My 9/11 day. My husband. The meaning of my to-do list.

I was standing at the bottom of the Word Trade Center when it fell. I was standing so close that I didn’t know it fell. I thought earthquake, until I couldn’t breathe. Then I thought nuclear bomb.

Now, when I let my head go back to that day, there are two moments I most easily go back to:

Moment 1: At one point I was with five men in dress shirts and ties totally covered with debris. We had each climbed into a bank next to the World Trade Center site. Debris coated our throats and we had all just fought over who got to drink water out of the toilet. When it turned out there was enough water, we went together to a hallway and sat on the floor. I started crying. The guys looked at me like I was going to be trouble and moved away. But one guy put his arm around me.

Moment 2: Minutes later. The men and I split up outside and lost each other quickly. None of us had any idea where we were. There was no one walking. I was all alone. I was still so disoriented that I didn’t know the building fell, even though I was walking at the site. Then some woman, wearing completely clean clothing, took my hand and told me to walk with her. She shepherded me nearly ten miles on foot, patiently waiting through my many screaming panic attacks, to her apartment on the Upper West Side.

Those are the two scenes I usually think about when I think about 9/11. But sometimes, if I am feeling like it might be an okay time to cry, I’ll let myself go to other stuff. Like, the part right before I heard someone break a window in that bank. The part when I thought I would die. I remember realizing my mouth was open but I was not taking in air. So I shut my mouth. I remember thinking I wish I had shut my mouth sooner so maybe I could have held air in my body a few seconds longer.

Then I accepted death. That does really happen. You quickly run through everything that matters. It is so fast how you do that. Because I know you know this: Not much matters. I had no kids. I thought of my brothers and my husband. I felt sad. Then I felt fine. And I waited to die. I could not find anything else to do. I could not see or breathe.

Then I did not die. Then I climbed in that bank window.

People wonder what the hell I’m still doing with my husband when things are so bad between us right now. But I have been one minute from death, and all I wanted in that moment was to see what life would be like with him. That’s what I wanted. I felt enormous disappointment that I would never know.

I just wanted to see things with us unfold. So I’m not giving that up. Not now.

And here’s what happened when I got to that Upper West Side apartment. My husband walked ten miles to pick me up. I told him I was fine and he took me straight to the hospital. He told me, later, that even though the woman put me in the shower, even though I did not say what happened, he could still see debris stuck deep in my ear and he knew that things had been bad.

Doctors bandaged my eyes shut. My husband held my arm for three days, showing me where to go. For a week, he stayed by my side every moment. I didn’t shower. I barely slept. My ability to stay in reality was limited. And he was there the whole time.

And then, months later, I went to trauma recovery group. A lot. And then I started reframing the story. I stopped blaming myself for walking toward the World Trade Center when I heard there was danger. I stopped thinking of the trauma as derailing my life and started thinking of it as a new path. And then, I started working. A little at first. But soon, at full-throttle.

So, look, it’s true that I know what it’s like to be on one’s death bed. That saying that you never say, “I wish I worked harder.” It’s absurd. You don’t have any thoughts like that at all. You just have your family in your heart. You see there is not a lot of room for stuff there. Your family takes up everything in those last seconds.

And then, you go back to work and it’s totally stupid. Right? What is more important than being with your family? That’s what you say to yourself.

But here’s what I am giving up. The idea that every second could be my last second. Because then you are not living life. Yes, it’s true, work is not as meaningful as family. And yes, it’s true, I did not think about my to-do list when I faced death. But if you’re not dead, your to-do list matters. Because that’s what life is. Life is getting up and going to work on things that are high on your list. Work in your pajamas, maybe, or in a corn field, or in the car to drive the kids to school. It’s all work. It’s what we’re doing here. And it’s a treat.

So what has changed? I appreciate kindness more. The kindness of an arm around my shoulder, the kindness of a warm shower from a stranger. The kindness of my husband. And I appreciate the daily routine of life. Waking up. Tending the to-do list. And not treating every moment like it’s my last. Because it’s not. This is my life, unfolding. It’s my dream come true. It’s not unfolding like I thought it would, but I’m getting to watch it. Thank god.

