I have been writing a post about 9/11 every year. Maybe because 9/11 comes right around the Jewish High Holidays, I treat my archive of posts a little like a prayer book. I read my favorite – the first one – because it’s still incredible to me that I was at the World Trade Center when it fell.

I read some of the ones from the years right after that. The blog posts about the trauma of that day are also the posts that remind me of the most intimate times with my Ex.

We were both changed people after that day. My Ex started a career in social justice. He risked his own safety to protest false imprisonment. We took in a young kid of a Palestinian activist who was on the run. I stopped being a reliable breadwinner and started writing career advice from my kitchen counter because I was too traumatized to go back to an office and have a career.

And we had kids.

That moment when I could not breathe. I am not clear, even today how long it was. It was long enough for me to have so many thoughts. First I thought to myself, I should have shut my mouth sooner. You have so much less time to live if your mouth is coated with rubble. Then I thought, I am not going to help the person who is touching my hand. I can barely help myself. Then I thought I am going to die. It’s okay. I’m okay to die. Then I thought, wait, I should die trying to live. I should just move or do something, anything, to find a place with air.

So then I started moving. In pitch dark. With no idea at any given moment what I was touching or standing on. And in all this, still, so many thoughts, an unbelievable number of thoughts, I also had my most vivid, memorable thoughts: That I am so disappointed I would not get to see my life unfold. I was so excited to start a family with my husband. I wanted to see what would happen.

Now I know: the gift of life is to get to be part of it. That’s all. It’s a joy to see what happens. The best story in the world.

But my story is not anything like I expected. I know this is true for everyone. But it’s still true. I am just so surprised. And — I feel guilty to say this — I am disappointed.

I am so grateful to have lived. Even 17 years later, I cry now. Remembering the feeling when I decided it was okay to die. I would be okay. That’s just how it is. You get that feeling. I know. I had it.

I got to live. But I thought I would live a perfect little life. I didn’t realize it. I just guess I just assumed. I mean, I think everyone thinks that’s what they are missing when they die. I didn’t die, so I know what happens.

We take family pictures. For the boys. Because even though their dad only lives with us one week out of every five, the boys deserve to feel like a family.

I look at that picture and I think of 9/11. This family is what has emerged from 9/11. And it’s broken. And I’m sad. And I’m sad that I don’t feel more gratitude. I always imagined telling the boys about 9/11. I saved so many things. I saved books full of high-resolution photos. I saved the wastebasket I carried with me for miles and miles. I saved letters school children wrote to me after they read my story.

It’s good that my shirt and my shoes from that day are somewhere safe at the Smithsonian. Because this year I threw all the other stuff out. We are in a very small apartment in Swarthmore. And the move away from the farm was very difficult. We kept only what we wanted most of all. And what I want most of all is the family.

I wanted it most the day I thought I would die as well. So in that respect, not much has changed. I don’t want to talk to the boys about the details of 9/11. And to be honest, I don’t think they care. They remind me of me, when I was a kid, walking out of the room when someone started talking about Vietnam. Not because it was sad, but because it was annoying; grownups back then never could shut up about Vietnam.

My sons sense that 9/11 is an undertone to every memory, every photo tucked safely into the pages of an album. But my sons don’t need to look at pictures of the World Trade Center to remember it. We were a family during those early, raw years right after 9/11 and they ask all the time about what that was like.

Trauma is genetic. I have read that before. Now I understand how it happens. This is not how I imagined my life would unfold, but I still feel so lucky to be here for it.

17 replies
  1. me
    me says:

    Dear P: My life isn’t what I expected (hoped) it would be, either.

    Like you, I want to try my best to be happy I’m here to see how things turn out.

    Thank you for reminding me of that simple aspiration. Especially today, when I always need to hear something hopeful to help overcome the sadness of this day ….

  2. Kyle
    Kyle says:

    It’s really nice that your children’s father can live with you for a week at a time. I can’t dream of my parents doing that even for a day. Good for you two that you can dot that and you want to.

    • Isabelle
      Isabelle says:

      This.
      My parents wouldn’t be together for even a meal from the time they divorced (when I was 3) until my college graduation, when I told them both the only gift I wanted was to have dinner, the 3 of us. (My Dad spent the whole day telling me he probably wouldn’t do it, but finally did show up.) It was a really nice meal for me.
      One of the many profound things I’ve learned from reading Penelope’s writing is how rich people with kids statistically almost never get divorced. Being poor broke our family in a lot of ways, but divorce was the biggest one. Social and economic justice matter on so, so many levels.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Yeah, I am unreasonably happy to see this picture of the kids’ real dad with them, and to learn that he’s back in the picture, albeit part time. I don’t know PT; she’s not a friend of mine. But this is by far the best picture ever posted on this site because families belong together and just look how happy those boys are.

