Sixteen years ago, the question that everyone asked each other in the latter half of September was “Where were you when the 9/11 attack happened?” Most people I knew were at work. My friend Brent was camping off grid somewhere, out of cell phone range, I can’t remember where. It was days before he returned to the world before he actually learned the attacks even occurred.

I saw it happen on TV. Then I turned the TV off and went back about my business. I tried to make like I hadn’t seen the second plane hit. I had things to do. I didn’t have the bandwidth to think about stuff that was going on elsewhere in the world.

It sounds terrible of me to say that, doesn’t it? If I can explain, then you’ll understand. In the fall of 2001 my mother’s cancer had spread. It started in her lungs, which was ridiculous because she wasn’t a smoker. Sure, I think she had a cigarette here and there back in her youth, back before we all knew they were bad for us. My dad smoked like crazy, there was always a blueish smoke cloud around his head when I was very young. But then he up and stopped when I was 6. But Mom didn’t smoke like that. And I still wish someone could tell me the precise cause of it in her.

The cancer cells escaped, despite the aggressive chemo they injected into her to annihilate them, despite the radiation burned onto her skin. They escaped and migrated to her spine. They settled there and formed more tumors. The tumors grew to the point where her spinal cord could no longer send instructions through to her legs. Her legs grew numb until the point where she could no longer use them. They flat out refused to respond to anything she or any of us told them.

That happened around Labor Day. My sisters and I dropped our lives and came home to care for her in shifts. I lived just south of Boston at the time. I worked in the city, I was in graduate school at night. I only went to work on Thursdays and Fridays for six weeks. It was a formality. I wasn’t getting any work done, it was just another location where I’d sit and agonize over my mother’s condition. Chris, my sister, lived in Western Connecticut. She had three small children, the youngest was 3. Margaret, the oldest sister, lived in Tucson and came for a few weeks at a time. She went home to see her daughter, 4, and then came back to Mom and Dad’s house in Connecticut.

Every day we took Mom to radiation at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford. Margaret is a nurse, so she was the one who made sure we were fitted out to properly care for Mom at home. She didn’t want to be in a hospital. Marg got a rented hospital bed, managed to get a visiting nurse to bring supplies, stocked us up with bandages, and all the stuff we’d need to care for Mom. We bathed her. We washed her hair. We changed her clothes, her bedding. I begged her legs to work. They refused. I aggressively doped her food with protein powder, convinced I’d get her muscles strong again.

It was a Tuesday morning. Perfect blue sky, not a cloud in sight. It was a hair washing day, which meant bathing and dressing would take longer. My sisters and I all hated the idea that Mom would be humiliated at us having to bathe and dress her. We usually turned on the TV to distract her. But we all knew it wasn’t actually distracting her at all. We tried not to talk about it, to not make it a thing. Get in, get out. Margaret and I were there that Tuesday morning. She was sitting on the edge of the bed facing the TV when I came in. Her hand was over her mouth.

“Ready?” I asked. “We have to pick up Dad at work on the way, we gotta get moving to get her to radiation on time.”

Margaret didn’t answer.

“Marg?” I asked. She was staring at the TV. I turned to look, and there it was. Smoke was gushing out of one of the Twin Towers on TV. “What’s happening?” I asked and sat beside her.

“I don’t know,” she replied. We watched in silence. Was it an office that had somehow caught fire on one of the floors, and the fire spread? It was a pretty big fire to have spread to all those floors and cause all that smoke.

Then it happened.

The other plane effortlessly flew right into the other tower. It made me think of a knife slicing through soft butter.

“Did I just see what I think I saw?” I asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said again. We sat there for a few more minutes not sure what to make of it.

But then it was like we had decided we didn’t have time to worry about who was flying planes into buildings. Mom needed a bath. Mom needed to get some clothes on. We had to lift her into a wheel chair then take her down the hallway, down the two steps into the living room then through the kitchen. Then we had to take her down three more steps into the garage. Then we had to hoist her and secure her into the front seat of her car. Her car. Her Olds Bravada SUV. She loved that car. Mom loved to drive. I would run back into the house to get the travel oxygen kit and help her put it onto her face. After that we’d need to drive to my Dad’s shop, and we’d all make the half hour drive to Hartford. Just so we could do it all in reverse. Get her out of the car, into the chair, into the radiation place, then all over again. We did this every day.

By the time we got to the shop, my brother Kaz came running out. One of the towers had fallen. “They’re saying on TV to avoid Hartford,” he warned us.

“But what about her radiation?” I asked Margaret. She was the nurse. What would happen if she missed one? Margaret shrugged.

At this point we didn’t know how widespread the attacks would be. We knew both towers had been hit, and the Pentagon. But what about other cities? I worked in Cambridge, right across the river from Boston. Would Boston get hit? Hartford? The White House? The Capitol? We simply did not know.

And all I could really process was that Mom would miss radiation. Would her cancer cells rise up and attack if they weren’t nuked for one day? I was convinced they would. We drove home and I ground my teeth. We watched the coverage on CNN for the rest of the day. We repeatedly watched the footage of the second plane hit, and the buildings collapsing over and over and over again. We wanted answers. I considered heading to the Red Cross to donate blood, but I didn’t want to leave.

Mom drank a Mike’s lemonade that day. She wasn’t supposed to drink. But watching that footage over and over was reason enough to break the rules. I watched, expecting the likes of Bruce Willis to climb over the wreckage and save the day like he would in a movie. He didn’t. Nobody did.

She died only a few weeks later, on October 4th. And to this day I hate that one of the last things she had witnessed was the 9/11 attack. And after it sunk in, I hate that we all had to witness it.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.