17 years after 9/11 and I am still surprised

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I have been writing a post about 9/11 every year. Maybe because 9/11 comes right around the Jewish High Holidays, I treat my archive of posts a little like a prayer book. I read my favorite – the first one – because it’s still incredible to me that I was at the World Trade Center when it fell.

I read some of the ones from the years right after that. The blog posts about the trauma of that day are also the posts that remind me of  the most intimate times with my Ex.

We were both changed people after that day. My Ex started a career in social justice. He risked his own safety to protest false imprisonment. We took in a young kid of a Palestinian activist who was on the run. I stopped being a reliable breadwinner and started writing career advice from my kitchen counter because I was too traumatized to go back to an office and have a career.

And we had kids.

That moment when I could not breathe. I am not clear, even today how long it was. It was long enough for me to have so many thoughts. First I thought to myself, I should have shut my mouth sooner. You have so much less time to live if your mouth is coated with rubble. Then I thought, I am not going to help the person who is touching my hand. I can barely help myself. Then I thought I am going to die. It’s okay. I’m okay to die. Then I thought, wait, I should die trying to live. I should just move or do something, anything, to find a place with air.

So then I started moving. In pitch dark. With no idea at any given moment what I was touching or standing on. And in all this, still, so many thoughts, an unbelievable number of thoughts, I also had my most vivid, memorable thoughts: That I am so disappointed I would not get to see my life unfold. I was so excited to start a family with my husband. I wanted to see what would happen.

Now I know: the gift of life is to get to be part of it. That’s all. It’s a joy to see what happens. The best story in the world.

But my story is not anything like I expected. I know this is true for everyone. But it’s still true. I am just so surprised. And — I feel guilty to say this — I am disappointed.

I am so grateful to have lived. Even 17 years later, I cry now. Remembering the feeling when I decided it was okay to die. I would be okay. That’s just how it is. You get that feeling. I know. I had it.

I got to live. But I thought I would live a perfect little life. I didn’t realize it. I just guess I just assumed. I mean, I think everyone thinks that’s what they are missing when they die. I didn’t die, so I know what happens.

We take family pictures. For the boys. Because even though their dad only lives with us one week out of every five, the boys deserve to feel like a family.

I look at that picture and I think of 9/11. This family is what has emerged from 9/11. And it’s broken. And I’m sad. And I’m sad that I don’t feel more gratitude. I always imagined telling the boys about 9/11. I saved so many things. I saved books full of high-resolution photos. I saved the wastebasket I carried with me for miles and miles. I saved letters school children wrote to me after they read my story.

It’s good that my shirt and my shoes from that day are somewhere safe at the Smithsonian. Because this year I threw all the other stuff out. We are in a very small apartment in Swarthmore. And the move away from the farm was very difficult. We kept only what we wanted most of all. And what I want most of all is the family.

I wanted it most the day I thought I would die as well. So in that respect, not much has changed. I don’t want to talk to the boys about the details of 9/11. And to be honest, I don’t think they care. The remind me of me, when I was a kid, walking out of the room when someone started talking about Vietnam. Not because it was sad, but because it was annoying; grownups back then never could shut up about Vietnam.

My sons sense that 9/11 is an undertone to every memory, every photo tucked safely into the pages of an album. But my sons don’t need to look at pictures of the World Trade Center to remember it. We were a family during those early, raw years right after 9/11 and they ask all the time about what that was like.

Trauma is genetic. I have read that before. Now I understand how it happens. This is not how I imagined my life would unfold, but I still feel so lucky to be here for it.


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