I remember driving back from Texas a few days after September 11. I looked up, out the window of the borrowed car we had been given to return to Southern California which was ‘home.’ The sky looked almost too-blue and eerily-vacant without any planes passing over when I thought to myself, “I should have been writing about this.” But the truth was I didn’t. I couldn’t. Not for a year — or maybe it was two — after. I couldn’t write about it because some things are too sacred to try to put into words when you’re in the moment of them. And reducing such epic events into phrases can feel like you’re marginalizing something that shouldn’t really be made small enough to contain in words.
When I did finally write about it, it was partly for a tribute and partly because more of the bigger story had unfolded for me.
Almost every year since, I sit down feeling torn about writing the account again — for fear of boring someone who already knows the tale or for fear of having feelings that run deeper than I want to go. For fear of making something so complicated and controversial sound trite. For fear of sounding arrogant about still being here when so many aren’t because of what happened that day.
I get tempted to just go back to the blog from a year ago to copy and paste so that I can feel I’ve accomplished the task, without feeling the pain.
None of those feelings or fears serve me or the story so, here I go…
I wasn’t supposed to be flying into El Paso, Texas on September 9, 2001 but I was. Originally, I was supposed to be flying into New York on September 11 for a conference starting on the 13th.
“Stacey?” It was Peter, my conference leader calling in July, “I need to switch you from Manhattan to El Paso in September. One of the team from England has seniority and is bringing his family out for holiday to New York. He requested this one.”
He was being matter-of-fact.
I was being not-thrilled. “Peter. I’ll switch any other conference except NYC. He can have Hawaii in January if he wants…” I had been to Hawaii in January already this year and been invited back for the next. I really wanted New York.
There were all these plans in place: I had all the other North East conferences that I was singing and speaking at from September to mid-October so, I was just going to stay out the whole month. Rock and I were planning on visiting my family, seeing my friends, visiting all the schools I grew up going to and most importantly, we were going to eat our weight in cannolis and sausage with pepper sandwiches in Little Italy for San Genarro’s 10-day Feast. I had plans. And they didn’t include El Paso, Texas.
There were no cannolis in El Paso, Texas.
“I’m sorry, Stacey.” Peter was from Massachusettes somewhere and his North Eastern accent made me think of lobster rolls in Faneuil Hall and felt like salt in the wound, “You’ll be out there after El Paso and all the other conferences are yours.”
I got the sense this was not negotiable.
“Okay, Peter. I’ll talk to you soon. Thanks.” I said, hanging up and feeling foolish like when you say, “Thanks” to the police officer who just handed you a ticket.
Rocky walked in the room as I hung up. My hand was still on the phone. I told him. My mild-mannered husband started getting into it, “Really? Come ON, Sta. Put your ‘Italian’ on and push for it. This isn’t like you…” I went to pick up the receiver on our retro phone and something inside me said, “Don’t.”
I shook my head. “I’m not supposed to Rock. I feel like something is staying my hand.”
(Yes. I really talk like that. Have since I was a kid. I read too many books so I blame it on that.)
But a lot of weird things were happening lately.
Like a few weeks after that call, Rock and I were up in Portland waiting for a flight to come back to Orange County. I stood, watching the planes, feeling satisfied after a conference well-done in Spokane, WA. We had gotten off the small jet and were stretching our legs before our next flight back home. I moved closer to the window and touched it. I turned to my husband, “There’s going to be a tragedy in the air in America.” I said over and over again, like I was reading from a ticker tape, “There’s going to be a tragedy in the air in America. It’s going to be horrible.” My husband turned and stared at me, “How do you know?” I shook my head, “I don’t know. I just know.” I shook my head again and turned to him, “It’s going to be terrible.”
We got on the plane, held hands and soberly leaned our heads toward each other to pray a quiet prayer of protection and angels to surround us. Rock squeezed my hand so tightly, it woke me out of my prayer, I opened my eyes, “Ouch. What?”
“What did you just say?” He asked, more than concerned.
