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. So after 9/11 I disregarded my own feelings and quickly, without a moment of thought, stuffed them down deep. That’s what I do. That’s what I’ve always done. I know it’s not healthy. That’s why I write now.
It took me a decade to finally begin valuing 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 my ex-husband’s story that I disregarded my feelings about the experience completely. I had “not being there” guilt. She called it survivor guilt.
My ex-husband’s story really was powerful and it is also only his story to share. And at the time there were people who thought the world wanted to know about it. I can still recall 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 the hours and days after the tower was hit. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it has taken me a long time to realize that my own experience also has value.
Fortunately for me, when the plane hit the World Trade Center tower I was still lazing in bed in my brownstone apartment in Brooklyn. That’s one reason why I thought my story had no value. I wasn’t even there. I wasn’t one of the people running away from a burning building, running through ash and smoke and chaos like my boyfriend, my friends, and my colleagues. 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 the office 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. 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 my boyfriend 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 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, a sweet and kind hearted woman from Colombia who lived downstairs. She owned the brownstone with her late husband, Stanley. My boyfriend 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 like it was going to break apart and fall over. I was worried about my boyfriend who 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 alive. 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. My boyfriend’s sister. My mother. Instinctively somehow I knew that I was never going back to my 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. 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 my boyfriend 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. I didn’t know then if he was coming home that night. Ultimately, he walked home and walked through the door looking as he always did after work, which surprised me. 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 them. All of my friends and colleagues survived.
Those first few days there were people calling trying to get in touch with my boyfriend. Important people wanted him to tell his story. 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. 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 me that died during that time. I couldn’t talk about my own feelings because I didn’t feel like I deserved to. 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 myself 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 conception of our twins and later, my youngest child. I have no doubt that they would not have been conceived but for 9/11. For this, I am eternally grateful for that day.
God bless us all.