My 9-11 story began on the 405 Freeway. My greatest obsession for several months leading up to the big event was that damn SoCal freeway. Everything paled in comparison to the dreaded commute between Newport Beach and Anaheim. What if I went into labor during traffic hour?
God was merciful, my husband protective, and the baby content to stay put for a few hours after my water broke, so I was able to stall labor until traffic reports gave the “all clear.” Making great time, we sped north toward Kaiser hospital. It was then that I turned to the baby’s father at the wheel and said, “This child needs a name.”
“Mhmm… He was intent on getting his wife safely delivered.
“What are the choices again?” He asked.
I must have had a vice grip of a contraction right then and pulled a scary face.
“I like the name Spencer.” James said with finality.
The rest was a piece of cake. I was escorted into a comfortable room and given stylish attire, even if it was a bit breezy in back. It was time for baby business.
While rubbing the small of my back, James calmly told the nurse, “With our last child, Donna had titanic contractions.” For those who need to get a hospital staff’s attention, this will do the trick. It is the secret code for, “Turbo Delivery!” Doctors and nurses and janitors got all wide-eyed and started running helter-skelter.
A short while later, we were holding our beautiful boy, Erik Spencer Clay Wallace, handsomely named by his father. It was a perfect day.
Eight years we celebrated the gorgeous late summer day as “Spencer Day.” Our primary agenda was to wrap toys in bright paper and choose special breakfasts, make wishes and keep a little boy from amping up on sugar and party excitement. Each of these years were chock full of giggles and love and happiness. I have to look at photos to remember all the details.
It fell on a Tuesday that year. And every American remembers in precise detail exactly what he or she was doing on that fateful morning of Spencer’s 9th birthday.
On September 11, 2001, Spencer was still a little boy now living in Montana, yet old enough to be soaking up the expressions and responses of our community and country on his birthday…as well as his mother’s raw emotions. I struggled to remain calm and steady for him and his older sister when all I wanted to do was fly apart or cower and scream.
Instead of choosing which kind of sprinkles for the cupcakes and which games to play with my son’s buddies, it was a day dictated by news of what we did know and grew steadily more devastating by what we didn’t know: were our loved ones safe? What does this mean? How will we keep our children from being distraught by fear and too many vivid, horrifying images? How do we protect innocence? Is it lost forever?
Somehow we made it through a day of fragmented news broadcasts, phone calls, weeping and prayer. We went through the motions of a birthday celebration that was subdued and forced.
Twelve months later. September 11, 2002 awakened to a beautiful sunny morning with a cool touch of fall, but wrapped in dread. Somehow our nation had survived another year. Do we celebrate or grieve this day? Memories of hellish images and sorrow pressed into my forehead.
How was our nation, really? And how was I, the mommy, supposed to create something meaningful for my son so that he didn’t come to despise his birthday…and distrust humanity? My creativity and joy was running at an all time low. Life was hard that year.
I couldn’t do it alone, but we didn’t live near family and both James and I were working full time and extra jobs. We’d been forced to move due to our financial plans failing and our stock crashing after the attack. Wasn’t this America’s story now? Surely, if there was anything good that had come of this tragedy, it was that our nation knew we needed one another. Yes, in spite of evil done to us, together we were stronger and more resilient than ever, an inspiring and heart warming challenge on a good day, and pure unadulterated heartbreak on other days. September 11th was not merely a collage of images or a documentary for thousands of families and it wasn’t for me either at 7:00 a.m. that morning. Our life was not buried under tons of concrete and debris, but we still needed to make something of it. We had a boy with a birthday. I felt small and alone.
Hawthorne Elementary School, then led by the fearless Principal Marilyn Delger, a woman far more wise and more resourceful than I, would not settle for anything short of hosting an upbeat, respectful, celebration of our heroes—a way of bringing a far-away reality close and making it real for our kiddos.
With a vision spearheaded by Mrs. Delger and a team of teachers and parent volunteers, September 11th in Bozeman, MT would become a remarkable day. On this day, our kids would paint and sing and dance and drum about our love of home and country. Policemen, firemen and local heroes in attendance would be extoled for their bravery with presentations of red, white, and blue bouquets of carnations wrapped in ribbons and bows.
It was a day that began molding my son into the man he is today.
Kevin Wallace, Spencer’s fourth grade teacher was one of the few males in Bozeman’s elementary ed. He too was lauded a Hawthorne Hero and gifted with flowers and a hundred hugs around his knees. He bent down and placed his gentle hands on children’s heads and with a voice like warm buttered rum echoed back to them words spoken to him for being strong and fearless.
At the end of the celebration, I walked with Spenc to gather up his backpack and drum case. There in his miniature locker was the very same bouquet given to the man he most admired that year other than his own daddy—his teacher, Mr. Wallace—and with it a note that read: “Spenc, you are a hero.”
My little boy stood a little taller, his shoulders no longer slumped.
I wiped my wet cheeks on the sleeve of my hoodie, no longer alone.
Phenomenal stories of human kindness and courage abound here in the United States. Some are quiet and unseen, but acted and spoken… with intention and kindness… some are remembrances; some are blessings: the calling forth of the bravery and character in our young.
Never forget. Tell the story…and write a new one. We celebrate our many American heroes, old and new and those being born on this, America’s and Spencer’s Day.