“I have no idea. What did I say?” I tried rubbed my hand where he was still squeezing it. I genuinely had no clue.
“You just prayed against a ‘spirit of terrorism.’ What are you talking about?” He was serious and wouldn’t let go of my hand.
I had no idea what he was talking about. Terrorism wasn’t a word in the forefront of our minds in the US and definitely not in mine since my best recollections had to do with hijackings in the late 70’s and 80’s which always seemed to be in another country (which might as well have been on another planet to me, since I was only a kid at the time.) Terrorism was not a common household word so for it to be coming out of my mouth during our routine little prayer (which I didn’t even remember saying, even while I was saying it) was pretty strange.
We flew back, holding hands and being unusually sober and quiet during that 2 1/2 hour flight.
We moved on with life and seemed to forget that odd happening. We had a lot going on. Not only were we performing a lot but we were preparing for a month away from home. But before we left, we had a big appointment.
It was my yearly physical with my girly doctor. Rock and I were trying to get pregnant. We had spent the better part of our 12 years married, a perfectly content childless couple. We had gotten married young and traveled a bunch with our music and speaking. We had also gone through some really challenging times that most marriages don’t make it through. We always counted it a blessing that the doctors had said I could never have kids. If we had kids through some of those shaky times, we may have messed with more lives than our own. We felt grateful for our non-kid status.
But we had been in Hawaii 10 months before in January of 2001 for a conference. After the first full 14-hour day, I went to bed and had a vivid dream. A dream where I was holding a child…a baby. A baby so ugly that I couldn’t even tell the gender but the thing was this: I felt the most intense love I had ever felt. I woke up from the dream with tears in my eyes and said, “God, I don’t know if you’re telling me that I’m going to have a kid or if you’re telling me you love me this much in my ugliness, but whatever it is, please don’t let me ever forget this love.”
Two days later, my friend Rebecca and her family joined us in Hawaii. We were hiking the waterfalls and she turned to me, “Stacey! I had a dream two nights ago you were having a baby!” I said, “Oh my gosh, Rebecca. I had a dream two nights ago that I was holding my baby!” Amazing moment.
A few days later we were at Eggs and Things in Honolulu eating the scrummiest, yummiest macademia nut pancakes with guava syrup. There was a woman sitting a few tables away. She looked so pleasant and was likely in her early 50’s and was likely sleeping in pin curls by the look of her hair short, dated looking pin-curly hair. Her twenty-something year-old daughter looked like a picklepuss and had comically large blonde hair. It’s not that she wasn’t cute, it’s just that it was hard to tell because she wasn’t smiling and with the combo of her tiny face and her huge hair it made her look severe. Like she was an unhappy caricature of herself. I turned to Rock who was looking over the bill, “I think I’m supposed to talk to that lady over there.” The mom and daughter were getting up to leave. He looked at me in that dry way he does when he’s playing the part of Ricky Ricardo because he thinks I’m acting like Lucy.
“You don’t know her. Do you…” It was a rhetorical question. I shook my head. He said, “I’ll pay the bill and meet you out front.” He was used to me being weird. I was used to him loving me despite all that.
I stalked the woman out to the front of the restaurant and tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around with a pleasant, curious look on her face. “Ummm….excuse me. I feel like I’m supposed to meet you. My name is Stacey and I do music and give talks around the country. Who are you?” She smiled a big smile and spoke with an even bigger accent, “Well, hi! I’m Pat and I’m a pastor’s wife from Texas!”
I tilted my head and said something that I had not thought for one second prior, “I think you’re supposed to pray for me.” The words surprised me as I said them.
We’ll darling Pat didn’t pray for me but Ms. Picklepuss with the big blonde Texas hair and shoulder pads slightly smaller than a football player would wear, lifted her arms high in the air and said at the top of her lungs, “DEAR LORD JESUS! WE LOVE YOU SOOOOOOO MUCH!” And that’s when I couldn’t hear anything else because I started praying inside my head, “Dear God, I am SO not embarrassed by you but please — lower her volume.”
