September 11th, 2001
Two World Trade Center (the South Tower)
New York City, New York
I pressed my hands to the glass and gazed at the streets and people below. They seemed so tiny and insignificant. I stared at dad in amazement.
”This place is incredible! I can’t believe you work here! I can’t imagine coming here every day.”
“I’m glad you like this place. I knew you would.”
“Can you show me around?”
Dad frowned. That was so much like him. Switching back and forth between facial expressions as easily as a person would switch between a fork and spoon.
“Sweetie, I have to work. This place isn’t some tourist attraction. It’s an office building that needs people like me to help keep it running.”
I tilted my head.
“Wouldn’t a tourist attraction also need people to help keep it running?”
Dad laughed. I loved when I could make him laugh. His eyes would light up, and I'd see some of his spirit again.
“I suppose you’re right.”
“But can you show me around? Please? Pretty please?” I begged.
Dad laughed again.
“Okay, I will.”
“Yay!” I squealed.
Dad grabbed for my hand, but I yanked it away.
“Dad,” I chided. “I’m twelve. I don’t need you to hold my hand anymore.”
Dad smiled sadly.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. Your face just reminds me so much of--”
He paused, but I knew who he was talking about.
Mom had died only four years ago. Dad was never quite the same after she died. I could see why.
Dad and mom. Jabez and Morana Wilson. They were one of those couples that never quite quit their mushiness. I'd caught them a few times making out. They loved each other greatly and they made sure that they let each other know every day. Sometimes, it was incredibly sickening. Other times, it was really sweet.
Mom’s death had hit me like chi blocking. I could no longer function one of the most important parts of myself. I remembered that day. The last day I would be able to say that I have a mother.
It was the first day of third grade. Summer still lingered in the air, not wanting to fade away. My shirt was already soaked from sweat. My back felt heavy from all of the books I had stashed in my backpack.
Well, the books that mom had stashed in my backpack. She had personally packed it, and I was sure it was full of wonderful surprises. It was our mother-and-daughter tradition.
“My child,” Mom beamed. “Is going into third grade. You’ve grown so much, Solita.”
I smiled, but that didn't do much to conceal my nerves.
“I’m scared, mommy,” I whispered. “There’s the state test, the kids will look different, the teachers will be meaner, and--”
“Hey,” Mom smoothed down my clothes. “You’ll do great. I know it.”
I nodded, feeling much better. Mom had told me that. Her words were going to come true.
Mom drove me all the way to school. She opened the back door of the car and hugged me, tousling my hair. She had messed up my hair, but I didn't care.
“See you after school!” Mom had called after me. “I’ll pick you up!”
“Bye, mommy!” I waved at her before walking in the school.
Later that day, once school was over, dad had come to pick me up. Not mom.
At first, I hadn’t seen anything wrong with this. Mom and dad switched back and forth in their pick-up and drop-off duties (ha! Doodies) all of the time.
Then, I started noticing the little things. Dad was wearing all black. His hair was messy. I noticed his posture was slouched, and he wasn’t wearing his usual smile. He barely even glanced at me.
But most of all, dad’s eyes were red, and they were shining and glassy. Were his eyes filled with tears? Woah. Dad never cries.
Something was definitely wrong.
But I didn’t want to ask. I was afraid. Afraid of what happened to make him reduced to this. Afraid that it was the first day of school, and mom hadn’t picked me up like she had promised.
My curiosity got the best of me. I asked quietly,
“Daddy? Where’s mommy? Why isn’t she here?”
Dad looked at me.
“Solita, are you sure you want to know?”
“Yes, I want to know.”
Dad looked devastated.
“While she was driving back home, a car hit her car. She broke a lot of bones, and her brain is damaged. Your mother is dying in a hospital.”
I had felt emotional pain before. My teachers had yelled at me. My friend had moved to a different country. I had read sad books.
But something like that, something huge. . . it hits differently. I felt like the pavement was collapsing underneath me, and I had fallen into a pit where only darkness lingers. A knife made of terrible thoughts and grief cut my body. It was sharper than an icicle.
This was just too much for a third-grade-brain to handle. I felt like I'd lost my hand.
Then, the tears formed in my eyes, desperate to be freed. They burst out, covering my face. I pressed my face into dad’s shirt, covering it with the mark of sadness.
After what seemed like forever, I wiped my tears and looked at dad.
“Is she still breathing?” I whispered.
“With the help of a machine. I saw her on my way to pick you up. She’s in a lot of pain. The doctors wanted to let her go, but she refused. Morana said that she wanted to see you. Before--”
I didn’t want that. If mom was in as much pain as dad had implied, I wanted her to let go. To end her pain. I didn’t want her to wait for me, breathing with a machine, barely clinging to the little life she had left. She deserved better.
