Saturday, September 11

September 11, 2001: Another Recounting

I'd spent the night at the hospital, sleeping on the fold out recliner in my husband's hospital room. He was very ill, and I left his side as little as possible, although this was the first night I hadn't gone home overnight. We had been told the Friday before that he had only weeks, or perhaps even days, to live--that the cancer ravaging his body was too far along and moving too quickly for our doctor to hold out much hope in the way of treatment. "The pigs have already been left the barn," he said, "and we are scrambling around afterwards trying to shut the door."

I'd suspected as much for a couple of days before the doc said it, and I'd insisted that the children come home immediately, even though they'd already booked flights home from Vancouver on September 12th. I'd called my dad and asked him to change his plans, too--to come as soon as he could--and as we heard those words from our doctor, my dad was already in the air on his way north.

We'd sat in the hospital room, the two older children and I in chairs and my husband propped in his bed, while the grim verdict was delivered. My daughter was sobbing, and my son sat silently and motionless, while the tears ran unchecked down his cheeks. My husband was curiously calm and aloof, stubbornly avoiding the doctors questions about any resusitation methods he'd want used, and whether he'd want to be artificially fed.

Later he told me that he'd just let the doctor's words go in one ear and out the other, because he knew better. God had spoken to him, he said, in audible words: "This is not your time." (Will you think less of me if I tell you that I thought this was the morphine speaking?) And so he had insisted on having chemotherapy even though there wasn't much hope that it would help him out, and there was a real danger that he would be too sick to withstand it.

That's what he was doing on the early morning of Tuesday, September 11th. He was 18 hours or so into a 48 hour drip of nasty drugs directed at the cancer cells, and I was there with him. The nurse woke us as she came in for the early morning check of his vital signs. "You might want to turn on the T.V." she said. "There's important news. Terrorists have flown airplanes into both towers of the world trade center."

And that's how we started watching the nightmare. We saw almost all of it as it happened, missing only the two planes hitting the trade center. Here we were, in the middle of the biggest crisis of our own lives, watching a nation experience it's own colossal crisis. I already felt as if I were one of the walking dead, and while I was fascinated by the unfolding events, I also felt oddly untouched by them. Just when I had thought things couldn't get worse, they had, but I was at the very bottom anyway, and there were no worse feelings left for me to feel, so I just watched it all, detached from it and diverted by it.

After breakfast, I went home to shower and change clothes, and check on things there. The two youngest were already at school, but my dad was there, feeling, I'm sure, that he'd really rather be back home in the states. My dad and I were getting ready to return to the hospital when the phone rang. It was my youngest daughter's high school friend. "We dropped Brianna off at the hospital," she said. "We tried to bring her home, but the highway past the airport is blocked off."

None of her words made any sense to me, until she explained, "All the schools are dismissed, because there's a hijacked Korean airliner headed for the airport. That's why the highway's closed, too."

Oldest son walked over to youngest son's school to pick him up. We had been watching the national news, but had paid no attention to the local news, so we were probably some of the last ones to know that something was happening right here. We couldn't get back to the hospital (or anywhere else, either), so we walked into the greenbelt area by the house, and climbed up onto a precipice overlooking the airport. Two aquamarine 747's were already there, but one sat off to the side, with emergency vehicles, lights flashing, surrounding it.

These two planes, it turned out, had been headed for Anchorage before the towers were struck. They had been beyond reach of radios and couldn't be warned to turn around. By the time they were approaching Anchorage, the airport had already been closed. There are not many airports in the north with runways long enough to accommodate a 747 that's fully loaded, so these two planes were sent here to the Whitehorse airport. That's several hundred miles farther, for a plane that had already traveled from Korea.

One of the pilots of one of the planes had pushed a panic button. He was low on fuel, but language differences made communication with the plane difficult, and signals got confused, and it was thought that the plane had been hijacked. All the schools and office buildings in town were evacuated so that there would be no full buildings for the hijacked plane to hit, and the highway past the airport closed.

Escorted by American military planes, the airliner landed uneventfully. It took several more hours, however, for a Korean interpreter to be rounded up, and all the mixed signals untangled, and the passengers and crew let off the aircraft. Three hundred Korean passengers, most traveling to New York, found themselves on a runway in the north of Canada instead, surrounded by SWAT teams with rifles drawn, for reasons they didn't understand. It was only after they disembarked that they learned anything about the terrorist attacks on the US. It was then, too, that they would begin to understand that they would not be able to leave here for several days.

A few hours passed before the highway opened up and we could return to the hospital. A strange day, it had been; a tiring day, and a tragic one. But it was also the day that there began to be signs--small ones, almost imperceptible--that my husband's condition was reversing a bit, or at least stabilizing. He was more interested in what was going on around him. He seemed to have a little more strength. After going more than a week without eating, he began to crave burnt toast.

The world was in turmoil around us, and our own lives were in turmoil, too, yet what we felt most was that we were held in the palm of God's hand. We were at the bottom, but underneath us was God's hand. All would be right in the end, for nothing, neither raging cancer cells or wicked terrorists, could stay our good God's almighty arm.