I was at the World Trade Center when it fell. At each anniversary that passes I write my story, and each year it changes a little. This year, I have been thinking about that moment when I accepted death.
I was at the corner of Liberty and Broadway when the first tower fell. I was too close to the building to be able to see what was happening. It sounded like a huge bomb, and it felt like a snowstorm of dirt. Everyone ran. But in just a few seconds, the world became dead silent and no one could see. I crawled over piles of people. My mouth was full of dust and I could barely breathe. I had no idea where I was or how to preserve myself. I thought I might be the only person alive. As breathing got more difficult, I settled into the idea of dying.
Time got very slow and I seem to have had an hour’s worth of thoughts in seconds. At first I worried that my family would be sad. But then I was disappointed. I would not see my brothers as adults. Would not know what I was like as a mom, or what it was like to grow old with my husband. My to-do list was overflowing with things I wanted to achieve, things I had been looking forward to. But the minute I thought I was going to die, that list didn’t matter. I was sad that I would not get to hang out and watch family life unfold.
It’s surprising because like almost all New Yorkers, I was not the hang out type. And in case it’s not clear from the obituaries and essays that have come from 9/11, the World Trade Center did not attract the slow-lane types.
Like many New Yorkers, I went to a World Trade Center recovery group. The groups were divided into the kind of trauma you experienced. People who watched the scene on TV were not in the same group as people whose spouse died. I was in a group with people who were there the ten minutes or so before the Tower fell. Some of the people in my group felt the impact of the plane while sitting at their desk. Some of the people ran from their building and were splattered by body parts from jumpers. All of us felt lucky to be alive.
All of us vowed to make life more meaningful after 9/11. Almost all of us changed jobs to do something that gave us more personal time. The few of us who could, had a baby.
Now I know that if I die tomorrow, what I’ll regret is not getting to watch my life unfold. So I have been changing my life, a little at a time, to give myself more time to watch life go by. I made a career change from Wall St.-based business development to home-based writer, I had two kids, and I encouraged my husband to reject jobs with long hours. We vowed to cut back our spending 70% to create a more simple life.
But cutting spending is not so easy, especially in New York City. It required making a lot of difficult choices. Finally we decided we could not reach our goals without moving. So this year, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I am making a new home in Madison.
Sure, I’m still competitive and ambitious when it comes to my career, but what 9/11 gave me the strength to make the scary decision to slow things down. Slowing down means missing opportunities, missing a chance to shine or a serendipitous meeting. It’s hard to simplify life because a complicated life is so stimulating. But nearly suffocating in the rubble showed me that what I want most is to be present: Consciously watching while my life unfolds.