9/11 2012

(I post this essay each year as a simple remembrance of those lost on September 11. As the years have passed, I have edited the piece, but the message is still the same. I will never forget them.)

It will be eleven years. Eleven years since I heard my husband quietly crying on the phone in our kitchen in San Francisco and whispering to my father, who was minutes away from entering his office in World Trade Center’s Tower Two, “Billy, Billy, thank God you’re alright.” Eleven years since I clutched my pregnant stomach and fell to my knees, watching both towers fall. Eleven years since our lives were forever marked, lessened, and changed.

My husband worked in JPMorgan’s West Coast office on California Street in downtown San Francisco. He was already at work at 4:00 am Pacific Time on the morning of September 11, anticipating the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange. He had seen the first tower hit on live television while he was on the trading floor, and he knew my father worked on the 102nd floor of one of the buildings. There was confusion on the morning news, but not yet panic. Was it a commuter plane? Was it an air traffic controller error? What had happened?

My husband flipped frantically through his Rolodex, trying to find my father’s business card. Which tower was he in? Which building was Tower Two? He called to his assistant to find out which building housed Aon, where my father worked. He glanced once more at the wall of television screens lining the trading floor, just as the second plane crashed into the tower. (He’s never been able to watch that video footage again. He turns his head away sharply every time it appears on a news report or television documentary.)

Both towers were in flames. Both towers had been attacked. It made no difference now. He was sure my father was dead. My husband bolted straight up from his desk, his co-workers later told me, without any explanation, and ran to the elevator. He drove home at a frightening speed to ensure I hadn’t woken up and learned of the news by myself — still asleep, and eight months pregnant with our first child. He was afraid that I would go into early labor at the sight of the breaking news report, and at the horror of learning that my father had probably died in the attack.

He remembers seeing a woman running down Lombard Street alone, naked and screaming. He couldn’t stop to help her because he needed to get to me, he said, so he kept driving. But he was sure that the woman knew someone in those towers or on those planes. Nothing else could explain her desperate behavior, timed so closely to what had just taken place. He still thinks of her when he remembers the events of that awful morning, and he still recalls the sound of her screams from behind his closed car windows.

While I lay asleep in bed, unaware of his return home, of anything — he bore the initial shock of 9/11 all alone in our dark living room that morning, whispering in a cracking voice on his cellphone, calling every person, every number in our phone book, everyone — to see if my father was still in Tower Two, or if he had, somehow, miraculously escaped. Sometimes the phone lines worked when he called, and sometimes they didn’t, and he’d dial and redial and forget who he’d reached, who he hadn’t, and who he still had to call. He told me later that every minute I slept, every minute that he didn’t have to wake me with unimaginable news, was another minute that my father was still alive to me, still unaware, still hovering in the before.

The phone in our kitchen rang and my husband ran to pick it up. He heard my father’s voice. He was calling from a train station somewhere in Westchester. He wasn’t in the World Trade Center, because he’d simply been late to work that day. When the attack occurred, all trains to Manhattan stopped service, and everyone was ushered off the Metro-North commuter train at the nearest stop, left to search for pay phones or borrow cell phones to call family members. My father stood in a long, snaking line at a pay phone at the train station, and listened to people ahead of him each say the same words — I’m alive, I’m alright, I’m ok– to someone else on the other line before they hung up, to someone else who had been thrown from the daily ritual of morning into a place uncharted and unknown, all of us in the very same place, alone and together, all at once. He, too, had worried that I would go into early labor at the news, and he wanted me to know he was alright. I awoke to that conversation, to hear my husband’s voice, to hear him say “the World Trade Center blew up” to me out loud, in a state of shock and desperation to relay this information to me calmly, as if describing what he’d just eaten for breakfast.

I had awoken to panic, to a full-blown attack and assault unlike anything my generation had ever witnessed, and my actions were off-kilter in the confusion. I was disjointed, out of body, out of sync with my breath and my thoughts and my heartbeat now pulsing madly in my ears. I felt the startling slam of both my feet hitting the floor before realizing that I’d actually gotten out of bed.

I ran to the television set for consolation, for proof to the contrary, because it didn’t seem possible, because this couldn’t be real, and because someone, anyone was going to tell me that everything was alright. I was days away from becoming a mother, and feeling like nothing more than an inconsolable, terrified child, hopelessly inadequate and unprepared.

There was no reassurance. Instead, the television screen displayed a local news camera shot of the smoking towers at the lower right of my television screen, and of the Empire State Building in the foreground, seemingly askew and tilted, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, because the camera must have been jostled in the chaos. This was real. This was happening. What was happening? Someone tell us what’s happening.

New York City was my city, my birthplace, and my home. For my parents, ’50s-era children from Brooklyn and Queens, the Empire State Building was their Eighth Wonder of the World. For a generation of New York City outerborough kids who visited the Twin Towers as schoolchildren, and who held them as a symbol of hope in a dingy, crime-ridden city in the 1970s — the Twin Towers were ours. It was inconceivable that they would ever be anything but there. They were the first buildings I saw when we flew back from California, the first mark of familiarity for me, and the first assurance that I was truly back home.

