Anniversaries are a funny thing. Truthfully, I hadn’t even thought about the date today until a dear old friend posted a comment on my Facebook. Adam and I practiced law together in New York City and he is the one who reminded me of today’s anniversary. He is the one who reminded me to think about my own story from that day. Thank you, Adam.
Truth be told, I have not often told even my closest friends or family about my experience with 9/11. Some people don’t even know that I lived in New York City at that time. There were other people in my life who had stories that seemed so much more important or interesting than my own. My boyfriend turned husband now ex-husband was the 9/11 story that I was living and I am a person who reaches out to help rather than for help, so after 9/11 I quite naturally disregarded my own feelings and quickly, without a moment of thought, stuffed them down somewhere deep. That’s what I do. That’s what I’ve always done. I know it’s not healthy. That’s why I write.
The truth is it took me a decade to finally begin to think my own 9/11 experience. And it required therapy. My therapist did not even realize I had been impacted by 9/11 because I had so much regard for his story that I disregarded my feelings about the experience completely. I had “not being there” guilt. My therapist called it survivor guilt.
His story really was powerful and it is also only his story to share. And at the time there were people in international media who thought the world wanted to know about his story. I can still recall hearing the voices of Katie Couric and Oprah on our answering machine at the other end of the line. They both called our home phone in Brooklyn in the hours and days after the 9/11 attack. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it has taken me a long time to process my own experience.
Fortunately for me, when the plane hit the World Trade Center tower I was still lazing in bed in our brownstone apartment in Brooklyn. That’s one reason why I thought my story was no story. I wasn’t actually even there at the scene. I wasn’t one of the people running away from a burning building, running through ash and smoke and chaos like he did, like my friends and my colleagues at the New York City Law Department did. And I wasn’t one of the people trapped underneath the World Trade Center, which is where I most likely would have been if I had gone into work that morning as I had planned to do. That was where I was pretty much every morning when I went to work in Manhattan. The subway underneath the World Trade Center was where I started and ended my commute to work.
I had been on a plane myself on September 10th. I had taken a sabbatical from the stress of my job as a defense attorney for the City of New York and I had rented an apartment in Paris by myself and spent a few weeks traveling with friends and then came back to the states where he and I vacationed with my parents in Hawaii. He went to work that morning, but I did not have immediate work to get back to so I was taking my time getting up. All of my active cases had been reassigned before I left and I had planned to go back into my office that morning to talk to Georgia, my department chief. So when the tower was hit, I was still blissfully unaware.
I was alerted to the tower being hit by my landlord, Alba, who is a sweet and kind hearted woman from Colombia who lived downstairs. She owned the brownstone with her late husband, Stanley. He and I rented the apartment, which was the top two floors. A small closet in the hallway of our apartment provided the only access to the roof. I was finally roused by Alba pounding on my door so she could get up to the roof. She told me the tower had been hit and she wanted to see it with her own eyes. I did not.
Everything about that day is a little blurry and always has been. I turned on the tv as soon as Alba told me what had happened. What I could see immediately was that the tower was leaning and it looked to me like it was going to break apart and fall over. I was worried because he worked in the World Financial Center across the street from the tower. He called me twice shortly after and these quick phone calls reassured me that he was okay even though the tower had not come down yet. People had not started evacuating other buildings at that point. But I had heard his voice and in my mind that meant that he was fine. It led me to the conclusion in my own mind that he was alive all day that day. As much as that made no sense at all that’s how I felt and what I thought as I moved through that day. He was okay. Everything would be okay.
I remember talking to a few people on the phone. His sister. My mother. Instinctively somehow I knew that I was never going back to my law office. There was no reason for me to think this so it must have been from somewhere inside. I remember wandering around Brooklyn on foot. I remember going to an office store to buy a fax machine because I was going to be looking for a job. I remember lugging that fax machine home somehow. I don’t remember how, but I didn’t have a car. All I know now is that I felt sure that day that my life was going to be different. I had no idea then how much.
I did talk to him again toward the end of the day, so I had been right that he was alive. He was trying to figure out how to get home. We talked about people he could contact. Places he could stay that night if necessary. I didn’t know then if he was coming home that night. Ultimately, he walked home and walked right through the door looking as he always did after work. That surprised me. He didn’t look disheveled or dirty and he appeared calm. The only difference was that he had walked, that he was not wearing a tie, and that he had quite a story to share. And I just felt numb.
What I remember now about the days following was that it felt as if someone close to me had died, but there was no process for the death. No funeral. No sitting shivah. No mourning or grieving process that I could recognize. I knew a lot of people who were there that day. Of course, there were a lot of people who died, but I didn’t know any of those dead people. All of my friends and colleagues survived that day.
Those first few days after 9/11 there were people calling trying to get in touch with him. Important people wanted him to tell his story. He said he didn’t want to discuss it with anyone. He just wanted it all to go away. He began having nightmares. Neither of us was going in to work because our offices had been damaged so badly. And we really weren’t talking about it much at all. We weren’t talking about anything. I think we probably just wanted everything to go back to normal. What was normal?
I wonder now if the death that I was feeling was a piece of myself that died during that time. I couldn’t talk about my own feelings because I didn’t feel like my feelings mattered. My only story was his story. And he didn’t even want to talk about it with me. I wonder now if the death that I was feeling was also a part of us that died, him and me together.
There were real, tangible ways that my life changed after 9/11. At least, in my mind they were direct results of my 9/11 experience. Most importantly, the unexpected conception of our identical twins and later, our youngest child. I have no doubt that they would not have been here but for 9/11. For them, I am eternally grateful for that day.
God bless us and unite us all. Please.
Peace and hope always✌🏼