The Distance Between Us

Written by Sherri Matthews

Sherri is a writer with work published in print magazines, anthologies and online. As a young British mum of three, she emigrated to California and stayed for twenty years. Today she lives in England's West Country, a full-time carer within her family. Her current WIP after completing her memoir is a psychological thriller.

September 7, 2021

Twenty years ago this Friday, I went out for a meal to celebrate my birthday with my family. My eighteen year old had graduated from high school that spring and was looking forward to starting college. My two other children had just started their new school year in 4th and 7th Grade.

We enjoyed a light-hearted and happy evening together.

The next morning the phone rang early. My default was oh no. A thud of dread. When you live in California and your relatives are in England, that ring at that hour will do that.

It was my mother-in-law calling from Los Angeles, panic high her voice.

‘Have you heard the news?’

‘No…’

‘Put CNN on, a plane’s crashed into the World Trade Centre.’

A what? Where? I’m not a morning person. Her words jumbled around my foggy brain.

It was a school morning, but with time to spare before rousing the children. I padded over to the living room, clicked the remote and turned on the TV.

Breaking news from New York flashed across the screen. A reporter was interviewing a firefighter, smoke and flames billowing in the distance. A plane had crashed into the North Tower. I barely had time to register this unimaginable disaster as what sounded like another plane in the background, the engine hum growing louder. It sounded low, too low. Something about it…something ominous. There, in full view on the screen, flying towards the South Tower.

My God, it’s going in…

One might be an accident. But two? Two is an attack.

My hands flew to my mouth. My audible gasp brought my children running. Their world, our world, forever changed. I sunk into the sofa, overcome by what next. And with wide-eyed horror we watched the unthinkable when one tower, then the other, collapsed.

The phone rang again. This time it was my mother calling to wish me a belated happy birthday, as arranged. It was afternoon in the UK, she had been out with a friend and hadn’t heard the news. I broke it to her.

Then I remembered; my brother worked for Virgin Airlines and was piloting a Boeing 747 from Gatwick in London to Orlando, Florida that day. Families with children heading excitedly to Disneyworld.

We figured he was probably half way there by then. Concern for his whereabouts and safety dominated our conversation.

We had no contact after that phone call for three days. Our phone lines and internet went down, I was cut off from them all.  All I could do was hope and pray that my brother, his crew, and passengers were all safe.

When communication was restored, he called me and relayed his story.

He got the call from air traffic control not to enter US airspace under any circumstances. He was not told why, only that he should divert to Canada. He gleaned from London what had happened, and factoring in the amount of fuel they had left, made the immediate decision to turn the plane around and fly back to Gatwick.

Nobody knew what other attacks might be forthcoming. His primary concern was to get everyone safely back home. And that’s exactly what he did.

Turn off satellite communications on board and keep everyone calm, he instructed the crew. If passengers got wind of what was going on in New York, they might panic. Children cried and parents demanded an explanation, but a riot was averted,

Once back on British soil, he gave an announcement to his passengers. Relief and gratitude swept over them. Their holidays at Disneyworld would have to wait. It wasn’t important right now.

But that day took its toll on my brother. I saw a change in him, after 9/11.

I emigrated from the UK to the US in 1986. For many years, handwritten letters were my main form of communication with my family. There were no international calling plans, the internet, emails and face-time. Twenty years since 9/11 and my experience is meagre in comparison to the incalculable carnage and tragedy suffered by too many. Yet, those three days cut off from my family not having any news of my brother is something I’ll never forget.

It is always the not knowing that is the worst, I find.

The two decades I lived in California seem fleeting now. That birthday dinner was long ago, yet my children remember it clearly because of the day after. We all live in the UK now.

To say I am grateful spending my upcoming birthday with them is an understatement.

Sherri’s non-fiction, flash fiction and poetry are published in magazines, anthologies and online at her blog. As a young mum of three, she emigrated from the UK to California and stayed for twenty years. Today she lives in England’s West Country with her family and two beautiful black kitties. Her 2021 entry to Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize was shortlisted and also received a special mention at Spread the Word Life Writing Prize. She is working hard to bring her debut memoir to publication.

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62 Comments

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thank you for reblogging!