People were walking by in front of the busy restaurant. Cars were passing by. My husband walked up with his eyes bugging out and boring a hole in the side of my head in that, “WHAT have you gotten us into THIS TIME, Lucy.” kind of way. I couldn’t even look at him.
Then, the gal lowered her hands to my stomach and she said in a much softer, much sweeter voice, “And Lord we thank you, for this child….no. For these children you’re going to give her. We thank you now.”
Rock and I looked at each other. I had never mentioned anything about children. I hadn’t mentioned the dream. Or the hike in the waterfalls with Rebecca. Three times in just a few days we were getting the “You’re going to have a kid” message.
When we came back home to California, I started getting the strangest phone calls from my girlfriends, “Stacey! I had a dream you were one month pregnant!”
In February, another friend, “Stacey! I had a dream you were two months pregnant!”
In March, yet another friend, “Stacey! I had a dream you were three months pregnant.”
I turned to Rock one day and said, ‘I wonder if I’m pregnant with being pregnant…Like in 9 months…” I did the math, “…like in September, I’m going to finally, actually be pregnant.”
We had decided to go to a healing center — a place that dealt with spiritual roots to physical disease. It was a two-week course that dealt with Unforgiveness, Bitterness, Resentment, Anxiety, Anger, Fear and stuff like that. The doctors had said for years that I would never have kids because of all my health stuff. My dreams were telling me something different. I decided to explore the ‘why’ behind it. I’m someone who likes to shine the flashlight down the dark corridors of my life to see if there’s something there I’m just not seeing.
On the day the workshop leaders were talking about ‘Bitterness’ they said, “We’ve noted that in 20 years of doing this, if you have breast cysts, breast cancer, ovarian cysts, ovarian cancer, infertility…” Ding. Ding. Ding. I was paying attention, “…then it’s usually because of a conflict with another woman.”
Oh good. I get to look at all my female relationships in my Italian family where it’s one bossy grudge-holding, Italian woman after another…where most of the men die out early, probably to get away from all the crazy women who cook amazing food but make Teresa Guidice seem ‘normal.’
So, I made my list in my hotel room that night. All the women, dead or alive that I might have some issue with. I had already done a lot of inner work about family stuff years ago so, I really didn’t have anything that stood out. After a few hours of introspection and meditation, I just prayed, “God, give me wisdom…” and went to sleep.
The next morning, I pulled aside one of the women leaders and said, “Donna. Could it be me? Could I be the woman I have an issue with? Because you know, I hear that God loves me and all that stuff and I believe it for everyone else — but not for me. It’s like I’m visiting myself in prison: I can see me through the glass window but I can’t touch me. I don’t feel God’s love.” She nodded, “Of course, Stacey. It can be ‘you’ in conflict with you.” She prayed a simple prayer and that was it.
I went back to California that March feeling like something had changed. I continued traveling with Rock that Spring and Summer and while I knew something was different in me, I wasn’t sure if was the difference that was going to bring that dream baby to life. I just kept following my heart and living my life.
And so, at my yearly appointment with my doctor-friend Stephanie that September 4th, I was eager to hear what she thought. She walked in and broke the news. “You’re not pregnant, honey. I’m sorry.” Stephanie sat down on her little rolling chair, “Look. This has been a lot of years for you guys. Things aren’t changing and you’re in your thirties.” She took her prescription pad and a business card from her pocket, “I want you to call this doctor. He specializes in infertility. This just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen without medical intervention.” She scribbled on the pad, “I want you to start taking this to help you ovulate.” And she handed me a bag, “And here are a bunch of pre-natal vitamins to start taking.” I took the items from her and rested them on the table behind me. She patted me on the knee with such love and compassion and kissed me on the cheek, “Get dressed, honey. I’ll meet you out front.”
