Friday, September 11, 2009

Memory . . . in Memory of


It couldn't have been a gloomier day in New York City today, weather-wise. Lashing rain, wind whistling, dull gray sky. Outside this morning, with my umbrella not only flipping inside out but crumpling into a jagged mess of misshapen wires, I was about to recite a litany of complaints (running late, getting wet, and so forth), when I saw a group from our local fire department—Engine 16, Ladder 7, on East 29th Street; the guys who routinely wave to my son and who welcomed his kindergarten class to the firehouse this past spring. They were in dress blues, one wearing a kilt and carrying a bagpipe, and my selfish bones to pick about the weather fell away. I was left with gratitude—not just toward the fire fighters but for the fact that I am alive to feel the rain and wind. September 11. This date sneaks up on me now, which shows the effect of eight years' time. I used to anticipate it as soon as the calendar page turned from August to September. It has become perhaps too indulgent or exploitative to review 9/11 memories at this point, but although I considered avoiding the topic, that too seemed false. Eight years ago, I was living with my husband (then fiancĂ©) on West 57th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, with a direct line of sight to the Twin Towers from our 10th floor balcony. At the time, we were both keeping restaurant hours—I did so because I could, and if I didn't adapt to my husband's night-owl schedule, we'd never see each other. This is why we were still sleeping late into the eight o'clock hour on a Tuesday morning. Everyone knows now, how beautiful the day was, how the sun was shining in a bright blue sky. A perfect fall day in the city. The phone rang: it was my mother calling to tell me what she was hearing on the radio. I rolled out of bed, looked out the window. I could see black smoke streaming from the North Tower. Not long after, another column of smoke appeared; we were too far away to see anything more detailed. I turned on my own radio, got my husband up, and paced around the apartment. At some point, though, we decided to go about our day; most people in the city at this time were still assuming they could just continue with routine. No one realized yet—no one could fathom—what was happening. I began to get ready for a yoga class that started at 10:00. Since I was awake, I might as well go exercise. I put on workout clothes, still listening to the news. I remember the exact moment when I knew that something was very, very wrong and that whatever was happening was not accidental, despite having no idea what it was: I was stooping down in the coat closet, my eyes trained on the jumble of shoes covering the floor, picking out my sneakers, when I heard the report of the Pentagon strike. Somehow, that bit of information more than the sight of billowing smoke outside our own window impressed upon me the seriousness of the situation, and when I heard it, I sank down among the shoes. I'm not sure I had any solid idea why I started to cry, why I felt personally threatened and scared at that moment—we still had no idea what had truly happened, it was all confusion and speculation—there was nothing I could articulate, but dread washed over me. And the best thing I could think of to do was carry on, walk to the gym. Another thing I have been thankful for, is that I did just that, took myself away from the windows in this way. In the gym before class, a crowd stood around the lobby's television, and I saw more of the smoky scene unfolding downtown. Still, at a minute to ten, I was inside the yoga studio, feet now bare, (another row of shoes around the room's perimeter), my body stretching. I was spared a live view of the towers collapsing. The gym, however, did close down not long after the South Tower's destruction. Word was passed to the yoga teacher, who made the announcement and terminated class. We gathered our things, followed fire procedure, and left through some concrete stairwell I never knew was there; I was disoriented down on the street. We all were. I remember faces on my walk home: people's eyes, usually avoiding direct contact with others, were now seeking, questioning, searching for signs mirrored in the eyes of passersby. When I got back to the apartment, I went to the balcony and looked at a surreal patch of nothing where our small bit of recognizable New York skyline used to rise so solidly. My husband came home after me, everyone sent away from the restaurant where he had gone for his own distraction, for a semblance of normalcy. He had been at Windows on the World just the day before; the knowledge was a spectral finger caressing the spine. We held each other and stared into a hollowness that lingers still. And I am sorry for all the days since that I have neglected to fill to the brim with energy, love, precious life. I remember that day in 2001, of course. Always will. Tonight I post my 9/11 memory in memory of those who were not fortunate enough to be spared—including those from the firehouse around the corner. Their sacrifices remind me of what is truly important.

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