      My son knows a lot of families with divorce. I grew up in a family after divorce (though it’s a special case because my mom was an intellectual freak and I think she actually planned it that way). It’s awful for every one of his friends, and he’s given a lot of thought to how you construct a divorce-proof family, as his parents did. He reported the following guidelines to me yesterday:
      1. Don’t marry too young. Wait until you have a career.
      2. Don’t have kids right after you get married. Wait a couple of years to be sure the marriage is stable.
      3. Have someone stay at home with the kids.

      I can’t argue so much with these ideas, because it worked for us. And yes, Isabelle, there are economic issues involved in being able to follow these guidelines. Generational economic issues.

      But the rich people don’t get divorced idea? Rich people get divorced less, but it’s still awfully frequent. Per the BLS, there’s a reduction from 50% of married people without college degrees getting divorced to 30% of people with college degrees getting divorced. Per the NCHS, having an annual income under 25K increases your probability of divorce by 30 percentage points versus having income over 50K. 20-30% is still pretty high.

      That said, I’d add guideline number 4: don’t be poor.

  3. Carol of kensington
    Carol of kensington says:

    You have touched and inspired me and so many others. I am blessed because you lived. Your family is your blessing. Jordan Peterson says life is tragic – he’s really interesting. I’d love to know what you think of him.

  4. me
    me says:

    For me, remembering 11Sep is a lot like praying.

    Reading stories about those who died, and those who lived: I can’t think of a more meaningful way to honor all that we lost that day.

    Thank you for sharing your stories – as always.

  5. alan
    alan says:

    thanks for your courage to share, and tell it as it is…we all have our personal ways for trying to figure out what to think, say, and feel about our past, present and future…it helps me when I can be part of a community and share the best and worst of our lives…your ability to put your experience into words is precious to those of us who can benefit from reading, pondering, and stretching outside our comfort zones…

  6. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Penny,

    I’ve seen your life unfold over the years, and it has always fascinated me. In my own life too, things have not gone as I expected, but much like you, I have never been bored:).
    We could all look back and assess our lives by what we have gained over time, but ultimately the essential intangibles tend to lose out when we do that. I’ve decided to look at my feelings about things, did I add to the lives of others (these realizations give me feelings of gratification) or did I take away from the lives of others (these realizations leave me feeling vapid and unfulfilled). What do you feel?
    Most of all, I feel the most positive when I have added to the life of someone who can do nothing at all to repay me. I’m not a closet saint or anything, but think back to when you helped an earthworm get off of the hot pavement, or said something nice to a stranger, and I believe you’ll understand.
    Live is about experiences and their legacy, and making enough money not to have to worry about the real necessities.
    Your writing (even when I don’t agree with it) has added to my life… so thank you.
    Mytwocentsworth,
    D

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Thank you for sharing your story of 9/11 over the years. And best to you and your family during these Jewish High Holidays.

  8. sevanetta
    sevanetta says:

    Penelope, this was the most beautiful, balanced, reflective post. Thank you. It’s wonderful that you’re able to get on with the boys’ dad and that they can have him around – you can see it in their smiles, they’re glowing.

    I also love this post because it helps me feel justified in my priorities. I’m supposed to be fixing my house – writing a development application to get it raised, getting a builder etc after it was flooded last year. That’s an obvious priority, right? But I’m working on my health because I want to have a baby, I actually want my family even though I suppose I should technically sort the house out first. And I work fulltime, and I’m not well, I’m exhausted. I’ve been having difficulties and to me I figure if I can fall pregnant, then I will be motivated or get help for the other stuff afterwards. No point having the house if I don’t have the family I want as well.

  9. Mysticaltyger
    Mysticaltyger says:

    I’m more horrified about 9/11 now than I was then. Probably around 8-9 years after it happened, I started learning/realizing that it was an inside job that had been planned decades in advance.

  10. Olivia
    Olivia says:

    I’m glad u made it till this day, even if all didnt go the way you could have wished, still you are alive, with 2 greats boys. Take care,
    cheers
    Olivia

    • John
      John says:

      Whatever happened was too bad.,..We definitely can’t change it..Ut atleast we can make sure we forget all those things and live our lives…We didn’t chose our destiny nor we will so why not leave happily forgetting all those horrible memories.And i m glad you are doing the same…So all the very best for your future.Stay blessed

  11. clubcadde
    clubcadde says:

    I also love this post because it helps me feel justified in my priorities. I’m supposed to be fixing my house – writing a development application to get it raised, getting a builder etc after it was flooded last year. That’s an obvious priority, right? But I’m working on my health because I want to have a baby, I actually want my family even though I suppose I should technically sort the house out first. And I work fulltime, and I’m not well, I’m exhausted. I’ve been having difficulties and to me I figure if I can fall pregnant, then I will be motivated or get help for the other stuff afterwards. No point having the house if I don’t have the family I want as well.

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