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.