I woke up this morning 20 years ago at about 7:00 a.m., far later than normal for us. I woke up to the sound of my dad telling me to come downstairs with a tone in his voice that was unusual.
I was in seventh grade. Normally, he’d wake me, my brother, and my sister up around 6:30 to give us time to eat and get ready for school. 7 a.m. was around the time we’d be getting ready to leave. Dad told us to sit on the couch. He sat on the edge of the coffee table and looked at the three of us before telling us our grandmother – his mom – had shot herself the night before. With the final word of that sentence, he collapsed on us, crying.
The first part of that morning is a blur. I remember flipping through the TV channels, looking for a distraction. At one point, I flipped right through CNN, which showed a building smoking. Went straight past it on the first round of channel cycling. Came back to it again. People were coming to our house soon. Mourners. A building in New York that seemed to be on fire was a distraction and I kept it on. I saw the second plane hit live.
That exact moment is on YouTube. Every year, I show that broadcast to my students. Didn’t this year because today is on a weekend. But 1:17 in this video is still something I remember vividly.
We didn’t know what in the hell was going on, but as friends of the family started coming in and sharing their condolences, we just watched. It became part of the morning. Amid the mourning sentiments, there were a few people saying things like “Oh my God, did you see?” and such. We soon saw the reports of the attack at the Pentagon, and later the footage from Pennsylvania. None of it made sense.
This was back when chat rooms were really active online, and being the computer nerd I was, I went to check them out. Lots of buzz about the attacks. Was it an accident? Who did it? Why would they do it? What will happen next? I remember people talking about the Russians, China, and other possible culprits. I don’t remember anyone really discussing a non-state actor from the Middle East, but I was young and not really paying attention at that point. All I knew is that it was bad.
But as thousands of families had lost a loved one in New York, overnight I had lost my best friend. My grandmother was my favorite person in the world.
It wasn’t until much later, looking back, that I realized I had lost that friend long before that day.
My grandmother was an alcoholic. She had severe depression. I had watched her all my life struggle with things that I later recognized were those demons. I was her first grandchild, so she doted on me as grandparents do and for longer than my siblings or cousins. We had a special bond. So I saw her more and noticed things, though I never quite picked up on what was happening.
Eventually, she and my grandfather divorced. She went into rehab and came to love with us briefly. That’s when I saw those demons with clarity. Things you only see when you live with someone struggling like that.
In the aftermath of 9/11, negativity and depression ran through our country. There was fear. Will we ever be able to gather again? What will happen next? As we learned who was responsible, we also saw those of the Islamic faith come under suspicion in our communities. A girl in my class was Muslim, and kids were… well, kids. Mean and never really understanding what they were saying or how it was hurting her.
I’ll never even pretend to know what the families of those lost to the terror attacks feel, and I can never really pretend to know what that kind of bullying over one’s faith is like, but if it any of that sadness and anger was anything close to what I felt losing my grandmother, I couldn’t wish that on anyone.
The last two years have been a very taxing time for all of us. Once again, anxiety, depression, isolation, and so many negative emotions have run rampant through not just the country, but the world. Here at home, we know what lockdowns and economic struggles have done to folks. We know depression and suicide are up. We know that so many people are struggling. If you haven’t battled depression, then you may not understand how that negativity eats its way into you.
About three years ago, I was diagnosed with it. Started on medication. It helped, but the war is endless. What really helps, more than the medication is having someone to talk to. Therapists help, but that isn’t always an option. Even if they don’t understand what you’re going through, the right family member or friend may be able to pull you out of the hole.
My grandmother never really seemed to have that. To this day, I wish I could have offered it had I just understood. But I lost her twenty years ago. The most I can do is learn from that.
The days and weeks after 9/11 were dark ones. This pandemic has been a string of dark days, too. People need light in their lives. Be that light. Even if you don’t think you know someone battling it, chances are you actually do and don’t know it. Be the best friend or family member you can be because you never know how it might be helping.
Y’all be blessed and pray for those who were lost and those who are suffering today.