This week is a tricky one for me. On the one hand, it marks the six-year anniversary of my wedding to Alex—one of the happiest moments of my life, next to the birth of my son and the 2004 Red Sox World Series win. (Not even kidding about that Red Sox business. No sports fan could ask for a more epic win.) I know Alex is not a fan of the gushing public declarations of love, so I will only say this: expect a totally gushy blog later in the week. Sorry not sorry.
On the other hand, it represents the one-year anniversary of my first miscarriage. I’m not sure what else I can say about it that I haven’t already said in this xoJane piece about speaking up after dealing with loss. As much as I have moved on, and as much as I am growing more and more fond of our tight little family unit of three, I’m always going to think about it every year at this time. Someone recently told me that grieving is a lifelong process. You never truly get over a loss, you just find a way to deal with it.
Which brings me to my third anniversary of the week: 9/11. No matter how many years pass and how much I feel I might have grown immune to the event, I always get sucked into the media sensationalism, and I always find myself frozen in a sadomasochistic cycle of reliving the trauma. I do it to myself, I can’t even lie.
I’m told by some that the healthy thing to do is to avoid thinking about it at all costs. Others find talking about it cathartic. Just as I felt that I needed to talk about miscarriage after my second pregnancy failed, I feel like I need to watch the footage, I need to reach out to my New York friends and remind them how much I love them. And I need to tell you all my story.
I wrote this on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It’s every bit as true today as it was then.
Every year around early September, I become an insufferable grump. I’m irritable, angry, and a bit oversensitive. While usually a social person, I withdraw into myself, preferring the company of wine or TV. Every year I wonder what the heck is going on—until the inevitable documentaries start running on National Geographic. And then it snaps into place.
Oh right, it’s 9/11. And I still can’t believe I was there.
Even just admitting that makes me feel ashamed. I shouldn’t be this affected by it, I tell myself. I survived. Everyone I knew survived. I wasn’t inside the building, like my cousin was. I wasn’t left homeless like many of my college friends were. I just watched it out my window. I was safe in the confines of my lower Manhattan dorm room, and I watched, helpless, as the towers burned and collapsed upon themselves. I viewed it all through this strangely detached lens…one eyeball on the TV, with frenzied journalists attempting the play-by-play, one eyeball out my 14th floor window.
Bits and pieces of the day stand out like the jagged remains of the WTC infrastructure, poking up from a smoldering pile of my memories. But I push them down because I feel unworthy of this level of horror. Like I’m not allowed to feel it. But it happened, regardless of the shame.
The strange part is I’ve told my story probably a hundred times, but if I’m to be completely honest, I can’t recall if the details are accurate or if they’re just what I’ve told myself is true. Entire chunks of time are missing, and in hearing other people’s stories, those who were with me at the time, I’ve attempted to fill in the blanks.
Why can’t I truly remember on my own? Maybe my brain is trying to protect itself. Whatever it’s attempting to do, it’s not working. Because as each year passes by, I only feel the fear and shame more pronounced. Because I can’t remember. Because I should have reacted with more strength of character. Because I wasn’t a hero, like so many New Yorkers were. Because I didn’t suffer enough.
A week before 9/11, my NYU roommates and I rejoiced in our luck. We had drawn the number one spot for our entire dorm, which meant we could pick any room we wanted. We zoomed up to the top floor and headed to a corner suite. When we opened the door, we smiled and said, “This is the one!” Our view was of the lower part of 3rd Avenue, punctuated by the two largest buildings in Manhattan.
People stopped in just to marvel at the smooth, rectangular behemoths. We toasted to what we thought would be an amazing senior year.
My first class on September 11 was at 11am, so the plan was to sleep in. But, a little before 9am, I heard a scream and I ran out into our common room. Deep black smoke billowed out from the World Trade Centers. We didn’t know what had happened. Was it a fire in one building or was it two? Wait…there was a plane crash?!
How does a plane crash into a building in New York? One of my roommates had just gotten out of the shower. She had a towel twisted around her hair and she stood next to me watching. Neither of us moved for quite some time.
Despite the thick black smoke, my roommates still left to go to class. I think, at the time, we believed it was just a terrible accident. Did I see the second plane fly into the building? I always remember it that way, though a part of my brain also says no, both buildings were already in flames. All I know is, to this day, when planes fly low near my office (since we are right next to an airport, lucky me), I have intense body-seizing episodes of fear. The angles are too familiar. The sound is too…
The next thing I remember is scrambling. Scrambling to find my friends. Were they in class? Were they in their dorms? So many of my friends lived only a block or two away from the Twin Towers. A couple of them worked in or right next to them. Were they at the office that morning?
Many people started gathering in my room, the room with the view. Our phones were all out, but somehow word go out that girls from my dance team—my best friends—were making their way to us from downtown, attempting to convene at my place.
I remember one friend told us she was instructed to stay inside one of the buildings of the World Trade Center. She said she had a terrible feeling and ran past the guards who were trying to herd the crowds back into the lobby. She got on one of the last subways to leave the financial district and made her way up to us.
Security at the dorms was starting to tighten. They wouldn’t let anyone who wasn’t a resident into the complex. We begged and pleaded and eventually snuck in the girls who had no place to go.
