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The Blog

9/11 + 10: Life Goes On But it Does Not Go On

I remember that after the Sept. 11 attacks, a great pall fell over the otherwise gorgeous fall days. Everything during that season seemed at once excessively beautiful and excessively sad.

On the morning of 9/11, I was living in Washington, D.C. with my husband, David Frum, then a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. I was six months pregnant with our third child, Beatrice (now nine), and at home with my son, Nathaniel, then seven, who had feigned a stomach ache.

The blog below was written two days after 9/11 and originally appeared in the National Post. It captures very much the emotion and drama those of us felt "on the ground" during that horrific time. In the weeks and months to follow, Washingtonians would experience being stalked by a random sniper; then the threat of anthrax arriving by mail (my children still remembering me warning them away from inspecting the daily delivery, and watching me don rubber gloves to sort through our letters and parcels -- with a husband in the White House, this did not seem like an excessive precaution).

A great pall fell over the otherwise gorgeous fall days. Everything during that season seemed at once excessively beautiful and excessively sad. I remember the incredible, fiery display of leaves in (then) Solicitor General Ted Olson's Virginia backyard -- the view which I had from his kitchen as I helped him to answer the literally hundreds of cards and letters he received offering consolation on the death of his wife, Barbara.

In November, still pregnant, I travelled to New York City with our kids to meet up with my mother to hear Bobby Short play at the Cafe Carlysle. I'd never heard Short live, and both my children loved his songs and with David working around the clock in the White House, we felt we needed some sort of happy escape. But lower Manhattan was still smoking: the air was acrid and stung your eyes. We joined the throngs silently passing by and paying respects to Ground Zero, now blocked off by construction fencing.

You emerged from the subway at Chambers Street and then walked south toward the misty gray spirals. It felt spooky: all the once densely populated office buildings were emptied out; some had smashed-in windows and scorch marks. Scaffolding created impediments on the sidewalks. People wore cheap, pharmacy-purchased medical masks over their mouths, as if those would keep out the carcinogens and taste of death. Meanwhile, uptown, Short played his marvelous tunes, and the nascent life in my stomach began bouncing about to his jazzy rhythms.

Weeks later I gave birth with the hospital room's TV tuned to the bombings of Afghanistan on CNN; months later still, I would be awakening in the night to feed this little life's urgent, sucking lips and hungry whimpers. As I rocked her and sung quietly to her, I'd be aware of the afterburn of F-16s still patrolling the skies of the capital city. They were regular: I got to know them. I began to say hi to them in my mind: "There you are, Capt. 4 a.m. I was wondering if you would show up. Little late today aren't we?" Then it all stopped -- or not stopped, but began being smoothed away over time.

I'm republishing this article with the hope that those too young to remember that day -- or like my own daughter Beatrice, were not even yet born -- have some sense what it was like, so they might better understand why this sad anniversary is so important, and why so many still mourn.


We are all trying to return to normal here in Washington, but it is a state of normality that won't return. My children are willing it to return, and almost defiantly resuming their games, their playdates, their cartoon-watching. We wish, as my 10-year-old daughter asked Wednesday morning, after waking up in a sleeping bag on the floor of our bedroom, "Today is just going to be like a regular day, right? It's over, right?"

"Yes," I said. But it's not over and it's not regular.

As I write this Thursday morning, the skies are still quiet except for the occasional roar of a military jet. On Tuesday night we spotted a black stealth bomber overhead; it resembled a hawk protectively circling a kill. The body count rises every hour on the news: the death ticker has replaced the stock ticker. Outside my house there are weird silences punctuated alternately by worrisome sirens and the reassuring noises of a city neighborhood: lawn mowers, jack hammers, garbage trucks. Traffic is tied up on my street because of a reported bomb scare at nearby American University. National guardsmen in combat gear guard the public school two blocks away. Police are stationed at busy intersections. Parents had to show photo ID to enter our Jewish school today, and for the first time the kindly security guard who sits by the door packed a pistol.

Life goes on, and it does not go on.

