My son Ethan began his career as a kindergartener by scrambling under a desk. He felt nervous about leaving his familiar nursery school in its private house on a hill, its fenced in yard where he'd taught himself to soar on swings. Now, we had to climb to the top floor of a large building, big kids jostling and pelting each other with insults as they bounded past us on the stairs. Still, I wondered if his hiding wasn't partly a game. When I crouched down to talk to him, he wore an impish smile.
"Come on, silly boy," I coaxed.
Seeing Ethan squirreled down there reminded me of the shelter drills of my childhood. When we heard the shrieking loops of the siren we had to sit under our school desks, stifling giggles and staring up at patterns of blackened gum. If anyone explained to us that we were readying ourselves for an atomic bomb, I was absent that day, or just as likely staring dreamily out a window. To me, it was one of the many inexplicable things adults came up with, only slightly stranger than rushing us outside in winter just so we could stand in line, shivering in our short dresses and knee socks, while we waited out a pretend fire.
It wasn't me who finally lured Ethan out from his hiding place but his teacher, Melissa. She whispered something to him I couldn't hear and he got up to join a group of kids in the block corner. In moments, he was directing their project as though he were the foreman they'd been waiting for.
Ethan quickly adjusted to his new routine. By the Tuesday of the first full week, he was zooming ahead of me on the walk to school, his Spiderman backpack sliding off his shoulders. At the entrance, we saw a sweet-faced boy whose eyes were mostly hidden under straight, dark bangs.
"Hi, Buddy," Ethan said to him.
"Hello, Pal," the boy responded, slipping past us up the stairs.
"Who's that?" I asked Ethan.
"That's Sammy. He's my new best friend."
I grinned at my resilient boy. Minutes later, I left him busily working at the sand table. It was a beautiful clear day and I felt almost giddy with the freedom of the next few hours. I was dressed in sweats, my Walkman attached to a fanny-pack at my waist. Adjusting the volume, I started to walk to the warm-up music, a slow country song. A voiceover instructed me to inhale deeply and stretch my arms overhead. I obeyed as I crossed the street, strolling leisurely until the music picked up, cuing me to increase my pace.
I headed for the pier, so I could follow the promenade along the Hudson. Here in Hoboken, we have a great view of the New York skyline. The park was unusually crowded, the downside to this gorgeous weather. I wove as best I could past the swarm of people who cut across my path to congregate on the grass and look at the river. The week before, there had been a boat show. Large ships with sails that appeared to be made of parchment floated past like visitors from another era. I felt tempted to see if the majestic ships were back but, instead, turned around, placing the mob and the city behind me. Billy Ray Cyrus was bemoaning his Achy Breaky Heart, and my own heart rate was rising.
Because I have cerebral palsy, I used to be too self-conscious to exercise in public. But petite as I am, enough pregnancy-weight stayed with me through Ethan's fourth year that several people congratulated me thinking I was having another baby. I bought aerobics videos which I dutifully used until the banter grew so familiar and annoying I literally bored myself into braving the outdoors.
It no longer mattered who saw my brisk limp or what they thought. I loved the feel of my muscles being stretched, my heart pounding, the fluid moving through my joints. I loved the way sunlight studded the slow moving water and how, on breezy days, it took on a hint of the ocean smell I grew up with in Far Rockaway.
A gull bearing a remarkable resemblance to Barbra Streisand studied me coolly from the fence post before rising on its spindly legs and taking flight. All the while, I moved to the music, listening to my own thoughts with the thirst of someone reunited after too long an absence with her best friend. Having successfully shaken the crowd, I completed my forty-minute aerobic stint. Cool down time. Tammy Wynette admonished me to Stand By My Man, as I circled back around and faced the city.
I stopped, stunned. In front of me stood one lone tower, a smoking vacant space beside it. On the small hilly street a parked car had its doors open, the radio on. I joined the bewildered group of onlookers that had gathered.
"A plane hit," a guy in summer cutoffs told me.
"An accident," I whispered. My two-word prayer. Tears kept wetting my face. I heard the announcer on the radio say the word terrorist. The word attack. The one tower was still standing when I drifted away.
Without planning to, I walked to Saint Mary's. A line had formed in front of the hospital, people waiting to give blood. I stood with them despite the fact that I didn't weigh enough to donate. Maybe they'd make an exception. Being there made me feel less lost, less useless. I didn't know what else to do.
Details of the attack made their way through the line. Just as I heard that a plane had also hit the Pentagon, a small dark woman in pool-blue scrubs came out to tell us they weren't taking blood.
After everyone wandered off, I found myself on Garden Street where I saw Russell, a friend whose daughter was in Ethan's class. His long grey hair stood up wildly. He was wearing flannel pajama bottoms, his t-shirt inside out.
"I'm going to get Emily now," he told me.
"You know, I called the school," he met my eyes for the first time. "They saw it from the window."
I stared at him.
"The kids," he added, finally breaking through my daze.
"Oh, God." I swallowed, feeling an ache in my throat. Ethan, my not-quite-five-year-old, saw a skyscraper filled with people, with parents, catch fire and implode.
"Coming?" Russell asked.
Ethan was in the care of his teachers who always seemed to know the right thing to say. Meanwhile, I needed a few more minutes in this new, devastated world before I had to face him and try to explain it. Before I had to somehow make it seem okay.
Ona Gritz's second book for children, Tangerines and Tea: My Grandparents and Me, was named Best Alphabet Book of 2005 by Nick Jr. Family Magazine, and one of six best children's books of the year by Scholastic Parent & Child Magazine. Her chapbook of poems, Left Standing, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2005. In 2007, she won the Inglis House poetry contest, the Late Blooms Poetry Postcard competition, and was nominated for two Pushcart prizes. A columnist on the website, Literary Mama, her essays have appeared in the anthology, It's A Boy: Women Writer's on Raising Sons, and the forthcoming anthologies, The Maternal is Political and A Cup of Comfort for Single Moms. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey with her eleven-year-old son.