  1. OIKOS™- Art, Books & more

    Thank you for sharing your experience on that terrible day in the past. It was so surreal, and now 20 years later we may not have gotten much further. Best wishes, Michael

    • Sherri Matthews

      Surreal for sure, and I too wonder if we can even begin to make some sense of it all, 20 years on and counting…
      Thank you, Michael, and best wishes to you.

      • OIKOS™- Art, Books & more

        Thats true. Now, as sad as it is, we have to deal with the evil again. ;-( Best wishes to you as well, Sherri! xx Michael

      • Sherri Matthews

        Thank you again, Michael, and the best to you! xx

      • OIKOS™- Art, Books & more

        Thank you as well, Sherri! Always a great pleasure to me. xx Michael

  2. beth

    What a powerful memory. I too remember fear for my family that day. My bother and his family in nyc and my daughter and her husband in Washington DC, and I couldn’t reach any of them for hours. I think no one will ever forget that day, each of us for our own reasons, and I count myself lucky that my family all survived as I know there were so many who did not.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Beth, thank you for sharing yours, too. That must have been truly frightening with your family so close to it all and no way of contacting them. Thank goodness they survived.

  3. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    I hadn’t given too much thought to all the rerouting of the many planes in the air at that time. Good call by your brother. It was a surreal day. We carried on at school but the staff meeting was cancelled. It was so quiet that afternoon, no planes and everyone hunkered at home. I was reminded of that in the early days of the pandemic, when the birds were the loudest noise.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thank you, Dee. I remember that too, the silence in the skies at the start of the pandemic and the loudness of the birds above it all…the first time since 9/11. Some things we can never forget…

      • Sherri Matthews

        Not at all! I expect he ended up stuck there for a few days, as many were.

  4. Jules

    We are lucky to know of a few who were working in the towers, but hadn’t gone in that day. So much loss. I was able to visit an incomplete memorial in NYC. The foot prints of the Twin Towers, that I had watch being built from an apartment window (from Jersey City, NJ) – were turned into fountains.

    I imaging the investigations are still ongoing. I used to live in Manhattan in the late 1960’s. I’ve been back since and just like everything else; change is the only constant.

    May we all continue to remember kindness and not to falsely judge many for the actions of a few. Thank you for sharing your memories. And for your upcoming birthday – may you continue to be blessed.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Oh my, that’s scary, Jules. So many if onlys… My eldest son and his partner visited Ground Zero many years later and described in detail the memorial, visibly moved by it. What an experience, watching it being built from your apartment. I can only imagine. I have only ever been to NY once, that one night in a Holiday Inn due to a plane stop-over. I hope to go one of these days. You are right, as my mother is fond of saying, change is here to stay 🙂 Thank you for your lovely message, and poignant reminder, we need all the kindness we can get in this mad, mad world of ours. Be blessed also, Jules.

  5. Sherri Matthews

    Reblogged this on A View From My Summerhouse and commented:

    Greetings, dear friends! Behind the scenes, I have been working furiously on the last of the memoir revisions. And they are done! More on this shortly. Meanwhile, it’s time again for Memoir Across The Pond with Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch. A personal reflection on 9/11, twenty years on. Keep safe, keep well, dear ones. Sherri <3

  6. denmaniacs4

    Thanks, Sherri…I have to say, twenty years can go by like…like that…a heartbeat of time.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Too true, Bill…scarily true….

  7. ohhhmyyygoodnesss

    Happy belated birthday again!! I’m just happy we are
    Having birthdays. Ha. I was just talking to Christine about 911. She said she doesn’t remember a thing. Patrick and Heather can tell you how I panicked though!! I can’t believe we all had to go to work and school that day like nothing happened. I remember you telling me about your brother’s flight and wasn’t he told if he entered US airspace, he would be shot down?!. And now the Taliban get to be in control again. We are not happy with our president over here. Not at all!!!

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thanks, Lyn. Too right, every birthday is a blessing, that’s for sure. Ha…yes, you’re right, he was told that! I’m guessing we met at school that morning and talked of nothing else. Those days seem so surreal now, all such a blur. And here we are, 20 years on…crazy crazy times.