The heartbreaking stories of those for whom life does not go on are emerging from the rubble. In New York and Washington, we have been exchanging them for the past two days. I suspect there is no one in either of these two cities who has not been personally touched by loss, or is only one removed from such loss. For me the face of that loss is Barbara Olson. Barbara, the vivacious author, television pundit, and beloved wife of Solicitor General Ted Olson, was also a dear friend. Even now, more than 48-hours after her death inside the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon, I find it difficult to accept that she is gone. This is not due to some ordinary refusal to accept death. Barbara's personality was so large, so generous, so far-reaching that, together with her husband, she was to her circle of friends in Washington what the twin towers of the World Trade Center were to the New York skyline. We are left with this smoking, gaping hole that we simply can't begin to fathom.

A memorial service for Barbara will be held on Saturday, at which Ken Starr and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas will give eulogies. Their voices will join thousands of others who will be memorialized on that day, the next day, the day after that.... Perhaps by then the deaths we experienced on Tuesday will feel more real. There will be more faces, more stories, more holes that can't be filled.

Right now, Washington feels like it is still emerging from shell-shock. There is no other term for it. We lived, quite literally, through a battle on Tuesday. I imagine what we experienced compares to what other generations who have lived through a siege have experienced. You wake up and it seems like any other day. I remember drinking my first cup of coffee and reading the newspapers. Then word came in that there had been a terrible attack. Like millions, I turned on CNN and, with my seven-year-old son -- home sick from school -- watched as the two turrets of the World Trade Center went up in flames. For those first few minutes, I managed to persuade myself that this was a horrendous -- but isolated -- incident. It is on television. It doesn't affect you. But within a quarter hour, the news had broken that another plane had hit the Pentagon; that there was a fire on the mall; that a suspected truck bomb was poised outside the State Department; that the White House was being evacuated.

I immediately phoned my husband, who works as a speechwriter for the president. His office is in the White House compound, inside the Old Executive Office Building.

"Are you getting out?" I asked him, frantic.

"No," he replied staunchly. "I'm not going anywhere."

"You must get out!"

"I'm not leaving."

Five minutes later he called me back, somewhat sheepish. "Um, I'm leaving now. They're evacuating us, too."

The news reported that Palestinians were suspected to be behind the attack. My daughter was at her Jewish school. Many of her classmates are the sons and daughters of Israeli diplomats. I had not yet showered. I had not yet brushed my teeth. I threw on some clothes and called my neighbor, whose children also attend the school, and within 10 minutes we were in his minivan, navigating our way northward to the Washington suburb of Rockville, about 10 miles away. My son asked from the backseat, "Is this a war? Is Daddy safe?" Yes, to both counts. So far as we could tell.

The long drive to and from the school will remain, for me, one of the more vivid scenes of the day. We did not know whether or not there would be further attacks on the city. We did not know whether we would arrive at the school and find it damaged; I half-expected to find it surrounded by paratroopers from the embassy. The minivan took on the feeling of a humvee crawling through streets that, two hours ago were utterly familiar and unremarkable, and now were potentially a war zone.

When we reached the school a calm, but serious, evacuation was taking place. Parents were leading their children out of the building. I ran through the halls clutching the hand of my son, hunting for my daughter. Her classrooms were empty. I returned to the main hall where the grade five children had just been led into a chapel to pray. I anxiously scanned the faces. There she was: She turned and -- this ordinarily brave little girl, who cries at nothing! -- saw me and instantly burst into tears.

Everyone was collected: We returned to the city, going against the cars that were now fleeing in droves from downtown. I could not reach my husband on the cell phone. I had no idea where he was or whether there had been any further incidents in the capital. The radio news focused on the World Trade center and the Pentagon crash, with pauses only for traffic reports, calls for blood donors and the national guard. The city was declared a state of emergency.

When we got home, I immediately turned around and raced to the nearby supermarket. It was closed. I drove a few blocks more to find one that was open. It was packed with people who, like me, had decided to stock up on jugs of water and milk. Lines to the cashiers went halfway down the aisles.

I realized that, at some point that morning, at some point during that drive, I had passed into a mental state I had never before been in: having panicked at the outset, my nerves were now steeled and my senses numbed to whatever else could happen. Here I am in a Safeway, I thought, shopping for supplies in the event of war, and I am strangely serene. At the meat counter a woman asked the shoppers around her as she scanned the selections, "Do you think people buy more expensive meats when they think it's Armageddon? You know -- what the hell?"

"I just got some ribeyes," I told her. We smiled. Yes, we're shopping for Armageddon.

But it was when I got home, and had just finished putting the food away in the freezer, that the personal blow of the battle struck. The telephone rang. The voice of a friend, hysterical and sobbing, was trying to tell me something.

