It shocked me last week when historical footage of Sept. 11, 2001, suddenly looked … well, historical.

Eleven years ago, I thought that day never would age, that the film wouldn’t turn grainy and reflective of a decade’s worth of technological improvements in clarity, color and sound. Yet, as I watched History Channel documentaries on the eleventh anniversary, the archived media reports seemed, all at once, from a different time.

Has it really been eleven years?

What surprised me even more, however, was having a conversation about 9/11 with my almost 12-year-old son, Ford, who had been just a baby when the World Trade Center collapsed. Back then, I was feeding him mashed sweet potatoes and singing “Happy Birthday” to our family dog, Tanner, when my mom called and told me to turn on the news.

Dustin was on his first deployment onboard USS Enterprise, and he had been gone for five months already. At last report, the ship had turned around and was beginning its transatlantic trip back to the United States. Dustin was due home for my birthday in October. We were in the home stretch.

But when I turned on the news that morning and saw the towers collapse, I knew: the USS Enterprise wasn’t coming home anytime soon.

It was a selfish thought. Yet, even though I was thousands of miles away from New York City on the morning of 9/11, I (and other military spouses everywhere) knew what was unfolding on television would affect our military life in innumerable ways.

Ford chewed on his rubber baby spoon and gurgled while Tanner’s toe nails clicked on the linoleum kitchen floor. The neighborhood soon filed with husbands and wives rushing home to one another and racing to pick up their children from school. Ford and I were alone.

I reflected on this with him while I drove him to school last Wednesday. He told me that he had gotten up at 5 a.m. and watched a documentary about 9/11 on television. My first thought: Who gets up at 5 a.m.? My second thought: My kid is old enough to watch the History Channel … voluntarily?

“And what did you think?” I asked him.

“It’s weird that all of it happened when I was a baby,” he said. And, “When did Dad finally come home again?”

My mind rushed back to those first few days in September 2001, when emails to Dustin weren’t going through, and I hadn’t yet heard from him. The commanding officer’s wife confirmed that the ship had turned back around and was no longer headed home.

“Do you know when they’ll come home?” we asked.

“No, not yet.”

“Are they safe?”


“When will email work again?”

“I don’t know.”

There were so many unanswerable questions, and although Dustin ended up coming home before Thanksgiving, those extra six weeks of waiting and wondering, left without the all-important homecoming date, felt like an eternity.

On my birthday that year — what would have been the original homecoming date — our military spouse group got together at one of the wives’ houses. It was Ford’s 11- month “birthday.” At some point during the potluck dinner, Ford pulled himself up to stand next to a coffee table. His bottle hung from his mouth. When he smiled at me, the bottle fell. And the next thing I knew, he started to take his first step.

About 20 military wives stuck out their leg to stop him. “Oh no!” they screamed. “Wait for your Dad!”

But Ford couldn’t wait. He was a full-fledged walker by the time Dustin came home.

I got a little emotional as I told Ford about this. The car grew quiet. And then, before we pulled up to Ford’s school, he said, “Um, Mom, why were you so crazy about my first step and Dad not seeing it? That’s kind of weird. I mean, who cares about a first step?”

As I drove back home, I laughed to myself. Ford was right. It had once seemed so unfair that Dustin had missed his son’s first step. We get kind of jammed up about those things when it’s our first baby, don’t we? The first tooth, first step, first word. In hindsight, it has never really mattered that Dustin didn’t see Ford’s first step, especially when I consider all of the 9/11 babies who never even saw their fathers.

But, of course, it’s all relative. And that night, as I was going to sleep and thinking about the conversation with Ford, I’ll admit I was a little sad. I was sad that, once again, Dustin had missed something: our preteen son doing his best to sort out a world that had already changed before he had even learned to walk.

NAVY WIFE Sarah Smiley is the author of Shore Duty, a syndicated newspaper column that reaches more than 2 million readers weekly, and of the memoir “Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife” and a collection of essays titled “I’m Just Saying …” For more information visit

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