"Wait, was it on purpose?" Ella asked me on the two minute drive to school yesterday.
I wish it had been another instance of Milo doing something annoying to Olive, when Ella would jump in immediately as the mediator. ("Purpose" and "accident" are words that are frequently interchanged in our house, depending on who's in trouble). Instead, she's referring to a short tribute we had just heard on the radio about 9/11. I answered her quickly, hoping that would be the end of it, but bracing myself for it to be just the beginning. "Yeah, Bug. It was."
"WHY? Were they angry? Were they getting back at someone? Wait, so that meant that the people flying the planes knew they were going to die, too?"
Already as she fired off one question after another, I was mentally editing my answer. It wouldn't have mattered if we'd had a twenty minute drive to school- the magnitude of that day eighteen years ago isn't something many of us can put into words. The reality is that there were any number of lines I could have delivered to her in a straight-forward, factual answer, but my inquisitive ten year-old would still be able to read between them. So I simply told her that sometimes horribly wrong and devastating things happen, because hate and fear drive people to do things that don't make any sense. It felt like the most honest thing I could tell her in that moment as I parked the car. And I'd also only had one cup of coffee. She was quiet for a few seconds.
"Let me ask you something," I said. "Does it really help you to know why?" She shook her head. But I get it. As humans, we're wired to look for meaning in all things. But then we attach it where it doesn't belong, and remove it where it does. In some cases, knowing the "why" helps us cope and gives closure. But in this instance- and in many others- there will never be an answer that let's us rest easier; it just doesn't exist.
September 11, 2001 was a day of why. We awoke to pandemonium, to reports and traumatizing footage that turned our world- and worldview- upside down. And each September 11th since then, we wake up with that familiar ache. We listen to tributes and see the posts, and at some point in our daily routine, there's probably a moment or two when we just feel so fragile that it's terrifying all over again. The videos and images are never any less jarring, no matter how much time passes. But what about September 12th? Perhaps that's the day that defined us even more. Even as the ash was still clearing, as we sat in shock around our TV's and struggled to come to terms with something so incomprehensible, we were already piecing together our how.. how we could take care of each other, how we could honor one another, how we could show up. How we could rebuild. Because this is another thing that we do: we look for hope, even when it seems against all odds.
It's okay to ask why because it gives us permission to grieve. But, when the dust settles, asking how gives us a trajectory of hope.
I will never forget.