"Speak slowly," I said.

The words finally pushed their way through. "Barbara Olson was on that plane."

"Dear God. Which one?"

"The one that crashed into the Pentagon."

We were both quiet.

"Are--are you sure?"

"She spoke to Ted [her husband] from the plane. She called him on her cell phone."

The numbing that had been seeping through my body, like a slow drip of anaesthesia, overtook me entirely. There was nothing to say, only the ghastly feeling of a pit opening beneath my feet. "Where is Ted?" Not, "How is Ted?" My friend murmured that arrangements were being made to gather at Ted's house that evening. We hung up. I wondered how many more friends I would lose this day.

The phone rang again -- it was ringing every few minutes with everyone checking in with everyone else. This time it was my husband calling to tell me he was with the other speechwriters in a secure building downtown. The White House had set up temporary email and phone lines. He was not sure when he would see me again that night. The news of Barbara left him gasping -- and silent.

The children and I said a prayer together. Then we made cookies -- I bought the mix on a whim, and it turned out to be a comforting and occupying activity. My son and daughter decided that the cookies would accompany me to Mr. Olson's house that night. My daughter wrote a note expressing her grief. We listened to the fighter jets passing overhead -- "good planes," I said to them, "planes that are protecting us" -- and when my son said he wished he was in Canada with his grandparents "where it is safe," I told them both gently that they must never be anything but proud to be Americans, and Americans don't run away.

Later that evening, with the children tucked in safely at a neighbor's house, I drove to the Olsons'. The 20 or so friends who gathered there were in similar states of denial and numbness. Her death, like all the events of the day, had almost a cinematic quality to it. Who could believe it? It was as if she hadn't died but an actress playing Barbara Olson had; we half-expected her to come bursting through her front door at any moment, exclaiming, in her wonderful, excited, Texan twang, "My gawd, you should have seen it!"

And, oh, what would Barbara have told us if she could? She would have regaled us with every detail, not sparing sharp observations of those whom she felt "wimped out" when confronted with box-cutter-wielding terrorists, nor failing to praise generously those who acted with courage. She would then have proceeded to give us her assessment of what the president should do and say (and this assessment would be bang-on: morally robust, but also politically shrewd). Most of this she would repeat the next night when she appeared on Larry King.

But of course, Barbara didn't come bursting through the door. Instead a frozen photograph of her face flashed periodically on CNN with the dates of her life below it. We mingled and wept and prayed for her, surrounded by the collected artifacts of a life that was not just in progress but going full-steam: photographs of her and Ted in silver frames strewn on sidetables and haphazardly pinned to the kitchen bulletin board; beautiful objects -- hand-painted plates, Californian pottery -- that had caught her eye on some journey and now mutely expressed her lost personality; her two funny, sheep-like dogs foraging amongst the guests, unaware that their mistress would not be coming back. And this, we realized (belatedly, dreadfully), was all we were to be left of Barbara. This, our memories, and the horrific yet noble image of her that we will keep with us always, of Barbara pacing the aisle of the doomed plane, frantically punching Ted's number on her cell phone, trying, desperately, to do something when others had apparently given up.

Here is what we know, from what Barbara told Ted: The passengers and crew were herded to the back of the plane. Two of the (female) flight attendants had been stabbed. Her haunting, desperate words to her husband were: "Ted, I have the pilot here. Tell him what to do." Tell him what to do! The line conveys Barbara's enormous faith in her husband -- a faith shared by the president, who chose Ted Olson to argue his case to the Supreme Court last January. And it conveys, too, Barbara's faith that something, always, can be done -- should be done. She was as fearless and determined in the face of death as she was in life; that is not a trait many of us can claim to possess, nor is it one that we are often called upon, if ever, to test. For this reason I couldn't, can't, think of Barbara as a "victim": the very term was something she rejected emphatically in her political beliefs, and I'm certain she would reject it as a description of her death. No, she was a casualty. A casualty of war. And one who died with honour.

We streamed back into the night, aware of how close death had fallen to every one of us. Had one of those planes hit the White House, as the terrorists intended, it might have been my husband I would be mourning that evening. For others, it is their husbands -- or their wives, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and on and on. In the meantime, we console our children and ourselves the best we can. We look to the skies, watch the sun set on a city struggling to be normal again, and know it can't be so.

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