Rock and I were both quiet while I dressed, left the room and paid the bill. We didn’t talk until I stopped him in the parking lot. I touched his arm, “Rocky. I don’t want to do it this way. I don’t want to stand on my head to have a kid. I don’t want to put all that stress on our marriage and our sex life and I don’t want to turn our bedroom into a science experiment.” That was fine for others but it wasn’t peace to me. I handed him the bag of stuff and the card with the prescription, “If God wants us to have a baby, we’ll have a baby…”
We went home and had a lot to do so we set the baby conversation aside — we had a huge concert we were playing that weekend, with rehearsals every night and then our flight out to the illustrious (cough, cough) El Paso, Texas in five days. I didn’t have time to think about a baby or anything else…
I looked out the plane window as we were flying over New Mexico. The sun was setting but I felt a different, deeper darkness come over me and felt so unsettled, “I’ll have a Bloody Mary, please.” I told the flight attendant. I almost never drank when we flew because I was a germ freak and hated public restrooms. Plane bathrooms were sort of a flying cross between an outhouse and a port-o-potty, neither of which were on my list of ideal destinations for my rearend. But that night, I felt so wonky, I had not one, but two drinks.
I felt weird on the flight.
I felt weird landing in Texas.
I felt so weird the next morning that I said to my husband, “I’m fasting today. I need to fast from food for some spiritual reason. I don’t know what it is but I’m so upset, and I don’t know why.”
We did the conference that day. Everyone was off. No one was usually off at the conferences. It was weird.
That night, middle of the night, I woke up at 2 a.m. West Texas time. I was writhing — not in physical pain but more like this angst I couldn’t explain. It was excruciating and frustrating. I couldn’t stop flipping and flopping and thinking and yet, I had no direction about what was bothering me. At around 4 a.m. I just prayed, “Enough already. I have GOT to go to sleep. I have such a huge day.” I was pissed. I finally fell asleep.
Two hours later, the alarm went off at 6. (TMI warning) Rock and i connected and after we made love I heard my voice inside my head say, “I think I just got pregnant.” I shared that with my husband. We looked at the clock and realized there was no time for our routine of turning on the morning news. We just had to jump in the shower, get ready, grab my guitar and music and head down to the lobby where the van would be waiting to transport us.
The elevator doors opened and instead of hearing the chatter and clanking forks echo off the tile floors in the foyer, the lobby was filled with people gasping, staring, crying and in shock. We all stood and watched in disbelief as the second plane flew into the second tower.
I don’t understand all that happened on that fateful day. I don’t pretend to know why. I just know that this is my story and the way that I remember it happened.
There was a sense that there was going to be a tragedy in the air in America.
There was some kind of message about terrorism that was given.
There was a rerouting from NY to El Paso.
There was a little Caleb who was indeed conceived that day, September 11, 2001. And within two years after he was born, our youngest son, Seth arrived on the scene.
So, yes, the picklepuss with big blonde hair and a big loud prayer in front of the restaurant with the macadamia pancakes was right.
And yes, holding those babies in my arms and my heart is still the biggest love I’ve ever known.
So tonight, after writing out 3500+ words after promising myself I would make it ‘short’ (God, what would it have been like if I was trying to make it long???) I am going to head to bed in that mix of bittersweet, somber, saddened, yet deeply grateful, humbled way. Lives were lost. Lives were gained. And so much more that words can’t hold. Or at least, not words I can find at this moment. It’s a sacred mystery which requires more reverence than it does explanation.
I do want to acknowledge a beautiful family friend who died in 9/11: Fr. Mychal Judge. He was our priest growing up in New Jersey who had spent many a meal at our home and who left our parish to become the beloved chaplain for the NYFD. He was a force of love in this world and his love touched our lives. The infamous picture from Time Magazine showed him being carried out by five firemen. We honor your life and the lives of those lost on that tragic day. Thank you for leaving a legacy of love in the world and for leaving the world a warmer place by your presence being here.
We may not be able to understand it all
and we may not be able to find the most fitting words
but we promise to never forget.
— Stacey Robbins