      • ohhhmyyygoodnesss

        I guess I thought it was 9-11 when you posted your story. I realize now your birthday is Friday so I’m not late!! Have a great birthday!!

      • Sherri Matthews

        I meant to say in my reply that you weren’t late, and thank you, Lyn!!! Spending it with the kiddos, so I’m happy 🙂 I’ll be in touch and meanwhile, you and your beautiful family keep safe and well. And thanks so much for continuing to read my blog and here too at Carrot Ranch! Means a lot that… >3

  8. Sarah Brentyn

    It’s one of those things–we will all remember where we were when… In vivid detail. I agree the not knowing is the worst. Thanks for sharing this, Sherri. Stay safe and an early Happy Birthday to you. ????

    • Sherri Matthews

      Vivid for sure. Thank you, Sarah and likewise, keep safe! <3

  9. TanGental

    one of those days when we all remember where we were and the sheer incredulity of what was happening. My experiences were remote ones, though I had close friends working in NY at the time. It was more as you describe on 7/7 when London was hit and no one knew who was where as all the mobile lines jammed shut. My daughter still remembers the panic at school as they all scrambled to try and find out if their various parents were safe. Horrible, horrible times.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Yes, and I remember thinking about you and your family on 7/7, Geoff, very relieved to learn you were all safe. Terrible time.

      • TanGental

        Grim but we keep moving forward

      • Sherri Matthews

        We do indeed. And I realise I didn’t know you when 7/7 hit, my mind flashed back to the more recent London Bridge and Borough Market attacks. Each day we all keep safe and well is a good one.

  10. Colleen M. Chesebro

    I was working as a bookkeeper for a law firm in Montana on 9/11. My boss’s brother was a pilot flying in the Air Force. One of the F-16’s that responded to the event went down in the ocean. The plane number belonged to his brother… however, that day, his brother ended up on another flight. I’ll never forget the terror we all felt. Attorneys are a strange bunch, and I’d never seen these men visually shaken like they were that day. We were right there next to Maelstrom AFB, Montana. The silos were still full of missiles in those days. An unforgettable experience for all of us!

    • Sherri Matthews

      I’ve worked for a few law firms in my time, Colleen, and know exactly what you mean! Thank goodness your boss’s brother was safe. But the sheer terror of it all…

      • Colleen M. Chesebro

        It’s funny how we all have our stories from that day. Let’s hope we never have to go through something like that again. <3

      • Sherri Matthews

        Oh Colleen, I hope and pray not <3

  11. ellenbest24

    We all have triggers for certain dates or times usually they are good ones, the day Churchill announced the end of the war, the day man walked on the moon. Then there are where were you when moments. Yours is a particularly terrifying one that the whole world can never forget. Thank you for sharing.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thank you, Ellen.

  12. Myrna Migala

    I pray in earnest for those who lost loved ones on that day, the beginning of the end.

    • Sherri Matthews

      I join you in those prayers, Myrna.

  13. purpleslob

    Hi Sherri, so good to hear from you, my friend. That day was tragic for everyone, the world over, I think.
    Yay! Your book is done!! So exciting!!
    Happiest of Birthdays! <3

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hi Melinda, my friend, great to hear from you, thank you! I hope you and your family are all keeping well. These are crazy times for sure. I’ve been way out of the loop, but we’ll catch up and soon! <3

      • purpleslob

        We are all well, except my oldest daughter. Corona triggered POTS. It has a huge list of effects, so she is mostly bedbound. Not good at all. But thank God, my hubby, the girls, and I are all healthy! My friend across the pond, I <3 you!

      • Sherri Matthews

        Oh no, I’m so sorry, Melinda. I know you had said she was having heart problems in the hospital. Thank God indeed the rest of you are healthy, and I’m praying for your daughter’s recovery. Love you back from the other side of the pond! <3

      • purpleslob

        Thanks so much for the love and prayers, Sherri. How’s Aspie D? And your sons? And your mum?

