View from the Hill

Sunday, Sept. 9, was an ordinary day, like any other day of the month. But “ordinary” does not describe my experience as I boarded a United Airlines plane in Wichita, bound for Chicago and Washington, D.C.

I did not want to get on the plane that morning. I knew what awaited me in the bustling suburb of Falls Church, Va., at the Inova Fairfax Regional Hospital. My daughter, Jessica, was scheduled for brain surgery at precisely 7:15 a.m., Sept. 11.

As the Boeing 737 accelerated for takeoff, pushing me back into the seat, the fear of the unknown, the dread that I forced from my mind many times before, suddenly invaded with a vengeance. I could not hold it back any longer. The reality of what lay ahead, the uncertainty of the surgery’s outcome hit me head on.

Some things simply demand our attention, whether we like it or not. But how we succumb to the overwhelming force is up to us. I decided to focus on one day at a time-what to do, where to go, what decisions needed to be made upon landing, such as finding my ride at the Dulles Airport.

But no matter how determined I was to limit my thoughts to the immediate day, I had moments when I wondered if the next goodbyes Jessica and I would exchange in the next two days would be our last, or if she and I would be confronted with a different and unwanted reality.

I could not ignore the unthinkable.

Once airborne, the flight to Chicago was actually a comforting experience. We flew due north on a flight path that took us west of Newton and then east in a wide arc that brought us just south of Hillsboro. I could see familiar landmarks. Reno and Edith Penner’s farmstead came into view on the 13-mile road. I was sitting on the right side of the aircraft, unable to see Hillsboro on my left.

Worship services were being held at Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren church as we flew by. I silently gazed over the landscape, aware that prayers were being offered by many close friends. I was not alone.

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, the long-awaited drama unfolded as the surgical team began the delicate work of removing the tumor that had been her silent companion for most of her young life.

Barely an hour later, I called Deborah on the phone to report the progress. She informed me of the tragedy that had begun in New York City. The first plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.

I watched the rest of the drama unfold on television, not unlike any “normal” disaster movie I had seen. As cameras focused on the point of the first crash, another plane streaked across the viewfinder and crashed into the other tower.

Shortly afterward, the third hijacked plane crashed at the Pentagon, located about five miles away from our hospital. And, as if on cue, the two towers began their thunderous plunge to the ground.

The magnitude of the tragedy sunk in as an announcement came over the hospital public address system: “Your attention please. The external disaster plan is now in effect. I repeat-the external disaster plan is now in effect. All shifts of employees and medical personnel will report for immediate duty. All non-emergency surgeries have been canceled.”

Guards were posted at all entrances. Entry into the hospital was permitted only by hospital identification. If any nonessential civilian walked out the door, they could not return for the duration of the emergency.

Our small party of family members and friends became unofficial guests for as long as the emergency plan was in effect.

As the hospital geared up for a massive influx of casualties, I observed the activities with some concern. What about my daughter? Where is she? Is the surgery too far along to be postponed? I assumed the doctors were committed to continue once it began, but you know how parents are when unusual events occur which involve their children. They want to know for sure.

A call from the operating room came to the information desk, asking for me. I identified myself and heard the assurance I was seeking: “Mr. Penner, the doctor wanted to assure you the entire surgical team is committed to finishing the surgery. We are not going to stop for anything. Jessica is our only concern.”

That was comforting news.

My attention then focused on the unfolding catastrophe elsewhere. More than 6,000 lives snuffed out within minutes, crushed and ground to dust by an estimated two million tons of concrete and steel. Thousands more were injured, their lives seriously altered forever.

I can barely cope with the potential loss of one precious life at a time, even if the death was due to natural causes. But how does one comprehend the loss of thousands of lives due to an intentional act?

Jessica came through the surgery successfully and is progressing toward full recovery. And I am very grateful. A great burden has been lifted from my shoulders. The unthinkable did not happen. Our family is still complete.

But my heart goes out to the families of the victims who perished on that fateful Tuesday. The unthinkable did happen to them.

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