Workday after workday, I passed the burned-out shell of Building Number 5, the building where my favorite bookstore had been. I would feel apprehension flood me as I emerged onto the streets from the subway each morning. When the weekend of that first week back finally came, I felt emotionally spent, depleted, drained. I think I slept most of Saturday and Sunday.
And now, each day down there was a sad reminder of what was no longer there, of what was gone. I no longer enjoyed going downtown each morning. Lunchtime was particularly difficult. I would go outside, quickly buy something, and rush back inside to eat. I couldn’t even bear to look toward where I had sat so many noontimes. There was no more plaza, no fountain, no golden sphere. All that was there now was smoking debris, pieces of equipment and burned-out remains.
I was able to do my job efficiently each day. My coworkers and I were able to laugh and make an occasional joke. We talked about other things than just that day. If anything, it seemed we tried to avoid talking about it.
Yet, as I sat behind my computer each day, I couldn’t stop thinking of all who had died on the 11th, nor did I want to stop thinking of them. Their deaths had caused me to look at my life. And what I was seeing was a life that had been defined by a job that I had let determine who I was and what I did. Aside from having faced the fears I had about coming back downtown, I also had to face the fears that had prevented me from living my life for so many years.
And I did.
On the Monday of my third week back at work, the week after Thanksgiving, I gave my notice. That coming Friday would be my last day. I had decided to walk away from a job I had for 13 years, a job I never planned on making a career, a job I settled into, with the security of good money, great benefits, and paid vacation, making it too easy not to leave. But, it certainly hadn’t been a job that had fulfilled me. It hadn’t been a job that provided any outlet for creativity. It hadn’t been a job I really wanted to do. It had just been a job.
A job that, when I started, was only going to be for a year or two, while I decided what to do next with my life. That year or two became 13 years so quickly and easily. And I had forgotten all about deciding.
Life and my perspective of it changed the moment I walked through that revolving door on September 11th.
I saw many people lose their lives that morning. In particular, I think of the many people I saw jump to their deaths. I think of their courage, knowing they were going to die. I think of that one moment in which they each had to decide for themselves how their lives were going to end. They had to choose how to die. They took that leap.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m still here, and now I had to choose how to live. I owed it to myself and to their memories to do just that. To take my own leap.
I didn’t want another number of years to go by and find myself asking “what if?” I’d asked myself that question too many times already during my life.
My life had, at one time, become a rut, a routine. And now I found that I had fallen into another one.
I didn’t know what I would do after I quit. The past couple of years, I’d taken to heart the motto “one day at a time.” I now had a whole new appreciation for those practical words.
I began writing about my experience of 9/11. Mostly for myself. I also sent e-mails to friends and family at the time. I was encouraged by many to keep writing. And I have.
And life has continued one day at a time.
* * *
The rescue and recovery ended, as it had to. Ground Zero no longer holds any physical evidence of what took place there. It’s now just a huge, stark, vacant pit, waiting for the reconstruction to begin.
The sphere that sat atop the fountain in the plaza was amazingly found in all the rubble, though in pieces. It was lovingly put back together by the workers at the site and now stands in Battery Park; once again whole, though dented and damaged, but standing strong. Much like our city.
There is a thin veil of disbelief I sometimes try to wrap myself in. A covering of resistance to the harsh truth. A slight remaining ache that wants to deny in the face of all evidence that day in September ever happened.
Yet, the reality is…I think of 9/11 every day.
I still tense when I hear an airplane overhead and automatically look up to see if it’s flying too low.
Now, whenever I hear a siren, I hear, in my mind, the loud wailing of all those sirens that day.
At the most unexpected moments, images of that day run through my mind like a newsreel.
I have an occasional flashback where something stimulates my whole body and, for a brief second or two, I’m back there—in that day—amid the falling debris.
I continue to have nightmares occasionally, and sometimes I feel the need to sleep with a light on, as I did the first few weeks after the 11th.
I think often about the man with the split skull. I want to believe he survived his injury, but I know that, in actuality, he probably didn’t.
I wonder, too, about the fate of my “coffee man.” His cart was on a corner right across from Building Number 5.
And the woman who lost her shoe. What about her?
Every cliché about living for today now seems like the greatest wisdom.
During my limited lifetime, I’ve learned to accept, and not be ashamed of, who I am. I’ve learned to admit being powerless over some things. I’ve learned I don’t have to regret my past, or shut the door on it. I’ve learned to ask for help—from others and from whatever higher power there is beyond myself.
And now as I learn to live for today:
I will remember all the goodness that we are capable of, that we displayed to ourselves and to the world.
I will know what it means to show courage when I think of the men and women who died—while trying to help others live.
I will know that only through feeling can healing begin.
I will believe that those who are gone would encourage us to live.
I will trust that they are smiling down on us as we each try the best we can to do just that.
No, I will not forget what I lived through, what we all lived through, that day in September.
And to honor those who are gone, I will not forget to live.