      • Sherri Matthews

        We’re all doing well, thanks Melinda. Although in the UK we’re facing huge logistical problems thanks not only to fallout from Covid but also Brexit. But…one day at a time, right? Keep safe, my friend <3

      • purpleslob

        Yep, one foot forward…. We are good. Thx. <3

      • Sherri Matthews

        Melinda, can you give me the link to your blog again please lovely? It won’t let me access with the link I have 🙁 Thanks! <3

  14. Charli Mills

    To not hear from a loved one for three days in a time such as 9/11 must have felt agonizing. Your brother had to make an unprecedented decision as a pilot. It still feels clear, that memory of 20 years ago. It sits hard on the soul. It also compels us to focus on what matters in our lives and I know what your children mean to you. Cherish your time with them this week as you celebrate your birthday. Happy Birthday, Sherri! <3

    • Sherri Matthews

      “It sits hard on the soul”. That is just how it sits, and my heart is with your veteran community. Each day is a blessing, never taken for granted. Thank you, and for the opportunity to share our stories, Charli. I don’t take that for granted, either! <3

      • Charli Mills

        We are all made stronger by connecting our voices and stories. Each day and each story shared is a blessing!

      • Sherri Matthews

        <3 Charli, a blessing indeed!

  15. petespringerauthor

    I read Shari’s memories with great interest. It was a day that unnerved many of us. I remember watching the images on television and then going to work as an elementary school teacher. My first thought was, “I know many students are going to have seen this and come to school upset and full of fear.” I was teaching 2nd grade at the time, and I knew most wouldn’t understand the circumstances, so I just tried to let them know they were safe in my classroom. I also recall a couple of parents wigging out and picking up their children to be with them in the middle of the day.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hi Pete, thank you for adding your memories from your perspective as a teacher. It was a “normal” school day, but I can’t remember how it went after the initial shock. I remember taking my younger two to school, my eldest was picked up for his summer job. How grateful those parents would have been for your calm that day.

  16. Anne Goodwin is bringing Matilda Windsor home

    Enjoy your birthday, Sherri. My sister’s is actually on the 11th so not an auspicious date. There’ll be many reliving the trauma on this 20th anniversary.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Yes, a poignant date certainly. Thank you, Anne. And to your sister, also!

  17. explorereikiworld

    Thank you for sharing your traumatic memory. I pray you find peace with it.
    I still remember leaving for work that day, and coincidentally the TV was on. I thought it was a prank but then later realized the reality. I still get goosebumps every 11th September.

    • Sherri Matthews

      A day none of us will forget. Thank you, we pray together.

  18. Hugh W. Roberts

    Such powerful memories of that awful day, Sherri. I remember us all being sent home from work early because there were concerns that a plane might hit a highrise building in London. I also remember the phone calls coming into the office of what was going on.
    7/7 is the memory that stays with me the most, though. Actually, living and working in the city at the time is probably why I recall more of what happened on that day. However, the following day, I still got on the London underground and went to work. I was determined nobody was going to scare me in not carrying on my life.

    Birthday greeting to you. Hope you have a good one.

    • Sherri Matthews

      I remember that too, Hugh, with news of other hijacked flights and nobody knew at first where they were heading. Horrendous. And 7/7 was equally terrifying, moreso for you and everyone iving and working in London. I salute your brave spirit!

      Thank you, Hugh! xxx

  19. joylennick

    Hi Sherri, Pleased to ‘meet’ you. I can imagine your horror back then. I’m a Brit retired in Spain and we watched it in disbelief too. We have good friends in the US, so could understand how they must have felt. Man’s inhumanity to man is impossible to understand, Do hope you have settled well back in the UK.Best wishes. xx

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hi Joy! Please forgive me for my horribly late reply to your lovely message. I’ve been away from blogging for months and only just saw your message. Wonderful to meet you too! I have been back in the UK for eighteen years now. Can hardly believe it myself! I lived in CA with my children and now ex-husband for almost twenty. Other lives, other times, but always the memories. Hope you are enjoying your life in Spain. Do you know, it is still the one European country I have yet to visit? I was finally going to get there in 2020, hubby booked a cruise as a wonderful surprise for my “big” birthday. But of course, covid put an end to that. So to this day, I have yet to fulfill that dream! But one day…here’s hoping! Take care, Joy, and a very Happy Christmas to you. And see you on FB.
      Hugs 🙂

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