9/11 2016

(Each year, I post this essay as a remembrance of those whom we 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 those whose lives were taken that day.)

Today marks fifteen years. Fifteen years since I awoke at 6 am, to the sound of my husband trying to quiet his crying in our San Francisco kitchen. Fifteen years since I clutched my pregnant stomach and sank to the floor while watching the Twin Towers fall. Fifteen years since our lives were forever marked, lessened, and changed.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, my husband was at his desk at JPMorgan’s West Coast office in downtown San Francisco. He arrived at work at 4:00 am Pacific Time that morning, as he did each morning — anticipating the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange while most of California was still asleep.

He had seen the first tower hit on live television while he worked on the trading floor, and he remembered that my father’s office at Aon was located 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 anxiously flipped through his Rolodex, trying to find my father’s business card. Which tower was he in? Which building was Tower Two?  The newscameras’ disorienting views were confusing. Seeking confirmation, he glanced up again at the wall of television screens on the trading floor, just as the second plane crashed into the second tower. Whenever that video footage airs now, on a news report or television documentary, he sharply turns his head.

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

He doesn’t remember the commute home, save for the sight of 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. He was sure that the woman had just lost someone, either in those towers or on those planes. Nothing else could explain such raw, erratic behavior, timed so closely to the events that had just taken place. He still thinks of her when he remembers the details of that morning, and he still hears the muffled sound of her screams from behind his closed car windows.

While I lay asleep in bed, unaware of his return home, or of anything — my husband bore the initial shock of 9/11 alone in our still-darkened living room on the West Coast. He called everyone he knew, every person he could think of, every number in our phone book, everyone — to determine if my father was trapped 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 he had refrained from waking me for as long as possible — because, he believed, I was still safely asleep, in a stilled span of time where my father was still alive, and where I was still his child. This happened fourteen years ago, and I still cry when I read those words.

The phone rang in our kitchen, and my husband hurried to answer it. The voice on the other end was, shockingly, my father’s. He was calling from a train station somewhere in Westchester, New York. He hadn’t arrived in downtown Manhattan yet, because he’d simply been running late to work that day. When the attack occurred, all trains to Manhattan stopped service. Passengers were ushered off commuter trains at the nearest stops, left stranded to search for pay phones or borrow strangers’ cell phones to call loved ones, and to try and piece together what had happened.

My father stood in a long, snaking line at a pay phone at the train station, and listened to people ahead of him each speak the same string of 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, as all of us had been. My father had also worried that I would go into early labor at the overwhelming news, and wanted me to know that he was alive and safe.

I awoke in the midst of that conversation, to hear my husband’s whispered voice addressing my father, “Billy, Billy, thank God you’re alright,” and to then hear him say to me in an oddly calm cadence that “the World Trade Center blew up,” as he tried to relay this information to me while in shock, as plainly as if describing what he’d just eaten for breakfast.

I had awoken to panic, to a full-blown attack and assault, and my actions were off-kilter. I felt 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 my feet hitting the floor before realizing that I’d actually gotten out of bed. I raced to the television set in our den for consolation, for proof to the contrary, because it didn’t seem possible, because this couldn’t be real, because that was New York City, and such things didn’t happen there.

The news reports offered no reassurance. Instead, the television screen displayed a camera shot of the smoking towers at the right of our television screen. The Empire State Building — a proud city’s marker and symbol — appeared at left in the foreground, seemingly askew and tilted, because the camera must have been jostled in the chaos. This was real. This was happening. What was 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 my 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 decaying, crime-ridden city in the 1970s — the Towers were ours. It was inconceivable that they would ever be anything but there.  Their identical silhouettes were the first I could recognize in the hazy city skyline when we flew back from California, the first mark of familiarity for me, and the first confirmation that I was truly home.

I watched the towers fall on the television that September morning, and remember hearing myself yell, “My city! My city!” as I dropped to my knees. I could only think of the structure, the steel, the permanence, all so callously challenged. Other people remarked to us later that we must have felt relief at being so far from New York. They weren’t New Yorkers themselves. They couldn’t possibly understand how much I yearned to be home.

As hours passed, I began to absorb the horrors of what the victims had to witness and endure. The enormity of loss, the magnitude of so many lives, lost in the attack with nothing of theirs to be recovered, was all too much for me to initially comprehend. My mind switched over into makeshift preservation mode that morning, a knee-jerk denial, and refused to acknowledge the scope of it until hours — if not days — had passed. I remember speaking to a friend on the phone later that afternoon. She was sobbing and heaving, overcome at the thought of the passengers’ terror on the hijacked planes. I didn’t understand her at first. In my shock, I had naively supposed that the planes were empty, stolen from jetways without any additional suffering, and that the only victims were the hijackers themselves. I cried along with her at the sudden, awful realization of what had happened to them.

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. My father should have been at work that morning. He should have been in that building. He simply wasn’t.

One of my cousins was an FDNY fire marshal — a first responder on 9/11 — and had those towers rain down on him. He walked away from the rubble unharmed — forever marked and changed, of course, but incomprehensibly, alive. Last year, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which is unquestionably related to his exposure to toxic materials that day. Again, he has survived.

Friends of ours had been married in Connecticut the previous weekend, on September 8th. If I hadn’t been so far along in my pregnancy, my husband and I would have been in their wedding party. We would have been returning from the East Coast, quite possibly, on September 11th, with flowers from my bridesmaid’s bouquet, and stories never to be told. We might very well have had two seats on Flight 93 — the flight headed from Newark to San Francisco, which was also hijacked by terrorists, and which crashed in a Pennsylvania field. We had traveled on Flight 93 many times after family visits back east. My child — my precious, precious gleam of a daughter, born six weeks after the attacks — might never have been born.

Our story is the same as thousands 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 fifteen 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 a sense of guilt in doing so.

As much as this day is about our shared experience as a nation, it isn’t about me. My father is alive. I will not be a mourner attending the memorial at Ground Zero, nor a widowed mother having to navigate her children through another day of news coverage because the loss is so intimately ours. I was only a witness to a crime so inhumane, so impossible, that the memory is left with me, and with all of us, evermore.

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 fifteen years, it is still unimaginable that it actually happened. After all of the “missing” posters and the ribbons and the memorials and the fundraisers and the commemorative plates and bumper stickers have been boxed up, torn down and faded away, all that remains is the victims’ continued absence. The people — all of those people — are still gone.

I want to acknowledge them, in my insignificant way — and in some semblance of magical thinking — and have them somehow know that we still 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. Somehow, for as long as those of us who witnessed the events of that day are alive —  they still are.

The wound is ripped open every year as the names are read, but 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.

The people, the people, the people, the people.

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