I Just Wanted to See My Mom Again

One Day Can Change Everything

Photo by Andrae Ricketts on Unsplash

Picture this: a little boy peering through a closed second-story window at the sidewalk below, focusing on the farthest tip of the street that he could see. He wasn’t fixated on the sway of the trees in the autumn breeze, nor the assortment of passenger cars and delivery trucks that sped down his busy street. He only cared about seeing his mother rounding the corner on her way home.

That was me for most of my childhood. I used to stand in the upstairs window waiting to see my mom walking down the block. I wrapped myself in the huge curtains, making it impossible for the rest of my family to find me whenever I began my morning search. It started with an innocent curiosity. Each night, she’d kiss me on my forehead and promise to see me in the morning. And, she did. Then I started waking up early. Then earlier, and then even earlier. Before I realized it, I was up before the sun, taking up my post at the upstairs window.

My mother worked for the New York City Transit Authority during the days when tokens were needed for each ride and bus transfers were made of paper. Riders were sure to put the transfer receipts in their pockets before the ink bled onto their hands and avoided train car walls out of fear that a graffiti artist’s latest work would transfer to their clothes. Every night, my mom left for train stations on the other side of the city and returned in the early morning. As soon as she rounded the corner and made her way past the building adjacent to our house, she’d instinctively look up to find me waving, and grinning from ear to ear. She chided me for waking up early, but it soon became our routine. I waited every morning and she waved as soon as I was in view. I missed her, as most kids miss their parents, but I wasn’t fearful or concerned. I knew that she was coming home. She always did.

The day was no different than any other. We gathered in the school playground, sixth-graders on one side, eighth-graders on the other, and my group of seventh-graders gathered in the middle. We played a quick game of basketball, like any other day, migrated up the stairs, like any other day, and sat down to listen to what we thought would be another mundane lecture. Then our teacher was called out of the room. We sat in silence for the first two minutes before the murmuring began.

“What’s going on?”

“Ooooh, somebody’s in trouble!”

“She better hurry up! I’m about half asleep.”

I sat quietly at my desk, listening to my classmates comment on the situation. Then another three minutes passed and the conversations could no longer be contained. When our teacher returned, much of the class was out of their seats. My friends already decided on the teams for our basketball game at recess and others debated over pizza or chicken for lunch. Pizza was always the better choice.

“We’re going downstairs,” she said, seemingly staring through us. I’d never seen that amount of pain and fear in another’s eyes. I was afraid to move but the urgency in her voice coaxed me along. In a school that often provided too much information, the ominous command was cause for concern.

We arrived in the cafeteria to find several other classes already there.

“Stay with the class,” our teacher asked, but it was too late. We started finding friends and convening at our usual tables.

Near the exit, a crowd of teachers gathered around the TV. They typically wheeled it in when we were made to watch a documentary or when substitute teachers didn’t know what to do with us. But this was different. I stood behind the crowd to see what was going on. What was so important that we couldn’t be informed?

“A second plane has hit the South Tower.”

I’d never seen that amount of pain and fear in another’s eyes. I was afraid to move but the urgency in her voice coaxed me along.

In 2001 my mother managed a chain of department stores throughout the city. Each day, she decided which location to work in based on the level of need. Some days, she’d catch the J train to the Jamaica store and others the 12 bus to either of the locations in Brownsville. On September 11th she was on her way to the 8th Avenue store in Manhattan. You’ve never met my mother, but if you did, you know that she was never late for work. She always arrived early, with her coffee and breakfast in hand. That day was no different. She boarded the train intending to follow her usual routine: coffee and a knish from her favorite spot at the World Trade Center. Then back on the train to 34th Street. I knew that was her routine and I knew that she was heading to the city that day.

September 11th was the first time that I feared for my mother’s life; the first time I feared that she wouldn’t come home.

It’s amazing what our minds choose to remember and what’s too painful for us to comprehend. I can’t recall most of that day. I don’t know what happened after we left the lunchroom or how I got home. I only remember seeing my mom walking through the door of our apartment and leaping into her arms. I remember holding her as tightly as I could and promising myself not to let go. And, I remember her wiping the tears from my eyes.

“I thought that you weren’t coming home — I was so worried,” I choked.

“Jay, you don’t have to worry. I’ll always find my way back to you. Even if I had to walk or swim. I would have found my way back to you.”

She held onto me and rubbed my head for reassurance. Parents will say and do whatever it takes to calm the anxious minds of their children. They’ll do whatever it takes to protect us. I wanted to believe her, but I knew that so much of what she said was out of her control. By chance, my mother left the train headed for Manhattan and decided to work in Brooklyn.

“I just had a feeling that I should get off the train,” she said. Never one to ignore her intuition, she did just that.

I’m forever thankful that my mother wasn’t there and feel for those that were. While I held onto her, thousands of others lost their parents, siblings, friends, and other loved ones. Thousands only hold onto memories and didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. For those of us that lived through it, we know where we were, who we lost, and how one day changed everything. We see the signs and commercials that remind us to Never Forget and we ask How could we?

I stand with those that continue to mourn twenty years later and hold a place in my heart for all those that never made it home.

I see you. I’m with you. Now and always.

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