On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, my four-year-old son, Aidan, and I were to fly home to Evans Lake after a long visit with my mother in Mount Holly, Vt. In the passenger lounge at the departure gate in Burlington, I heard someone asking the gate agents if they'd heard anything about the plane that had crashed into a building in New York. The agents gave her the stink-eye, trying to keep her quiet, because it isn't something that they like to discuss right before boarding.
We boarded and had started on the pre-flight announcements when news came that U.S. airspace would be closed for the next half hour. Less than 10 minutes later came the word that because of some terrorist activity, the airspace would remain closed for at least the rest of the day.
None the wiser about what was happening, I rushed to a pay phone and managed to catch my mother still in the hotel room. She picked us up and we all drove back to the hotel to turn on the TV. Listening to the radio on the way there, we heard that one of the Twin Towers had collapsed. We didn't believe it. We couldn't.
Switching on the TV we stood hugging each other as we caught the news reports. Almost the first thing we saw was the collapse of the South Tower. We both screamed, and if we hadn't been holding one another we would both have fallen with it. Next we saw the North Tower go. Then all the images started up again from the beginning. It was surreal, impossible, something that couldn't have happened even in a nightmare, and yet there it was.
I can't really tell you how frightened we were. It felt as though everywhere was a target. More planes had been hijacked and no one knew what was going to happen. We decided to go see friends who lived nearby to gather our thoughts and formulate a plan.
It was one of those beautiful, cloudless September afternoons that make you believe that summer will never end, and as we sat at the beach eating meatball sandwiches, we commented on how quiet it was with no planes in the sky. Then the fighter jets raced past, very low. They flew by every 10 minutes, a sinister reminder that everything had changed.
We decided to make the two-hour drive back to Mount Holly, but even that wasn't completely safe. Mom pointed out that if this was the start of a concerted attack, there are nuclear power facilities within several hours' drive of anywhere in New England, not to mention all the military bases. We wondered aloud how many people had died? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand?
I wanted nothing more than to get myself and my son home. Never had Canada seemed more appealing, more safe. But the borders had been closed, and remained that way for most of the next week. We were trapped in a country that might be on the brink of war, and it wouldn't matter if we were Canadian if bombs started to fall.
Of course that didn't happen, and the two of us made it home a week later. I realized as I came through customs at YVR that for the first time ever, I'd forgotten our birth certificates, but the Customs agent we were dealing with took pity on us as I emptied my wallet full of library cards, Brennan Park swimming passes, and the other little bits of a normal life. We were back in the welcoming and safe arms of Canada, and soon back at Evans Lake, our little valley where the bad guys wouldn't intrude. We didn't go farther afield than Squamish for several months. The shock and horror of that day lives on in my memory.
Two summers later I realized just how much it had affected me when I was walking with my husband on Granville Street, heading to a Bruce Cockburn concert at The Orpheum. It was a day or two before the Abbotsford Air Show, and the late summer sky was cloudless, blue and silent. Suddenly the Snowbirds flew past, making a wide circle over the Lower Mainland as they practiced for their show on the weekend. My heart began to race, a cold feeling spread over me and I burst into tears, traumatized. It felt like I was back on Lake Champlain with the end of the world staring me in the face again.
All of us have our own memories of that day and, like it or not, it's changed us. I won't say whether it's for the better or not, because change of that sort isn't quantifiable, it simply is. We learned fear. We learned that nothing is permanent. And we learned that ideologically based wars are not a thing of the past, or of the other, "less civilized" parts of the world. We must understand that our way of life represents a threat to some, and we must tread with more care, offering our help where it's wanted, and backing away from where it isn't.
But most of all, we must not be afraid to stand up for our Canadian way of life. It's something special, and worthy of protection. Squamish does it so well, with our different ethnic communities living harmoniously, sharing cultural festivals and seeking to work together to build a better place for us all to live. Together. As proud Canadians.