On the morning of September 11, 2001, before all Hell broke loose, I was at my desk working on a lease agreement for a tenant moving into one of the shopping centers managed by the company where I worked. As I worked, writing and editing legal language to insert into the document, I could hear people talking about an accident. We had an open office environment, and while I was enclosed in a cubicle, it had no ceiling or door. I was used to tuning out, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, the conversations of my co-workers. I could hear talk of a plane crashing into a building in NYC. Voices around me became more and more agitated, however, so I got up to investigate what was going on. Within minutes, no one was working; everyone was congregating in the hallways or hovering over someone’s shoulder as they frantically searched the internet for the latest news. Someone shouted that the big screen projector in the board room was showing live feed from CNN so I rushed there. As I entered the board room, the second plane was hitting the second building. Then I heard that a truck bomb had crashed into the State Department, one of the many horrific examples of misinformation from that day among the many horrific examples of actual true information. Two planes crashing in NYC is one thing, but a truck bomb at the State Department meant that it had struck closer to home, so I ran back to my cubicle, grabbed my purse, and ran to my car. I had three goals as I tore out of the parking lot: pick up my daughters from school, make contact with my husband, and call my parents.
There was no traffic yet but it took me many, many tries to get through to my husband on my cell phone, who only said, “I’m okay, gotta go,” and many, many more tries to get to my parents. My mother informed me that they were about to get on the Mississippi River Bridge in New Orleans, heading to a doctor’s appointment. I told them to pull over and not get on the bridge, and to turn around and go home. Was whatever was happening going on in other major cities? NYC and DC, perhaps New Orleans, too?
I was among the first of parents arriving at my daughters’ school, as I was only three miles away. I went immediately to the office where the school secretary told me, “Just wait here, the principal is speaking to the middle school students. We’ll get your girls in a minute.” No questions asked, she knew I was there to pick them up and get them home where I hoped we would all be safe from whatever was going on.
In the car I explained to them the basics, which was all I really knew at that point: two planes had crashed into two buildings in NYC, and there were all sorts of stories of bad things happening elsewhere, including in DC. Once home, I told them no TV but they could watch a Disney movie or go to the den to play. They were 11 and 9 at the time, and they did as I asked. I had planned to make lasagna for dinner that night so I decided I would go ahead and do that while I waited for further news from my husband. At this point it was virtually impossible to get through to anyone on the phone, landline or mobile. Being in the kitchen, making lasagna, gave me something to do.
As I finished up the lasagna and popped it in the oven, my husband got home. He told me what he knew, and we watched the news for a bit. At that point, the Pentagon had already been attacked, and the plane heading back to DC had crashed in Pennsylvania. A wave of fatigue swept over me, and I literally felt as though I might just collapse. So, I went to bed. I set the timer for the lasagna, told my husband to take it out when it was done, and I fell into a deep, deep sleep.
For me, going to sleep in the face of such tragedy and chaos was not new. On November 22, 1963, I was in the second grade. Sometime just after lunch, there was a knock on my classroom door. My teacher went to the door and spoke to someone in the hall. When she came back into our classroom, she looked upset. She told us to put our heads down on our desks and sit silently until she told us we could sit back up. So, we did just that. Eventually, one by one, we were called out into the hallway, to be collected by our mothers, who had rushed to the school as soon as the news had been broadcast that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
In the car, she explained to me that the president had died. When we got home, just a very short car ride from my school to my house, she had me write a note to Caroline Kennedy, the president’s daughter, telling her I was so sorry that her daddy had died. Then, my mother told me to go and take a nap. As a second grader, I was really past taking afternoon naps, but the strange events at school and being picked up early, along with the sad news about the president and writing the sympathy note, had made me very tired. So I went to sleep, and slept until dinner time.
Growing up in southeast Louisiana, hurricane season was a familiar evil. From June 1st to November 30th of each year, my father carefully watched the news and tracked any storms developing in the Atlantic Ocean. He was an expert at predicting whether they were a real threat or not, and subsequently whether we would need to evacuate or not. In August of 2005, he was very, very concerned about Hurricane Katrina. As the storm developed and grew stronger, we talked many times on the telephone about it. He knew it was going to be a bad one and began making plans where to take my mother, who was not well. Not New Orleans, not Baton Rouge, as they would normally go to my aunt’s house in the state’s capital, but this time to Houston, Texas.