Posted in Fulfillment, No image, World Trade Center
62 comments on “My 9/11 day. My husband. The meaning of my to-do list.
  1. Tricia says:

    Penelope-

    Your post spoke to me for so many reasons. I walked through the World Trade Center on 9/11 at 8:20 a.m. I felt the first plane hit but thought it was the subway running under my office building. I knew the moment the second plane hit it was terrorism and I was in my office five blocks away when people started screaming it’s falling and running from the windows. When the rumbling stopped I looked up the windows were still there but it was pitch black. Like you I thought of my husband and my family. I thought I’m not going to get to celebrate our 1 year anniversary next month.

    The events of that day changed me. For me I realized I needed to be more aware of my surroundings and my “safety”. I am more observe my surroundings and those around me diligantlty. And I appreciate my family and friends more because you never know what the day holds.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Matt Bingham says:

    Wow Penelope, I guess I never put two and two together that you were living in NYC at that time. A very humbling post. Thank you for sharing this today – a good reminder of what is important and what we are here to do.

    Matt

  3. Nina Smith says:

    Penelope… that was eloquent and authentic. You continue to inspire me with your thoughts. Bravo!

  4. Peter says:

    Thanks for your story, Penelope. I lost two colleagues that day, one on each of the planes out of Boston.

  5. dibyadeep says:

    That was a moving post…

  6. Geny says:

    Thank you for your post Penelope. I accidentally fell upon it as I sat here in front of my pc hoping to find an idea of what to do on this day with my family. Each year on this day, I am at a loss. In fact, I believe today is the first time since then, that I’ve actually been home from work and not in NYC. It feels so right to be home right now. Your posting made it very clear to me as to what I should do today. And that is to simply remind my children of how much I love them, hug them a lot, make them smile throughout the evening and spend the remainder of the day as peaceful as possible. It was moving to read of the thoughts and emotions running through you as the morning of 9/11 unfolded right in front of you. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Marc Backes says:

    It’s amazing to read that in some way, all of us had a part in that day.

    I read your post and so many of your sentiments and thoughts resonate because I had the same ones. I wrote this post last night, and then read your thoughts this morning…

    9/11 definitely brought clarity to millions of lives, but hopefully it also brought resolve to live every moment as though it counted. You get one shot. Make it count – mistakes and all.

    You always do a great job of sharing clearly your thoughts and your life.

  8. Mike Fisher says:

    I was a newspaper columnist for many years. This is one of the best columns I’ve ever read. It’s searing and beautiful. Your best, I believe.

  9. jahmai says:

    Penelope,
    I have always admired and respected what you have to say but I must say that your reflection captures how 9/11 is more than just a day; but rather a life altering event. The fear, vulnerability, utter confusion during those days as it seemed the world stood still. But ultimately what remained is the thought that what matters most is our faith and the people we love the most. The lives of those lost was a high price to pay for a lesson like that; so I never want to forget it. You have definately rekindled some feelings that I did not want to lose track of. I can’t thank you enough.

  10. Nicole says:

    Penelope,

    The last commenter, jahmai, best summed up my response to your post: you rekindled feelings I was afraid I’d lost touch with. I moved out to California recently, and have been worried that I would not remember 9/11 as deeply as I want to on its anniversary, because the experience was so much less dramatic for folks out here than for many of us on the East Coast.

    Reading your post took me back to everything about 9/11 that was horrifying and painful and deserving of the swelling of our hearts. Thank you.

  11. Darren says:

    Thanks for sharing your story and lessons learned. My wife was 7 months pregnant and working in lower Manhattan on 9/11 and I posted about that day too. You’re absolutely right that it’s important to remember, but also to go on.

  12. Anthony Papillion says:

    Penelope,

    It’s not often that a blog post can move this guy to tears but yours certainly did. I, like most other people, remember the fall of the towers like it was yesterday. Watching it on television was enough to bring shock and horror to our lives. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like to be there and experience it live.

    Thank you for sharing what must be something tough to talk about. Your strength and candor amaze me.

  13. Jana says:

    I don’t think I have ever read a more succinct yet gripping and personal account of that day. Thank you for sharing and for putting life into perspective today.

  14. Paula says:

    It is the damnest thing, isn’t it, how the to-do list becomes important again? That’s life, I know, but there’s something a little disappointing about how the mundane gets right back in your face, even after a huge event.

    A great, great post, Penelope.