I watched the towers fall on the television that September morning and remember hearing myself yell, “My city! My city!” as I fell to my knees. I could only think of the structure, the steel, the permanence so callously challenged. In the hours to come, I began to absorb the horrors of what those who were inside had to witness and endure. The enormity of loss, the magnitude of so many lives, incinerated in the attack and the collapse and with nothing to remain, was simply too much for me to comprehend all at once. My mind actually went into some kind of preservation mode that morning, an abject denial, and refused to acknowledge the scope of it until hours — if not days — had passed.

I remember speaking on the phone to a friend later that afternoon. She was sobbing, and overcome at the thought of the passengers’ terror on the hijacked planes. I didn’t understand her at first. In my shock, I had somehow deluded myself into believing that the planes were empty, stolen from jetways without any additional suffering, and that the only victims were the hijackers themselves. I gasped and choked and sobbed all at once, at the inescapable realization of what had happened to those people as well.

My mother and extended family were at a funeral in Queens that morning. I tried repeatedly to reach them on cellphones and landlines, hitting redial over and over until my fingertips were reddened and sore. I called the funeral home where the morning viewing was taking place, prior to the funeral mass, I spoke to the director, not making any sense, even though he somehow understood me. We were both trying our best, tripping over condolences and confusion and fear. He told me that I was too late. The mourners had already left for the church — the church in Queens where my parents had married, and where my family had long worshipped, and I doubled over again at the thought of my family grieving the loss of one family member while they tried to process the enormity of what was happening outside those bronzed cathedral doors. No one knew yet that my father was alive, or if two of our other family members, FDNY firefighters, were alive either. One cousin was already at Ground Zero, and my other cousin had frantically changed out of his suit — the one he’d just put on for the mass — when he saw the morning news report. There was no question. He’d have to go in.

I knew that my family saw one casket, draped in a pall at the church, and each of them, in private, panicked moments throughout the mass, envisioned three more coffins behind it.

I finally reached my mother while she was en route to the burial out on Long Island. She was in a line of cars traveling alone on the Long Island Expressway, which was in the process of shutting down because of the attack — a bizarre sight on a Tuesday morning for native New Yorkers. I told my mother that my father was alive, but she had already heard it from another family member, somehow, in the chaotic chain of phone calls and emails that all of us tried to complete. She waved her hand out of the car sunroof with a thumbs-up to other family members in the funeral motorcade, and gave them the message. We wouldn’t learn for several hours afterwards whether my cousin Brian had survived or not. He had, somehow, even though he was a first responder who had stories of building rain down on him. He walked away from the rubble unharmed — forever marked and changed, of course, but incomprehensibly, alive.

My family was grazed that day, when so many others were terribly wounded. I lost no one, although there were too many “what if”s and “just a few minutes away” situations to permeate the bubble of safety in which I’d unwittingly traveled. Relatives and friends of mine were all within steps of those towers. If I hadn’t been so far along in my pregnancy, my husband and I might have been on Flight 93 — the flight headed from Newark to San Francisco, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field — because our friends had gotten married the weekend before in Connecticut, and we would have been returning from the East Coast. We had traveled on Flight 93 many times after family visits back east. My child — my precious, precious gleam of a daughter — might never have been born.

As much as this day is about our shared experience as a nation, it isn’t about me. My father is here. My cousins are alive. I will not be a mourner standing at the memorial tomorrow, nor a mother having to navigate her children through another day of news coverage, because the loss is so intimately a part of our everyday lives. I was merely a witness to a crime so inhumane, so impossible, that the memory is indelible – with all of us, forever.

Our story is the same as millions of other New Yorkers and Americans. It touched us, but it didn’t destroy us. With that randomly fortunate place comes a sense of remorse, of survivors’ guilt, and the need to offer remembrance and respect. After twelve years, the wound has closed over. As a nation, as a people, as a collective psyche, we had to want to heal. But with it comes that sense of guilt in doing so.

Which is why I watch the reading of the names every year. It’s all I know how to do on these September mornings, when the air is cool and the sky is a calming, wide blue — just as it was on the morning of 9/11, 2001. And I cry. Terribly. Openly. Because after twelve years, it is still unimaginable that it actually happened. After all the “missing” posters and the ribbons and the memorials and the fundraisers and the commemorative plates and bumper stickers, they are still gone. The people — all of those people — are gone.

I want to acknowledge them, in my own small, simple way, to somehow let them know that all of us see their pictures, their families, their names, their lives left behind. We know they were here. They loved, they cried, they won, they yelled, they laughed, they fought, they failed, they celebrated, they touched. They were. And somehow, inexplicably yet necessarily, that they still are.

The wound is ripped open every year as the names are read, because we can never forget them — the secretaries, the Cantor traders, the firefighters, the Windows on the World busboys, the insurance adjusters at Aon, the tourists, the elevator operators, the IT guys, the airplane passengers, the Port Authority police officers, the office managers, the stewardesses, the people — every precious, precious gleam of a person who once was here, who was someone’s child, someone’s daddy, someone’s best friend, someone’s sister, someone’s true love — just like us, the ones who remain and remember.

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