But the selfish part of me wanted her to hold on for a little longer. So I could see her.
The selfish part won.
“I want to see her,” I rasped.
“We will,” dad promised. “I’ll make sure of it.”
The car ride to the hospital was long and silent. Grief hung in the air, thicker than the fog in San Francisco.
Before I knew it, we were at the hospital. As we walked in, I shook my head, marveling at the irony of this situation.
Mom hates hospitals. The breath of death always looms in that place. Given her name, which literally means “death”, mom thought of this as a bad omen.
And now, she’s going to die in the place that she hates most.
I still refused to believe that my own mother was dying from a car accident.
Dad held my hand as we stood in front of the door. The door read, “Wilson, Morana”. The door was too clean. Too white. The feeling of dread and sadness descended over me like a dark storm cloud deciding to invade a person’s good day. This moment's the last I’ll spend with my mother.
Dad knocked on the door. A voice called,
Dad opened the door, and I started to walk in. But dad didn’t follow me.
“Daddy, why aren’t you going to see mom?” I wondered.
Dad smiled sadly.
“You deserve a moment alone with your mother. Besides, I already saw her. Make it short. She’s in a lot of pain.”
I nodded and walked in.
Mom was lying down on the hospital bed, with several machines around her. One that showed her heartbeat, which was weak, but it was still there. Hanging on. Another machine was attached to her nose, helping her breathe. I didn’t like how much her breath rattled.
Thankfully, the doctor, a middle-aged man with grey hair and a pointy beard, gave us some space.
Tears sprouted from my eyes.
Mom looked in my direction, but her eyes were glassy. She couldn’t seem to focus on my face. I worried she couldn’t see me. Or hear me. Or even talk.
Then, she smiled, and those worries faded.
I could tell she wanted to touch me and comfort me, but she could barely move. I could tell it took effort to smile or talk.
“Mommy, do you have to go?” I begged. “Me and dad still need you.”
Mom exhaled three times, in short bursts. Maybe her attempt to chuckle.
“Sweetie, you’ve grown so much. You might need me, but you’ll do great even without me. You and your father are strong enough.”
She winced in pain, the few wrinkles in her face pronounced from the effort of talking. Mom looked less beautiful with her wrinkles. Less like herself.
Seeing her in that much pain, I wanted her to let go. So badly. She deserves rest.
I touched her arm, making sure not to hurt her.
“Maybe you’re right. You deserve peace. There’s no coming back from this.”
Mom smiled again, and I could tell it took effort not to wince. Tears formed in her eyes.
“I’m proud of you, Solita. I love you. So much. I’ll always be inside your heart. And your father’s heart, too. My last request. . .”
She inhaled sharply.
“Don’t burden yourself with my death forever. Let go someday.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder. Dad.
Mom noticed him, too.
“I love you,” she told him.
Dad gestured for the doctor. The doctor walked over to mom’s bed. He glanced at her.
”Are you ready?”
Mom nodded slightly.
“Ready. Goodbye, Soltia. Goodbye, Jabez. I--”
The machines made a soft “ping” sound. Her heartbeat faded. Her chest stopped moving. She looked at peace, like she was resting after a long, tiring day.
I still cried.
I sobbed, using my dad’s shirt as a tissue. He didn’t seem to mind. He held me, but his arms were shaking. He wasn’t taking this any easier than I was.
My chest heaved like a broken engine. I could barely breathe. I felt like my lungs had popped, like it was an overinflated balloon. I couldn’t control my body as it shook uncontrollably, shaking from the impact of death.
A part of me, a naïve part, refused to believe that she was gone. The other part, the more mature part, knew better. It knew better.
Mom was gone.
Only one thing to keep me from falling in the pit of hopelessness again.
Dad. As long as I am with him, everything will be okay. Dad hugged me tightly, keeping me tied to the world.
I shook my head, dazed from the trip down memory lane. At the corner of my eye, I saw dad looking at me.
“Sweetie, are you okay?” He looked concerned. “You stopped moving for a few minutes.”
I tried to flash him a confident smile.
“I’m fine, dad. Just some memories.”
“Okay. I was a little worried for a second. Now, about that tour--”
He was interrupted by alarms blaring. I covered my ears immediately, wincing at the loud noise that pierced my ears in a way that did not involve shiny earrings at the end.
“An airplane filled with jet fuel has crashed into the northern façade! The tower is on fire!” A loudspeaker blared over the alarms. “Everyone evacuate!”
The sprinklers turned on, dousing me and dad with water. The walls were cracking, and the entire building seemed to be heaving.
We have to get out.
Dad grabbed my arm and ran for the stairs. I struggled to keep up.
The alarms were still blaring, and the sprinkler system was still going, making my thoughts cloudy. I shut my eyes, scared. Debris was starting to fall. It won’t be long until the building collapses.
