A very different September 11

On September 11, 1999, Alene flew to Denver to present a paper at a scientific conference. It would be the last conference she ever attended.

Our nightly conversations had been coming in more definitely and lasting longer before disconnecting — and by the morning of her trip, we had enjoyed each other’s waking company for more than forty-eight hours without interruption. Both of us had the se that our communication would continue unimpeded from now on.

Alene had to drive two hours to catch an early morning flight. I was five hours ahead in London and wide awake — so I kept her company as she drove and made sure she didn’t fall asleep. I told her about the time my daughter ran away from home at age fourteen — and how I drove in the middle of the night down to Devon to pick her up at a motorway service station when she telephoned me in tears to say she was sorry and just wanted to come home.

Once in the airport, Alene kept me appraised of what was going on. She was early and intended to have coffee and muffin once she was checked in. The sun had just risen and she described the view of the airfield from the coffee shop window. I found it easy to picture.

Alene kept up her narrative as the plane pushed back from the gate and taxied out to the runway — and I felt her excitement as the plane prepared for takeoff. I’m a pilot myself, and that’s something I can never get tired of. She described the view from her window seat and I found that easy to picture — the rectilinear checkerboard of the midwest — interrupted every now and then by floodplain geomorphology. Alene explained the Land Survey System and the one-mile-square sections that make it easy to estimate ground distances from the air.

She was surprised to see a line of orographic clouds ahead because the Rocky Mountains surely couldn’t be that close yet. She wondered if they would be arriving in Denver early. Five minutes later she laughed — and told me that the captain had just announced that the flight would be landing twenty-five minutes ahead of schedule on account of unusually favorable winds!

Alene was met at the airport by an old friend from college who lived in a suburb of Denver. They got to her house around lunchtime but Alene was not hungry. Her friend needed to run some errands and welcomed Alene to make herself at home, but Alene wanted to stretch her legs after the flight and the drive, so she went for a walk around the subdivision instead — telling me about everything she saw.

Alene ended up in something she described as a cave — a rock formation enclosing a space, but with no roof overhead. Alene explained that it was a space that could be rented from the parks department to hold parties. There were even power outlets! I asked her how large it was, and she tried to estimate by pacing across it. I heard her counting – twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four….. and I could picture the cave walls. The rocks were red with lighter colored swirls — like a marble cake. I described the rocks to Alene and she confirmed that was exactly how they looked. Then I realized I could actually see them.

Before I could ask her to look at something else, she must have looked down — and I found myself looking at female legs in shorts and sneakers. And I heard the sound of car. I asked her if a car had just gone by — and she said yes. I told her the color of her shorts and sneakers. Then she turned to face the cave entrance and I described the scene beyond.

As Alene left the cave and went back to the road I was convinced that I was seeing what her eyes were seeing — and hearing what her ears were hearing. She stopped at an overlook with a view up a broad valley between two hogbacks. It was gorgeous, with a broken line of pointed reddish rocks on the left. Alene pointed out the famous Red Rocks Park. I watched in amazement as she continued her walk, making her stop as something caught my eye — a blue jay, a group of mule deer, a chipmunk, or a classic car in a driveway.

When Alene got back to the house, I asked her to look in a mirror so that I might see her face. I was pretty sure I knew who I was talking with — but I wanted confirmation.

It was the happiest moment of my life.


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