After 9/11

I wrote a few days ago about my memories of 9/11/2001 here in Northern Virginia, where I live just a few miles from the Pentagon.

I did not write about the events of the rest of that month, which were just as sad and unsettling, on a more personal scale, as that terrible day. As I said in the earlier post, I’d planned to leave for Indianapolis on Sept. 11. Given the events of the day, I postponed my trip, heading out on the 1000-mile road trip the following morning, arriving at my conference a bit late, as most attendees did that week, seeing as how all airline flights in the nation had been grounded.

A few days later, I was set to leave Sunday morning to begin the drive home. I had agreed to take a friend who also lived in Northern Virginia; she had already been in Indiana when the planes were grounded, and was stranded, with no flight home. Then my plans changed again. Saturday night I received a call from my husband Bob, saying his father was dying and asking me to meet him at his brother’s home in Madison, Wisconsin, the next day, instead of driving home to the Washington, D.C., area. My friend said she’d find another ride, and I drove to Wisconsin the next day.

My father-in-law was in hospice care. We spent the next few days spending as much time as we could with him. He wasn’t eating and was barely speaking; his skin seemed stretched, translucent, over his bones. And I remembered the robust man he’d been a few months earlier. It was clear that he was dying. But he seemed to enjoy listening while I read Robert Frost poems to him. And I could tell it made him happy when I placed his hand on my abdomen so he could feel his first grandson kick, the grandson he knew he would never see.

On Thursday, Bob and I were alone with him. Bob was near the bed, putting on music and talking to him, while I rested on the couch on the other side of the room, staring at the large window, where an iridescent black butterfly kept tapping its wings gently against the top of the pane, as if trying to get in. The butterfly remained there for a long time, at least an hour.

Then my father-in-law began to have trouble breathing. I later learned there was a call button to bring a nurse, but nobody had thought to show it to us. Bob stayed with his father, while I awkwardly ran my pregnant self down the hallway to bring help. Someone came back with me, and a few minutes later, my father-in-law took his last breath. I’d heard the phrase “death rattle,” and that was exactly what it sounded like. A minute later, I noticed that the glimmering black butterfly was gone.

My father-in-law was to be cremated, and it would be few weeks before the memorial service. In the meantime, after a few more days, we made plans to go home. Bob didn’t want me driving alone — or maybe he just wanted company. So we left his car there at his brother’s house, and we drove home in mine.

It was Sunday, September 30, a few days after we’d arrived home. We were planning to drive back to Wisconsin the following weekend for the memorial service.

My grandmother and grandfather on their wedding day in 1936.

Bob had gone for groceries and I was alone when the phone rang. It was my father, telling me my grandmother had died.

I was stunned. I’d seen her just a few weeks earlier, at her house in Old Forger, Pennsylvania, just before she’d gone back West to stay for a few months with my Uncle Frank and Aunt Pat in Wyoming. She had been there for the summer and I’d met them in Old Forge when they’d come back to get her fall clothes and take care of some things around the house. For years, I ‘d been the only family member close enough to see her often, and loved driving up to spend time with her. I missed her, but she loved Wyoming and I was pleased to see her looking so happy and in good health. She spoke with awe of the elk and other wildlife that would come up close to the house. And my uncle talked about how much he loved having her with him, about simple things like watching television together and about traveling to show her the sights of the West.

In fact, she had died in Yellowstone, at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. She had risen that morning and then lay down on the bed, fully dressed, and apparently died peacefully in her sleep, her blood sugar having dipped too low. It was a month short of her 88th birthday, and 10 days after my father-in-law’s death.

That weekend, I drove to Pennsylvania for my grandmother’s funeral, while Bob took a bus to Wisconsin for his father’s service, scheduled for the same day.

Less than a month later, on October 28, my other grandmother (step-grandmother, actually) passed away at an Alzheimer’s facility in Maryland. She was the second wife of my maternal grandfather. I’d never been as close to her as I was to my father’s mother, but I’d known her all my life, even before she and my grandfather moved in together; she’d been a friend of both sides of the family since before I was born. I know I attended that service too, but I have little memory of it. I think I was on overload by then.

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