And if it does, well. . . . it’s certainly a long way down. I didn’t have to be an expert to know that I would die if I fell from this height.
Assuming the fires didn’t get me first.
That shocked me. If I die, could I see mom again?
I was no religious person. I didn’t believe in God or Allah or whatever people believe in these days. But I hoped that I could see mom again someday.
I realized that dad was shaking my arm and repeating my name.
“Solita. Solita? Solita!”
I shook myself out of my daze.
Dad was shaking my arm. He looked panicked, which was unlike him.
“The exits are blocked. We’re trapped. But it’s not safe here.” He moved on quickly, noticing the panic slowly spreading across my face the way a fire spread across a village, killing people in its path. Dad gestured at the glass windows. “Those things can break any second.”
I nodded. Ever since I could understand the words, “glass is bad”, dad had drilled it into my head. Glass was dangerous and easy to swallow. And once you swallow it, the doctors can’t find it in your body. Apparently.
We walked over to a wall that looked solid enough for it not to break immediately. We sat down, leaning against the wall. Dad whispered to me,
“Are you scared?”
I breathed slowly. In and out. That’s how you breathe, right?
“A little,” I admitted. “Who in their right mind would crash an airplane into one of the tallest buildings in the world? What’s going on? I don’t like to be clueless.”
Dad squeezed my hand. That comforted me, even though I had told him I was too old for him to hold my hand not long ago.
“Me too, sweetie. But we’ll get out of this. I pro--”
He was interrupted by a huge chunk of debris sailing toward him.
“Watch out!” I yelled. But given the size of that thing, yelling like that wouldn’t do much good.
The debris smashed into dad’s legs. He yelped so loudly I could hear it over the alarms.
“Dad! Are you okay?” I tried to push the debris off of him, but I was too weak. It was like trying to push an elephant off a cliff (but I would never try doing that. Elephants are incredible).
“I’m--” he stopped. We both knew that saying, “I’m fine” in this situation would be a total lie. “Badly injured.” he grunted.
That was an understatement. I wouldn’t be surprised if dad’s legs had just turned into paper, Flat Stanley style.
“What should I do?” I tried pushing the piece of debris off dad’s legs, but that just made him yelp again.
Dad shook his head.
“Not this. You’re going to sever my legs from my body if you try to push it off, and this piece of debris is huge. I doubt even I can make it budge.”
I groaned in frustration.
“Then what am I supposed to do? Sit here with you until the building collapses?”
Dad sighed, his breath rattling. It sounded so much like. . . no. I don’t want to make that comparison.
But dad’s breathing right now sounded so much like mom’s in the hospital. The same rattling inhale, and the same long pause, like you’re finding your strength to continue breathing. Then, the same exhale in sharp bursts.
It was too similar.
We sat in silence for a while. I lost track of time. The alarms and sprinklers were still on, but they seemed to fade into the background. It was a miracle this area was somehow untouched by the fire and destruction. Well, mostly. That stupid piece of debris is still here.
“That’s not the only thing you can do,” dad assured me at last. “You can go get help, if you’re careful.”
I laughed, despite how serious the situation was. My laughter sounded harsh and old, like the laugh of a centuries-old villain.
“I can barely walk over my cousin's Lego set without crushing them and hurting my toes. How can I walk through a building in the process of collapsing?”
Dad smiled slightly.
“You can do it. Go get help. Surely there’s people that are alive.”
I stood up, and I breathed slowly. In and out. I coughed as I inhaled smoke.
The fire is spreading toward here, I realized. I had to be quick before the fire reached dad. Get help without dying.
Just as I was about to walk away, a part of the floor crumbled underneath us. I grabbed for part of the floor that hadn’t crumbled, dangling over the edge. Thankful that I didn’t fall, I tried to reach toward dad, not caring that I probably couldn’t support him.
But I was too late.
Dad fell, spiraling towards the ground. Far, far below.
“Solita!” he shouted, as he plummeted down.
“Dad!” I screamed back. But I doubted he could hear me.
He couldn’t hear me.
I couldn’t save him.
I wept, the tears streaming down my face like the Victoria Falls. I felt my body shake from grief, almost causing me to fall below and meet the same fate as dad. Dad was gone. I was alone in the world.
As I cried for who knows how long, I noticed something. Smelled something.
Smoke. It smelled so much stronger than before. The smell singed my nose hairs. My eyes welled with more tears from it.
Then, I saw the fire. Burning through the last of the floor. Making its way towards the ledge I was holding. The ledge that was keeping me from falling.
It was five feet away.
The ledge burned. My hand felt like it was dipped in lava. I cried out in pain.
But that was the least of my worries.
I plunged towards the ground. Falling, falling, falling.