with dread. It changes the centerpiece of your child’s life, moving it away from the small developmental challenges that each day brings and focusing on something larger, more ominous, that no child can be expected to absorb. I am not asking you to protect their innocence simply to preserve some idyllic sense of childhood. I am asking you to protect it because it is the only way to grow healthy adults.”
I saw some faces nodding. This explained why some of their children did not want to know, did not ask questions at all. But there were some skeptics as well. I answered their questions as gently as I could, hoping to find the right words.
“It’s not easy to navigate that delicate space between responding to your child’s real questions and concerns, and setting boundaries. Let’s try to let their worries be about t-ball, not terrorists, at least for a little while. They need our permission not to understand, not even to try to understand what we are facing right now, so that they will be able to face whatever their future holds. “
The air in the room was heavy. My words seemed hollow, even to me.
Finally, feeling tired and spent, I asked, “Are there any more questions? We have time for one more.”
The little girl in the front row raised her hand.
I looked quickly at Mrs. White, and she leaned in gently. “Yes, Hannah, what is your question?”
Hannah looked right at me and asked, “What do butterflies eat?”
Quickly I scanned the adults, as if to hold any reaction that might emerge from their startled expressions. “What do butterflies eat? I repeated. “You know, Hannah, I think Mrs. White can answer that question much better than I can. Shall we ask her?”
Hannah nodded solemnly.
And in a gentle voice, Mrs. White did.
And while she spoke of leaves and nectar and tiny insects, this roomful of wounded, grieving adults stood rapt. No one moved. No one spoke. We all listened to the tiny lecture on butterflies, and life.
Four days after the towers fell, I flew to New York. I needed to hug my sons and see for myself the horror that man had perpetrated on man. I walked in the silent crowd down lower Manhattan sidewalks toward the still steaming cauldron called Ground Zero. I took a picture of a shoe store window, its display of high leather boots covered with dust despite the glass and shutters. I read poster after poster tacked on telephone poles and walls, desperate pleas for news of people no one had heard from, no one would ever hear from again.
I remember silence, broken only by the occasional gasp of a stranger in pain, and the screaming of fighter planes circling overhead. I remember the dust and the fumes and the smells that burned my eyes and bathed them in a watery mix of toxins and tears. I remember shutting my eyes, over and over, to ease the burn, to clear my sight, to escape the horror.
I remember each time, seeing Hannah’s face, and her legs, swinging in the air.