With the enormity of this storm, all news stations covered it extensively. And, as my father had predicted, along with nearly everyone else in southeast Louisiana, it was bad. The levee had broken north of my hometown, allowing the mighty Mississippi River free “reign” over Port Sulphur and the surrounding towns. My brother broke the bad news to my parents, the sheriff’s office had been down the road and there was nothing left in my hometown, except the Catholic church, which had been gutted by the storm waters, but the structure was still standing. My parents were devastated, and my poor mother, unwell and depressed, could not even tell me where she was staying in Houston. I finally got out of her that it was a motel with a foreign name starting with l-a-q. Eventually I figured out it was a La Quinta Inn in the Woodlands, a development in a Houston suburb.
Slowly the news began to sink in, that my hometown was gone, my parents’ home and all their belongings, except for whatever they had managed to pack in their car before evacuating, were all gone, every school I had ever attended was gone, and the homes of all my childhood friends, the sites of many birthday parties and sleepovers, all gone. The final straw was several days later my mother saying that she had gone into the bathroom and sat on the toilet to cry, after discovering that she had brought pantsuits with tops and bottoms that did not match, and one each of several pairs of shoes. She was a homeless person without even a matching pair of shoes. I felt so helpless and exhausted that I just went to bed.
Not all of these stress-induced naps have been over death or destruction. In 1990, my husband and I had our first child, a beautiful angel of a daughter named Margaret after my mother and Bellavia after my mother-in-law. It had been a difficult climax to an otherwise easy pregnancy. I had gone in for my weekly appointment during my ninth month and my blood pressure was extremely high. It was a Monday afternoon and my parents were flying in that night to be with us for the birth of their first grandchild. My OBGYN wanted to admit me right away but I explained the situation to her and she allowed me to go home provided I went right to bed and lay on my left side until morning, when I would be admitted and induced. We got to the hospital at 7:00 AM as instructed, and by 10:00 I was in a room with a dripping IV full of Pitocin. Absolutely nothing happened all day. Finally, in the late afternoon they changed the bag, and I started experiencing labor pains. By 9:00 PM, fourteen hours after being admitted, I was dilated ten centimeters and began to push. No baby, no progress. After three hours, my OBGYN decided it was time for a C-section, so off I went for an epidural, the one thing I was terrified of and had rejected when the labor pains had worsened earlier in the day. Just after midnight, our sweetly sleeping baby girl was brought into this world without so much as a whimper.
Two days later we headed home in the blinding summer morning sunlight to our downtown Bethesda high-rise apartment, to be greeted by my mother handing me a cup of tea and buttered toast. No cup of tea has ever tasted so good, and after having my little snack, I lay down on my bed with my little baby sleeping in her crib nearby, and I fell fast asleep.
As a young tot, when my parents could not get me to sleep, my father would bundle me up and take me for a ride down Highway 23 South to see the only neon light in my hometown, a giant palm tree advertising the Palm Terrace Motel owned by Mr. Roy Treadway. Once I saw that palm tree, I would settle down and fall fast asleep on the front seat of my dad’s car. Even today, if I am riding in the car for any length of time, I can put my head back and fall fast asleep. I guess I have my dad to thank for this, because one of the great joys of his life was every afternoon announcing to all, “You know what time it is? It’s naptime!”
One of my favorite prayers comes from the Compline, the evening prayers of the Catholic Church. At night, after reading for a while, I say my evening prayers as my mother taught me so long ago: Hail Mary, Our Father, Guardian Angel, and Glory Be, and now I end with this simple request for protection while I sleep and rest. Thankfully, sleep has always been a restorative wonder for me, and I thank God for the ability to shut out the stresses of the day. Never having battled insomnia as some of my friends have, I have often thought that the moment I lay my head down on crisp, cool sheets, after a long day, whether it be one of normal work or play, or one of tragedy and chaos, is truly the best time of the day. “To sleep, perchance to dream…”, of a better and brighter day tomorrow.