9/11 2020

(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 19 years. 19 years since I awoke to the sound of my husband’s muffled crying in our San Francisco kitchen. 19 years since I clutched my pregnant stomach and sank to the floor while watching the Twin Towers fall. 19 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 day, 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 on fire? Which building was Tower Two?  The news cameras’ views disoriented him. As he glanced up again at the wall of television screens on the trading floor for confirmation, the second plane crashed into the second tower. Whenever he sees video footage of that second plane’s impact now, he violently wrenches his head away.

Both towers were now in flames. The upper floors of both buildings were engulfed in smoke. It made no difference which building was which. He was sure that my father had been killed. My husband’s co-workers later told me that he bolted from his desk without explanation, and sprinted to the elevator. He drove home at breakneck speed to ensure that I hadn’t awakened and learned of the news 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—naked and screaming—running down Lombard Streetalone. 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, still unaware of his return home, my husband bore the initial shock of 9/11 alone in our darkened living room. He called everyone he knew, every person he could think of, every number in our phone book, to learn 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 that morning—because he believed that he was keeping me safe in a stilled span of time, one where my father was still alive, and I was still his child. This happened 19 years ago, and I still cry when I read those words.

The phone rang in our kitchen, and my husband ran to answer it. Shockingly, the voice on the other end was my father’s. He was calling from a train station somewhere in Westchester, New York. He wasn’t at his desk because he’d 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 had also worried that I would go into early labor at the overwhelming news, and called to let me know that he was safe. 2001 was a different time, one where cell phones were not as commonplace, so he had to stand in a long, snaking line and wait to use the pay phone at the train station. He listened as each person ahead of him said the same words—I’m alive, I’m alright, I’m ok—to a distraught person on the other end of the phone, to one of millions of Americans who had been thrown from their daily morning ritual into a place uncharted and unknown.

I awoke to hear my husband answering my father’s call, yelling, “Billy, Billy, thank God you’re alright.” Hearing the emotion in his voice, I called out in confusion and concern from our bedroom, and he replied in and oddly calm and cadenced voice that “the World Trade Center blew up.

Like so many other people on the West Coast, I had awoken to nationwide panic, to a full-blown attack and assault on our country, and my actions were off-kilter. I felt disassociative, physically out of sync—as my breath and my thoughts and my heartbeat all pulsed madly in my body. I felt the 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 things like that 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—the city’s proud 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 understand how much I ached to be back 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, all lost in the attack with no remains or personal belongings to be recovered, was all too much for me to initially comprehend. My psyche switched into makeshift preservation mode that morning and a swift state of denial, and refused to acknowledge the scope of it until hours—if not days—had passed. Later that afternoon, I spoke to another  East Coast transplant friend on the phone. She was sobbing, 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 passengers, and that the only victims were the hijackers themselves. The realization of such abject evil actually caused me to lose my footing, and I slid down the wall under my kitchen phone, sobbing along with her at the sudden, awful realization of what had happened to everyone on those planes.

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 everything in those towers rain down on him. He walked away from the rubble unharmed—forever marked and changed, of course, but incomprehensibly, alive. A few years ago, 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. Our child—our precious, precious gleam of a daughter, born six weeks after the attacks—might never have been born.

Our story is the same as millions of other New Yorkers and Americans. September 11 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 19 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 19 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 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. In some semblance of magical thinking, I want them to somehow know that we still see their pictures, their families, their names, their lives left behind and unfinished. We know they were here. They loved, they cried, 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.

Every year, the collective wound is ripped open as the names are read, but we must endure it 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.

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


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