A family birthday is usually an intimate event, especially as children get older and party hats and party themes give way to quiet family celebrations.
Ten years ago our youngest daughter Brittany had just started her freshman year at UVM and we planned to surprise her with a home cooked meal at her sister Kate’s apartment in Burlington, VT. It was a Tuesday, a workday. Michael and I had prepared Britt’s favorite foods over the weekend and our plan was to drive up the interstate and return early the next morning. It would be almost three hours each way. Tiring, but totally doable for our baby.
That morning at Green Street School in Brattleboro, I walked my fourth grade class to an early morning special. After I dropped them off someone told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I went to the school library and watched clips of a plane hitting the first tower. It was difficult to watch, imagining what it must have been like to be on the plane or in the building. What a horrific accident. After spending sometime with my colleagues, I returned to the classroom and prepared for the rest of the day. On my way back, I ducked into the library to catch the latest update just in time to witness another plane crashing into the second tower. It was clear to all that we were under attack. Our lives where changed in that moment. Stunned, but maintaining an air of calm, I picked up my students and carried on. I do not remember many details after that. I think that sometime in the afternoon the principal made a measured public announcement about the events and that there was a moment of silence for those who lost their lives that day. Our concern was always to make sure the children felt safe. It was a particularly quiet dismissal.
Michael and I communicated throughout the day and grappled with the decision of whether to continue or abandon our planned celebration of Britt’s 19th birthday. In the end, we decided that we wanted to be together as a family and that an act of evil perpetrated on our country was not going to change our lives. Michael and I met at home and drove to Burlington listening to NPR. I remember a sense of relief that our news was auditory and not visual.
When we arrived at Kate’s apartment her roommates, many who had ties to the NYC area, were still trying to connect with loved ones to make sure that everyone was okay. The phone system was jammed but by early evening, I think all the girls felt comfortable that their immediate families were safe.
As birthday celebrations go, it was subdued. The meal was shared but of course discussion centered on the day’s events. Many details of the evening are unclear to me. I think we may have brought a seasonal apple pie, a Wagner-Friel family tradition, or poppy seed cake. I’m not certain. But what I will never forget and makes me emotional to this very day was the girls’ incredibly beautiful, somber, even patriotic rendition of “Happy Birthday.” These young women had sung together for years in UVM’s a Capella group, The Cats’ Meow. Singing was a tie that bound them together as family and I will be forever grateful to them for the memory.
Happy Birthday, Brittany. May you have many, many more.