  15. Tim Shisler says:

    The thought of you and others fighting over water from a toilet not only humbles me, but sends chills up my spine.

    Thank you for the nakedly honest post.

  16. littlepurplecow says:

    I’m glad you’re here.

  17. Tiffany Monhollon says:

    What a perfect sentiment for this day – being able to just enjoy life in all its normalcy, in the routine. What a gift. As you so eloquently noted, what a dream come true.

  18. Amy Vachon says:

    Penelope,
    I love that you remind us our lives are our dreams come true, and our days are treats. Thanks for an amazing post today. I was so caught up in my (un)important to-do list even on this 9/11 morning, so thank you also for waking me up to what is real.

  19. efrain says:

    Penelope,

    I can not express enough how much your post has humbled me.
    I’ve read your posts for quite a while now and have admired your thoughts from the start, but after reading today’s post made me realize I admire not your thoughts but you as a person.

    Thanks

  20. Bill says:

    The actions of ordinary New Yorkers on that day still inspire me and remind me what is important in my life.

    Thank you for this post.

  21. Romuald says:

    It’s difficult to find the right words.
    Your story touched me deeply, but I am unable to find words to express that.
    Thank you for sharing that

  22. MarilynJean says:

    To echo others: great post. Thank you for sharing yet another personal segment of your life with your readers. Remembering the events of September 11 helps me remain aware that for many people in other parts of the world, occurences like this–the loss, the panic, the threat of death–are an everyday reality.

  23. Mark says:

    Gosh. I had no idea you were right there. It’s amazing how many people’s lives 9/11 affected so directly. I’m so glad you survived and are all the wiser and all the more appreciative of life.

  24. Bob says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful insights. I often forget to cherish the gift of life and the beauty of its day to day practice. Peace and prosperity to you and your loved ones.

  25. Wendy says:

    Moving post.

    What this also made me think about was how your writing changed since September 11, 2001. When you wrote for Business 2.0, it was all about career and nothing about “the intersection of work and life.”

    This post gives all of us readers a better perspective on why you won’t give up your family dream easily, despite current challenges. We can all probably learn from that determination — and where it comes from.

  26. Senia says:

    Penelope,
    Wow. So intense. So deep.
    This reminds me of a really good Leonard Cohen song. Intense thoughts and words. Really shocks me back into reality… so many things are small things when your post helps me remember what the big things are.
    S.

  27. Emily says:

    Penelope, Six years later and the anniversary feels more intense to me now than it did a few years ago. I was living in NYC too, and lost a few friends and as time goes by I find I want to read posts like yours on the anniversary as a reminder of what we went through. It changed so many people’s lives, and yes, the sense that what we’re working on, day in and day out, matters to us, is a big important lesson. It the daily rush we can lose site of our priorities, but in the face of life and death, they jump to the fore. A beautiful post. Thank you.

  28. David B. Bohl says:

    Penelope,
    Thanks, again, for sharing your life and hope with us.
    You’re truly a blessing to us all.
    David

  29. Meaghan says:

    Penelope, wonderful post. Searing – and very real…But mostly, I wanted to say I love the way you honor your relationship. That your memory of each other is still profound enough, on this most miserable of anniversaries, to help carry you forward. That even in that horror of a day you found something bright. Thank you for sharing…

  30. Scot Herrick says:

    Bravo, Penelope. Bravo.

    After six years, most of us have forgotten about that day, stung by a bait and switch war in Iraq instead of dealing with those that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

    Life is surviving, trying to do our best with help from our family and friends — or strangers — and trying to incorporate the best from those times into how we live now, to-do lists and all.

    9/11 was a day of tragedy and incredible unity in America. We no longer have that. Thanks for getting us back to what matters that day: the people.

  31. Ed Birch says:

    I am glad to hear you are going to give your marriage time to work itself out. Every marriage goes through tough times and it is in moments of tragedy that we truly see where our love is for each other.
    I know I am greatfull that my wife did not give up on our marriage. Rock steady.

  32. Ginny Klemm says:

    Penelope,

    I remember your columns well after 9/11 as they brought me to tears just like this one did. I feel privileged to be included in your very personal experiences as there are so many lessons in what you a have shared. I feel privileged to have received your awesome advice firsthand and I thank you for forcing me with the power of your words to stop and be grateful for what I have vs. responding to the 25 unread messages in my inbox.

