What’s the family password again?
I won’t tell you our family password. It’s a necessary secret, known only to blood relatives. My daughter, Nine, sometimes forgets and needs to be reminded. The rule is that if we have to use it just one time, it’ll be changed. Nine was a baby when we developed the password and we haven’t had to use it yet. That feels like a combination of luck and hard work.
I can tell you why we have a family password. October 2002. Nine wasn’t even six months old; Twelve was just past Three. He was at preschool, staying for the first time for lunch bunch, a program that extended his day until two p.m. with lunch and activities. Fall in Bethesda, MD. The baby and I had been enjoying our extra time together, out running errands in the brilliant sunshine before zooming home for her nap. While she slept I logged on to my computer. A message posted to an editing list puzzled me. It was a single line: “Does anybody know why the schools are in Code Blue?”
The message was time-stamped 12:14 p.m., fourteen minutes after I would have usually picked up my son. Now it was 12:30, and I was already jonesing for him. I didn’t know what it meant for the schools to be in Code Blue and called the preschool. The phone rang and rang and rang. I hung up and called back. Now the line toned busy as it would each time I tried in succession. I searched online and found out Code Blue meant that Maryland schools were in “lockdown,” all students counted and attended, the doors locked. Even parents might not be allowed in.
Just a year earlier my city, our country, this world had been irrevocably scarred by the events of September 11th. My memories of that Tuesday also revolve around my young child and his school. I had been walking on my treadmill, knowingly two days pregnant with Nine, watching a morning news program, when the first plane hit in New York. I found my mother inside the house and we turned on the television. In those moments, before anyone really knew, the reports were the plane was small. I phoned Roger at the FAA. It was a quiet day there and he didn’t yet know. The next time we spoke he would be watching the expanding coverage with a group of people on his downtown DC building’s tenth floor. The time after that, he would be standing on the Fourteenth Street Bridge, watching the smoke from the Pentagon. After that there was no cell service for hours. It would be more than three hours later, before we would hear from him again, know that he was safe and on his way home.
Meanwhile, not sure what else to do, my mother and I put Twelve—on that day nearing Two and a Half—in his stroller and took him to his first day sneak peek at preschool. His teachers hadn’t heard the news—they had been in their classrooms preparing all morning. Using quiet voices we parents clustered around each other, trying to keep the day as normal as possible for our children and exchanging what we knew. After the half-hour preview was up, we fled for home.
For the rest of the day we watched in horror as rumors were untangled from fact. The neighbors straggled home. Commercial airplanes didn’t fly over DC for days, although a network of military planes crisscrossed the skies constantly. It would be some time before any of us truly understood what had happened or the lasting effects such devastation would leave. For my family, it was the first glimmer that perhaps a life in the greater DC area could be fraught against the responsibilities of raising a young family.
The second awakening was that Code Blue day. Roger was traveling for work, twenty-two days out of October’s thirty-one. My mother was in California, gone for about three months. I was alone in a city that shut down because of a crazy man with a gun, a sniper who held the entire metropolitan area captive for the month of October; his rampaging journey coming, on the day of the first Code Blue, little more than two miles from my house.
October is a beautiful month in Bethesda. We spent it using the car to drive the short distance to preschool, to duck into the underground garage under the Safeway, to indoor play centers. The children did not play outside. The schools stayed in Code Blue the entire month, canceling field trips and holding no outdoor recesses or sporting events. At our neighborhood street festival, the police positioned armed officers on the rooftops, their rifle scopes scanning the crowds. We didn’t go play at the park and sometimes didn’t even venture into the back yard.
After September 11th, I had packed a go-bag. A blue backpack, it held water and diapers and wipes, money and duct tape and toiletries and tools and snack bars. After the sniper we formed an evacuation plan: where we would go, what we would do, how we would transmit messages if we couldn’t get through to one another. And we agreed upon a password—a word that only we knew, a word that would make it okay for the children to be picked up by someone they weren’t expecting in the awful event one of their parents couldn’t get to them.
Every time I opened the coat closet, I saw that bag and it made me pause. At last the sniper and his companion were apprehended; we resumed walking to school, playing outside, and enjoying open-air festivals, but with more caution than before. Eventually, when we did move away from the city so dear to my heart; we had a thousand other good reasons, but I unpacked the go-bag and sold it in our yard sale and that was a relief. As parents, we can hover, cajole, admonish, cuddle, teach, feed, care for, and never, ever stop loving our children, but there are a thousand, million threats, seen and unseen, about which we can do nothing. So we love them hard, hold them as tight as they’ll allow, and hope like hell nothing bad happens. The password, though, is still a good idea. And so I ask Nine and Twelve on occasion what it is. And I hope—especially this weekend as we remember how vulnerable we are—that we will never, ever have cause to use it.
Finding hope in the wondrous full September moon (9/12), sometimes called the Corn Moon, and sending love, xoR