Remembering 9/11 and the 5 Ways it Changed My Outlook on Life

Remembering the victims at Fire station 40 in the UWS

I’m running for my life up the lower east side of Manhattan, covered in an ashy substance that’s burning my skin.   I’m disoriented, terrified and unsure whether I’ll survive the day.  As low flying fighter jets roar above my head, I’ve braced myself for the fact that whatever is happening, my husband and cat are likely dead.

It’s about 10:20 in the morning on September 11, 2001 and the South Tower just fell a block north of where I was standing.

I stumble thru Chinatown trying to find a phone to call my parents to let them know I’m alive and to see if they are too.  I can’t seem to find anyone who speaks English or who isn’t startled by fact that I look like a flour dusted chicken cutlet.

I make my way up thru Little Italy where a nice old lady in a floral house coat lets me use her phone.  I finally reach my parents.  They tell me two, maybe three planes got hijacked.  Philadelphia is fine. No one has heard from my husband.  No one can get thru to the hospitals.

I wander aimlessly in the East Village and see other white dusty people like me make their way up from lower Manhattan.  But no one else seems to notice them or me, as if we’re ghosts.  As if this horrible thing that happened less than a mile from them  didn’t happen.  Doesn’t everyone smell that grotesque flesh meets steel smell?  Don’t they realize that two buildings just got raped by airplanes?  Or is this just a theoretical media concept that doesn’t affect them because they weren’t there?

Wait a minute, maybe I’m dead…

No, the powdery substance on my skin is beginning to become unbearable and I itch.  I’m on 4th avenue, where my husband lived before we were married.  “Should I be sad?” I think to myself realizing I may never see him again.  No time for sad, keep moving. I see the Korean dry cleaner I used to use.  She recognizes me, thank God.  She has a TV on, so she knows what just went down.  I try to stammer that I need a phone,  a place to wash up and to sit down.  She doesn’t let me finish and wraps her arms around me, smoothing  my debris encrusted hair.   Finally, I cry.

***

It’s 9/11/2012.  My husband and cat survived.  We never left New York, only relocated from the Financial District to the Upper West Side.   I wanted to help make New York better again.  I might not have the brawn or the money but I could do my hero best to go about being a normal citizen again.  Surviving 9/11 was one of the most profound events in my life and rewired my perspective on life in the following 5 ways:

  1. Americans can be entitled and overlook the wealth of advantages we have.  I had a typical American, middle class upbringing and felt I deserved the good things in life because I worked hard and paid my dues.  Food, education, healthcare and shelter?  Everyone has those, right?  I’m talking vacation home, Prada and BMW.  So ignorant, so wrong.  Did you know that the American population is only 4% of the world?   Yet we’re the pre-eminent super power, calling all the shots.   What exactly was going on in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran?  Why are they so angry?  Oh…I see…wow, that really happens over there?   That Pakistani taxi driver?  He’s was an engineer in Pakistani that works double shifts to send money to his family back home.  He can think circles around me yet here he is and here I am.  The only difference between us is an accident of birth and circumstances.
  2. I’m an American first, my political party second.  I was a harsh Bush critic who proudly self identifies as a moderate democrat.  But for one moment, on the day GWB stood on the rubble with his bull horn, my allegiance to my country mattered more than my differences with his politics.  If he’s who we voted in office, then he is my Commander and Chief.   It was the first time I understood what it meant to be united.  (Note I said “in that moment”; I had a lot of questions about his later decisions, but that’s another story).
  3. Never underestimate the kindness or resiliency of a New Yorker.  While 9/11 leveled me and many others into emotional rubble, we quickly we got back to work with eye towards moving us forward.  Yet in the soft, creamy middle you have a dry cleaner who becomes an angel of mercy, a taxi driver who gives you a lift because you look tired and a firefighter who walks up 30 flights of stairs with nothing but a flashlight to rescue a cat.  Don’t worry about getting lost in NY; we’ll give you directions and maybe a ‘schmear.
  4. It’s not just about me; I’m part of a much bigger plan. My greatest horror on that day was witnessing what I thought was a tear in humanity.  How hatred could be turned into so much destruction.   And what did we do to cause that hatred?   While I was focused on my survival, the deeper wound was knowing what happened to thousands of other people and the horrific way they died.  I ached for them, for us.  I felt ashamed because this was just my experience; atrocities happen all over the world yet they don’t always hit our news radar screen because they’re not in our back yard.   Years later, I got breast cancer, and while that was frightening, it had nothing on 9/11.  I know it’s inevitable that  someday I’ll die.  But I hope never to see again horror on the scale of 9/11 again.
  5. All we have is the present.  Never miss a chance to tell the people you love how much they mean to you.

With respect and remembrance to those who lost their lives 11 years today.