    Take care,

    GK

  33. d says:

    A native New Yorker, I sat in my California home and watched the events unfold live on CNN; I tuned in shortly before the towers actually collapsed. All I remember is crying, feeling guilty that I wasn’t home, and trying desperately to reach my parents (cell lines were down). (Thank G-d, they were nowhere near.)

    I’m inexpressibly glad and grateful that you came out of it okay.

  34. Jamie says:

    What a way to wake up this morning. Chewing on my breakfast cereal, idly clicking through my e-mails… and here’s an incredibly honest, painful account of a woman who has walked on the line and lived. Thank you for sharing.

    Kudos to you for not giving up on your marriage. In the end.. it IS worth it. Even when life goes on.

    Glad you made it through!

  35. helene says:

    I think after reading this post and leaving this comment, I’m going to shut my laptop and take the day off. Thanks for this moving post. Glad you made it through it.

  36. Raffi says:

    It is harsh for all those who haven’t gone through a disaster or war in their life.

    Unfortunately, as people go from one disaster and war to another, they become numb. After I finished reading your post, I was amazed that you had a trauma recovery.

    I remembered the Israeli jet planes, last year, bombing Lebanon, and not even one person went to recover from any trauma, not even one citizen got depressed. For more than 30 days we heard airplanes passing over our houses and thinking that our place could be on the next target.

    The next day, after the war, everyone went to work as usual.

  37. Mike Hobart says:

    This post moved me deeply. To me your experiences are as remote as the adventures of the narrator of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds, but I was struck by it. Best wishes for the future for you and yours.

  38. Marsha says:

    I felt similiar feelings when I lost my baby son at 21 years old; he and his roommate were murdered during a robbery in their own home.I too appreciate kindness from, anyone.It has been five years.My priorities are still changed.Sometimes it feels like I just don’t fit in with the lives of so many people;they rush, they don’t appreciate the simple things like a hug, they are rude and hurtful, they don’t see the beauty of nature, or the peace of sitting next to your husband on the sofa, night after night after night.I used to get bored with that, not anymore.I look into other’s eyes, and almost immediately, I know whether they know the secret to life.Living in that moment.Being in the present.I work for a Hospice,where there are many good people.The pay is low, and the debts are high.I am putting my life back together, one small inch at the time. Thank you for sharing your fellings.

  39. Jessi says:

    Wow. You are full of moving life stories and great business sense. I look forward to reading your blog because I never know what is next…kind of like a box of chocolates! :-)

  40. Joe Grossberg says:

    Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing your story.

  41. PunditMom says:

    As always, it amazes me that you can share this with us. Big hug.

  42. Bryan Davidson says:

    The best blog post I’ve read in a long time. Your words touched a nerve in all of us. Thank you.

  43. Rebecca West says:

    Penelope, you are awesome! Thanks you so much for having the courage and the faith to share you personal experiences with us, so that we can be reminded of what’s most important in life. Your blog post will help me to keep in touch with the deeper aspects today, and that in turn will help me to accomplish the necessary and mundane bits with a greater sense of freedom and ease. I so appreciate your wisdom and eloquence — keep up the great work on all fronts!

  44. a0z0ra says:

    Thanks for sharing. Hope everything goes well with you and your husband. My thoughts & prayers will be with you.

  45. Susan Helene Gottfried says:

    Really a gorgeous and moving post. I’m glad you made it through to write this.

  46. Dale says:

    Penny,

    As usual, when you write from the heart, the outpouring of responses shows it is your finest contribution to us and our collective perspectives on life.

    Perhaps it is time for you to provide a separate category on Family and the intersection of work and “home” life on the left side of this page. You know below the part on “Popular Posts.”

    Again, beautiful article.

  47. Joselle says:

    Penelope, thank you so much for this and so many of your posts. I truly appreciate how openly you share your stories. What I love best about your writing is how clearly you see the connections all around us. Thank you.

  48. Chris says:

    Terrific post, Penelope. I am truly moved.

  49. Dina says:

    Penelope,

    God bless you.

    Dina

  50. Lara says:

    Hi Penelope –
    This is my first foray onto your blog, which I discovered while doing “research” for work (am considering starting a work-related blog, as my current one is mostly silliness), and I already love your blog. Thanks for the candor and the useful career tips!

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