Wednesday, September 10, 2008

That Crisp Fall Feeling in the Air

It doesn't matter what I was doing that evening. I don't remember.

But the next morning, I woke up really early, got dressed in my gym clothes, and my husband and I went to vote together in the primaries. I looked extremely shleppy, unshowered and ready to work out. The voter volunteer woman, an overweight Dominican woman, looked me up and down as she registered me. And then said, "Mami, you better lose some weight. Fat girls can't keep husbands." Was she talking from experience? Whatever. 7 years later and we are happily married 12 1/2 years, and damn, I am still fat.

We voted. Went to the gym. After the gym, I went to grab a cup of coffee across the street at Starbucks before I went to go home, take a shower and go to work. The barista and the cashier were talking about how a small plane flew into the World Trade Center, but the reports they got was that it was a small plane and that it was certainly an accident. I got my coffee and sat down at a table.

I called my mother. All circuits were busy. The only time I've ever heard about that happening was in Israel, after a suicide bombing. That didn't register till later. Finally, I reached my mom. She told me, from her vantage point near a TV 100 miles south of the Pentagon, was that I better get off the streets and home to the TV. And I did.

But when I got to my building, something in me snapped. I went up to the 12th floor, where not too many months before I had gone with my 5 year old cousin as we were walking up and down the stairs for fun. And I looked out the window. And those towers, stark in their angles, industrial and the epitome of 70's design, were burning. I couldn't see the fire, but I saw the smoke. I could already smell the acrid, burning scent that was to be the perfume of Manhattan for the coming weeks.

I went to the TV. I was one with the TV. For the next 48 hours, I slept in cat naps on the couch, and lived in front of the TV. I was paralyzed.

That day, my husband was already out, and chose not to come home from his relatively safe space on the urban campus of his graduate school. So it fell to me to try to find everyone, to find my father in law, who was on a plane at the time, and who ended up, oddly enough, spending the night with my parents because that town was the only place where there was an airport where the plane could safely land. I called everyone; telling them that we were OK, finding out where they were, if they were OK, if everyone was accounted for. One ear on them, the other on the TV.

Later that day, after reports that banks would be freezing accounts and that there would be food shortages on my island, I went to the grocery store. I never had more compassion than for the parents who stocked up on diapers, not knowing if there would be deliveries (ever again) soon The first grocery store, well, the lines were so long that I went to another one. I bought random things to eat, comfort food, thinking that it might be a while before we had fresh food again, and hell, what if the power went out?? Walking back from the grocery store, I went to the ATM and got out all the cash I could. Didn't know what to expect.

One of my very closest friends, a classmate of my husband, was a chaplain with the fire department. That day, while I was shopping, he rushed down and was a first responder. He went another time as well during that first few days, but when it became apparent that there were not survivors. Still to this day, I worry about his health. And I know that he probably suffers from PTSD in many ways, and I know that the experience changed him forever in ways I'll never understand.

I don't know why I am telling you this story. What I do know is that today was a beautiful, crisp almost fall day, with a bright blue sky with no clouds. Just like that day. And what I can also tell you is that I think about September 11 almost every day. Every time I see a plane flying over my head, and I live in the flight path for LaGuardia (so it's a lot). I think about September 11 whenever I see the Vote Aqui Vote Here signs that direct voters each primary and election day to the polls. I think about it whenever I think about first days of school; the kids whose first days of kindergarten were changed forever. I think about two little boys, born just before September 11, whose brises were smaller and more intimate than their parents had wanted, because no one could get onto the island, or because family couldn't fly in. And today, that weather. It hurts inside, honestly, to feel that kind of beautiful glorious weather, because it's ominous, and feels like violence inflicted on my soul.

Those planes flew practically over my head as they made their mad dashes to death. I was inside. I didn't hear a thing. I can't imagine what it would be like had I seen them. Thank God for sparing me that agony.

I think a lot about that Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, when I learned the real meaning of the words in Unetane Tokef, "who shall die by fire, and who by water." And when I went outside to take a walk on the first night of Rosh HaShanah and saw the fighter jets patrolling the skies. And the Profiles in Grief, the tiny piece in the New York Times about each person killed. I promised myself that the way I would personally mourn for each of those souls lost was to read just that tiny bit of text that illuminated their lives for me. Many years later, I bought the book that was made of the entries, as kind of a memorial to each of the victims.

I am not writing this column as a mother. I wasn't a mother then. But I certainly did think that day, and in the days that followed, that I never wanted to have a child. How could I bring a child into a world that was filled with such evil? So many conversations like that took place in my circles...for some, it was a sign to wait. For others, it was a realization that the only way to effectively stare down Death was to create Life.

I write this column as a proud resident of the Upper West Side, a taxpayer in good standing of the City of New York. Someone who smelled that smell. As one indulgent person wallowing in my own sadness. As someone who thinks that calling it Nine Eleven reduces the heartbreak to a slogan. As someone who still feels teary every time she sees a firefighter or firetruck, and who in her heart thinks the world of people so unselfish. As someone whose heart broke on September 11, 2001 and as someone whose heart breaks every day a little bit and as someone whose heart breaks over and over every September 11.

Yehi zichram l'bracha. May the memories of those who were lost be a blessing to all whose lives they touched.

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