In the blinking of an eye
Soon everything will change
From a blue September sky
The brimstone falls like rain.
If true Love
Soars the heavens
Pretend and we can fly
Soon everything will change
In the blinking of an eye.
–NJT September 2001
It sneaks up on you every year, this day. Not that you didn’t know it was coming, but you knew in an abstract wow-it’s-been-X-years way, or an Is it weird to schedule X for that day? way. We’re lamenting the waning days of summer and gearing up for what will hopefully be a productive and energizing autumn and then, eleven days into the month, here it is.
My first wave of visceral 9-11 emotion came yesterday, when I was asking a friend if and how she’s had to explain it to her 6 year old. She told me about a children’s book that does a beautiful job with it. She told me that when he’s asked her about it she’s refrained from referring to “bad people” and instead described people who just felt they could no longer get anywhere using their words and so, instead, made some very bad decisions. Terrible decisions, that caused many people to die.
I knew three of them, and that is far less than the number that many people knew. I was, once, very close with one of them, as I mention every year on this day. I don’t mention him to “own” any part of this tragedy, though we all own part of it. I mention him because I adore him, and I mention him because he anchors me more tangibly to this day.
Not that I need anchoring, I was there. I was there the night before, in the pouring rain, attending a Women In Need fundraiser and then eating late-night burgers at the Cedar Tavern. My friend (you, KN) stayed over and she left early to go to work. I was blowdrying my hair and watching the news and what the fuck did I just see? And I unmuted the volume and the newscasters were saying, “…are calling it an accident at this point…” and then what the fuck—did that just happen again? and the reporters said, “…now it is looking like an act of terrorism…” and I called my mom, who looked out her window and saw what was happening, and I called my ex, because I worried about him and felt responsible for anything bad that might ever befall him, and he turned on his television and we agreed to speak later.
I got ready for work and I walked outside to Sixth Avenue and it was like that “Twilight Zone” where the world stops—hordes of people on the Avenue facing south, faces frozen in confusion, fear, in utter disbelief. They were on fire, the towers, and for several seconds I thought about going back to get my camera but that seemed morbid.
Somehow the loss of life that was occurring at that very moment hadn’t yet dawned on me. I’m not sure I knew, yet, that they were commercial jets, and I’m not sure I’d made the connection that people who worked in those buildings got to the office much earlier than people who worked in publishing had to. And that of course, even if they didn’t, there’d be building staff who had to be there and there was the restaurant up top where people had to be in the early hours and my God, what about all the people on the ground?
I’m not sure what dawned on me at that moment—we had nothing to relate it to. I had nothing to relate it to.
So I got on the F train and I headed uptown and the towers imploded during my commute. And the three people I knew died, along with a few thousand others.
And then, was it later that day or the following that I got the call from SK reminding me that Jonathan worked for Cantor Fitzgerald? I knew he did, I think, but I’d no context for that name until it was too late. He always worked for Name + Name companies that did Important Things and that were just words on a business card. He worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and he was missing and the family was hopeful and then some days later the family ran out of hope and we memorialized him without proof; proof wouldn’t come for many months.
When I realized it was coming to that time that I needed to write a post about this—because I need to write about this every year—I took some notes. I took them over a glass of wine on the back of a poem that a homeless man handed me earlier that day. This is what I wrote:
And now it’s two blue columns of light and a seemingly endless list of names and a generation+ that wasn’t here that day. Tiles and flyers and that smell of burnt rubber. I had it easy from X blocks away.
A business card landed on my friend’s stoop in Brooklyn. Anther friend got the last taxi out. One friend had just found out she was pregnant, two were out of the country on their honeymoons.
Of the people I know, three died. One of the first calls I got was from a friend who wouldn’t live to see the first anniversary. The homeless guy I knew in my neighborhood called out to me, scared, “They bombed us!” he said.
And then the friend I was waiting for showed up, so that’s the last I wrote down the other night.
As hard of a post as this is to write, it’s even harder to end. There is so much more to say. There is everything and there’s nothing, nothing that hasn’t already been said, by me, by others, in more languages than I can name.
My God it was awful. The nightmares—they continued for a very long time. I had one just before I woke up to write this, only the enemy, the people who felt they could no longer use words and made terrible decisions, in my dream they took the form of James Holmes, who was avenging the death of Adam Lanza and who held my family responsible. I sat opposite him at dinner where he promised to put his assault rifle down; my dad had gotten a rifle of his own but it was upstairs and he’d locked the handgun I was holding and none of it seemed like a good idea but I deferred to others on what to do.
I woke up before dinner was served.
Some of you will hate this post, but you’ve read this far, so please don’t begrudge me for writing it.
Something good came out of this Terrible Thing that happened 14 years ago, and that was that we actually did unite, however briefly, and gain sight of what is important. We loved and supported and listened to one another, and we reached way down into the deepest wells of compassion that we all inherently possess.
And that lasted for a short time, short in the universal sense of time, but long in the day to day.
I don’t want to end this. I want to keep writing until 9-12. Maybe I’ll come back to it later on, but I probably won’t.
Here’s something else I wrote a few months ago, not related to 9-11 and at the same time, doesn’t everything, kind of, relate to it now? Here’s what I wrote:
be excellent to the people in your life