Things started to calm down a bit. Some people went back to their rooms. One roommate came back from class and said that a bunch of people were just standing around in the streets looking up. We did the same, though our view was straight ahead. We just watched and waited.
Through all of this, I felt a strange calm, as though expecting to wake up from a dream. Panic didn’t set in, for some reason, until I heard the terrorists had flown a plane into the Pentagon. Then it was real. Then we were under attack. What building would come next?
As my anxiety built to a fever pitch, I noticed the slightest of shifts in the South Tower building and thought oh no, not possible but before the thought could even fully form, down came the building, pancaking upon itself and taking with it thousands of souls. At that point in time, I knew that my cousin was in the building. Many of our downtown friends had still not been located. Our friend Andy had called only minutes before to say he had been taking pictures of the towers. In a flash I thought: they’re all dead.
More time passed. Another building came down. I finally got through to my parents to let them know I was alright. I don’t remember what I said to them, or what they said to me. I have only flashes of ideas of what happened between the hours of 11am and 8pm.
I do know that in the early afternoon, we realized we had accounted for most of our friends. As each one came up into the room, tears came down our faces. The tears said, You are alive. I can stop mourning you now. But there were still a few more people we couldn’t find. As time wore on, we believed the likelihood of them being alive was pretty slim. But still we ran.
We ran out the door and south and into the cloud of dust. We ran rushing against the exodus from downtown, breathing in the smoke and the ash, praying, praying that our friends Betsy and Andy were alive. I wondered, too, about my ex-boyfriend, whom I last heard had to evacuate his dorm in his pajamas. He brought with him only his keys and his wallet. We ran until we couldn’t run anymore, where a makeshift blockade had been formed by police prohibiting folks from entering the abyss. We waited without hope, scanning and blinking, looking for any sign. A purple bag. A tall, lanky figure with a brown mop of hair. The mocha skin of our closest dance friend. A camera swung around a neck.
But then…a glimmer of hope. Betsy emerged from the cloud, stone-faced and dazed. She was wandering somewhat aimlessly, clearly in shock, and she came to us without a word. We held her in silence as we made our way back into the light. Word came down (Where the hell did this word come from? With the WTC cell tower down, no one had service. And land lines were clogged.) that a make-shift shelter was being set up at our gym in SoHo for displaced downtown students. So we pivoted back to Coles Sport Center, joining the legions of ashen-faced New Yorkers trudging drearily through detritus toward no particular destination. Just away.
But we found them. We found them all. Covered in ash. Covered in blood (some not their own). Safe but shaken, severely shaken. Betsy slumped against the brick outer wall of Coles with a cigarette in her hand. The small white stick had burned down to the filter without her taking a single drag, an ashen carcass in its place. We simply sat with her, not knowing what to say. Not wanting to pry. Not ready to hear her story ourselves.
My last clear memory of the day is walking into the gym in the early evening and staring out onto a row of tables where students were handing out first aid kits and water. There, I saw my ex volunteering to distribute blankets and pillows to students laying wide-eyed and blinking on cots. Things had been a little awkward between us, but that didn’t matter when life had become so demonstrably fragile and death so scarcely avoidable. We ran across the gym toward one another and embraced. I knew, after that, we’d remain friends.
From there, things get hazy. Some people took Betsy and Andy to emergency triage to make sure they weren’t wounded. I cannot remember if I joined them or not, though I’m honestly not sure where else I would have gone.
What happened to the rest of the day? Couldn’t say. All I know is I somehow ended up back at my dorm, but this time, I refused to go back to my room; the room with the view. I instead hunkered down in my dance team friends’ room with 15 other girls and a handful of guys huddled together in a mass of blankets. Someone kicked the remote off the bed and it landed with a crack. We all woke up and cried. Young women and men in their early 20s—we cried when a TV remote hit the floor.
So that’s what I think about on the anniversary of 9/11. In the weeks and months that followed, I lived in a world of missing persons posters, tanks, the constant smell of fire, and a stubborn black dust that always covered my computer screen. If someone mentions 9/11 today, I’ll nod and listen to their story. Then, when they find out I was there, they lean in, expecting drama.
I have none to offer them, and I almost feel sorry. That’s when the shame takes over. I bore witness to a singular event in history, and not only do I feel sorry for, what, not being dead?—I can’t even properly remember it. Instead, I shoved it way down deep in my psyche so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. And now, every year, it rears its head up at me regardless.
It says, here’s a memory: Remember the time you saw people jump 100 stories to their death? Oh, you don’t remember that? Okay, well, maybe you really didn’t see it. Maybe you only watched it on TV.
I wrote that account so I could try to retain what memories I had. Re-reading it, I know I couldn’t have told it in such detail if I tried to write it today, only three years later. Our brains are incredible, mystical organs. Sometimes they shine in moments of brilliance. Other times they utterly fail you.
Every year, in this week of anniversaries, I will honor 9/11 by allowing myself to feel the complex emotions it and the other milestones represent. After all, anniversaries are not just about celebration. They are about weathering the storm. And I wouldn’t be who I am today without all three of them.