When something awful happens to you, it can warp your sense of time. It’s as if the intensity of your pain will never end. And although nothing is completely the same again, sooner or later, the pain releases its grip on you, and slowly time begins to move in a more normal manner.
And here we are, fifteen long years after 9/11.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I obsessively saved images of the event to a folder on my hard drive. I never look at them, though. I still actively avoid 9/11 retrospectives and images. I don’t need to see them now, hear the stories of grief and pain retold. The stabbing pain of the horror and sorrow and shock has been worn smooth over time. Newer griefs have joined 9/11 in the pantheon of my very worst days. Still, if I want to, I can summon that pain.
Usually, I don’t. It’s too easy, and it hurts too much.
For those of us for whom New York City was not a series of iconic images on their TV screen or an occasional travel destination, but rather their home, 9/11 is an intensely personal pain. Those hijackers tore a gaping hole out of my life. My memories of the World Trade Center span not just special events like the dinner with my family at Windows on the World the night of my 18th birthday, or drinks with my friend Diana and the rest of her wedding party on her bachelorette weekend in NY, but also hundreds of morning and evening commutes, lunches, trips to the FedEx drop-off in the lobby on 1 WTC, visits to friends in their Twin Tower offices. Not to mention that for 10 years, the towers were the first thing I’d see coming out the front door of my old Soho apartment. And even though the new Freedom Tower is finally complete, a part of me still yearns for that old skyline.
Terrorists cannot steal my memories, but they destroyed the tangible reminder of those memories. It’s a small loss compared to so much else that was destroyed that day, but it’s real nonetheless.
Cities around the globe share New York’s pain now; the shock and sorrow of their own terrorist attacks in the ensuing years engraved in their own hearts. Time and again, we have seen the best and the worst of human nature. I keep hoping that someday the cycle of violence will break, but it hasn’t yet.
And as always, I let no 9/11 pass without remembering my friend Kath.
She was 40 and only three weeks into a new job when she went to work that brilliant September morning. And she never came home. AA Flight 11 slammed right into her office on the 97th floor of One World Trade. We’ll never know for sure, but I’m told her desk was on the opposite side of the building from the impact point and it’s possible that she never knew what hit her. I pray that that is the truth, because the idea that she might have been standing there at a window, watching the plane heading right for her, is still too painful a thought to bear.
For the first year or so after 9/11, not a day went by that I didn’t think of Kath. With time, of course, that has faded. When I think of her these days, I feel that I’m living for both of us. Or perhaps a better way of saying it is that I feel a responsibility to use this time that I have, which she did not get, in a way that honors her.
We never know what day will be our last. We never know what goodbye will be the final one. And yet, all too often, we waste our precious time. We waste our days at jobs that drain us, we don’t stay in touch with the people who matter to us, we think, ‘There’s always tomorrow’. But sometimes, there isn’t.
Sometimes, there’s only a sunny morning, and an airplane flying low over New York City, and the ending of all our dreams.