The Ones Left Behind


What If?

If I had worked in the World Trade Center, I would have been one of the obedient workers who listened to the announcements urging employees to not panic and to stay in their offices. I would have died. Instead, I went to a meeting in a windowless conference room in midtown Manhattan from 9-10 am, only to emerge to the horror unfolding on the television in another conference room. It was surreal. I was numb, unable to process that this was really happening 2 miles downtown. When it seemed that finally outbound trains were running, I made the walk across town to Grand Central to make my way home. Sirens. Smoke. Dazed people. I looked down Fifth Avenue where those ugly mammoth towers that I took for granted no longer stood. There was no anchor to the Manhattan skyline.

I was not a first responder. I did not lose anyone close to me. I got home safely. But my life felt changed that day. We watched the constant coverage. Perhaps the most horrific images were those of the people jumping. Regular people who woke up, chose what to eat for breakfast, chose what to wear to work, and then had to choose whether to die by burning to death or to die by jumping to death. What was that like? It still brings my husband to tears.

My numbness suppressed my tears at the time. But when they surface, occasionally, when I let them, my tears are for the loved ones left behind. The frantic last cell phone calls saying “I love you.” The 2-year-old neighbor waiting for her Daddy to come home from the train, who is now 15, my son’s age. The parents who lost their children. The “Missing” posters. Unspeakable. Grief.

We went to the 9/11 memorial yesterday. Normally, I would have been too busy busy busy at work. And I am! I am! But, my husband was downtown for a ceremony honoring his (and others’) longevity as City of New York employees. It’s so easy for me to be dutiful to my work and to take my husband and my family for granted. But, what if, today is your last day? What if today is my last day? I would be sad that I did not share this celebration with my husband. So, I played hooky. I took care of a few things at work and then hopped on the subway to meet my husband for a celebratory lunch. And then. We went to the 9/11 memorial yesterday.

It is profoundly somber and massive. From the water pools in each tower’s footprint bordered with the names to the processional ramp down. Down to the foundation. As you process down and down and down, you hear the voices of the loved ones left behind sharing their love for their lost loved ones. Heart breaking. The beautiful and poignant art installation by Spencer Finch, Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning. It is overwhelming. At the pools, I paused and placed my hands on the names bordering the water pools. Trying to imagine. Trying to connect. Where are their souls now? How are their loved ones coping? What if it had been me? Me, who died. Me, who was left behind.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we were desperate to be helpful, desperate to connect with others and to show our pride in New York City and in America, and desperately afraid. I hugged my children tightly. I held my breath commuting in the tunnel to Manhattan. I looked up fearfully at every airplane. Even when we got back to “normal,” there was a new and consistent desire to make every day count and to make sure nothing, no one, was taken for granted.

We seem to be in a new era of fear. War, genocide, rape, poverty, climate change, disease. Ebola. Yes, I know, I’ve read the articles calming us down. The risk of Ebola is nothing compared to the risk of crossing the street or getting the flu. Really though, who knows? Like the announcements telling workers to stay in their offices, no one seems to know what to do. The one thing that seems certain is that the next 50 years I was counting on living is not certain. It changes the calculus of decision-making. From what should I do over the long term to what is meaningful if today is my last day? I will be hugging my family and friends a little tighter.