9/11: What’s still the same

I still have not seen a video of the towers falling. But I started reading commentary about it this past year.

I have never stopped thinking about the people jumping from the towers. Maybe because after the second plane hit, my brain couldn’t comprehend anything really, it was all abstract and unreal. But when my coworker told me “People are jumping from the building!” that’s when I understood it was real. And I followed her to go see.

In the recovery group we could tell where each person was that day by whether we said jumping or falling. I read in some comments section that the people who jumped were not choosing death, they were choosing life. Maybe this has been said a million times over the last two decades. But like I said, I am 20 years late to the commentary. The person said those people knew they were about to die by fire, so they chose to live a few more minutes being able to breathe, falling through the sky. Even holding hands.

Those images of people mid air look so different to me now. It resonates with me that the idea of choosing life looks a lot like taking a terrible path. We can only choose from what is available. And we have to be alive to make the best choice we can under any given circumstances.

When I crouched to hide myself from the downpour of debris, it was difficult to get myself to move. I felt frozen. And I realized suffocation was inevitable. But I didn’t want my death to be painful so I moved.

When I climbed out a broken window I didn’t know where I would go. It’s hard to say if I was looking for anything beyond a breath of air to breathe. Is climbing out the window to avoid suffocation the same as climbing out a window to get some air? I would have done anything to avoid suffocation. I’m so lucky I was on the ground.

This morning I took my son to the doctor in Medford, MA. Requests to schedule something so mundane on 9/11 still jar me, but I know people are moving on so I try to as well. I slept in my clothes so it would be easier to get out of the apartment on time without obsessing about the date.

I left my son in the waiting room and walked to to 7 Eleven to get coffee and I saw a line of five flashing firetrucks. Lots of people saw the trucks, but only I stopped. I asked people what’s happening and they all shrugged as they walked on by.

I walked closer, stepping in front of moving cars. Then I realized it was a moment of silence at 8:46 when the first plane hit. I stood too, til 9:03. Then I said to a fireman, “I was at the World Trade Center. This is a really nice gesture.”

He looked at me and said, “You were there?”

It occurs to me that the videos must be full of people looking Wall Street well dressed. Now I’m a lot older. There’s not much of a difference between clothes I sleep in and clothes I work in. But I’m still a person who wants to know what’s going on.

It’s comforting to know that after all these years, at least one thing about me has not changed.

25 replies
  1. Ralph Boroughs
    Ralph Boroughs says:

    For most of us, It takes a while to be able to talk much about a trauma.

    My Dad, who was in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, didn’t really talk about until 1975, 30 years later. Once he started, he wrote several books about the war.

    For myself, 9/11 was deeply significant, though I was far from ground zero. I was about 800 miles from home, in Madison Wisconsin, and couldn’t fly home. Across from my hotel there was a fine Afghan restaurant, called Osama’s.

    My wife was home, but teaching with many international student, including several Muslims friends from Arab countries.

    One of my sisters lived across the river from Manhattan. Another was about 5 miles from the Pentagon.

    This was before doom-scrolling on your phone was a thing, but I couldn’t really sleep for days. Instead, I was doom-scrolling on cable news. And spending hour on land line phones, calling friends and family.

  2. AB
    AB says:

    Thank you for writing, reminding us about where we were that morning!
    It’s best for us all to keep checking in with ourselves about how much we are ok and/or continuing to figure out what to do next.

  3. me
    me says:

    11 September will never be just another day to me. No matter how many years go by, I’ll always remember and grieve, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. Some people just want to move on and dont like that big memorial services are still held. But I never want those who suffered and lost so much to think theyve been shrugged off.

    Sending you peace, P.

  4. Kenny
    Kenny says:


    Your remembrance posts about 911 are most meaningful and healing. Though I cannot even remotely understand the totality of your experience of that day, and the days after, I find this yearly post most authentic and helpful for us all.

    GodSpeed Always

  5. Liza Taylor
    Liza Taylor says:

    Oh, Penelope my old friend. I think of you throughout the year and especially on 9/11.
    You’ve moved on, yet you share your self-healing brilliance with whoever asks, and give surprise ideas to adults who weren’t even born on 9/11.
    Question: Any way to access your original 9/11 piece? I want it for my nephew age 18 and living with us this year.
    From your friend Liza

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    … “But I’m still a person who wants to know what’s going on.

    It’s comforting to know that after all these years, at least one thing about me has not changed.”

    There are times when I’m with people who I’ve known for a long time, some even that I grew up with, and it’s like I get flashbacks or I’m in some kind of time warp. I see them as the person they are and have always been. We do change as we get older but as you say some things don’t change. And there are times when we recognize ourselves as we’ve always been. Many times, it’s insight that we weren’t looking for. It just comes out of nowhere.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      This is lovely, Mark. I am surprised how much comfort I get in discovering I’m still the same me. I would have thought it’s more comforting to watch myself change. Maybe it’s an age thing.


  7. Cate C.
    Cate C. says:

    Every year, on this day, without fail, I come to your blog to hear your thoughts and insights as survivor or this event. You honor us by sharing your experience and retrospection. Thank you for being emotionally honest in a place where emotional honesty is often forgotten.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      Thanks, Cate. I find that each year I talk with fewer people offline about 9/11, so the process of posting on the blog and reading the comments becomes more and more central to the day. Thank you for being here.


  8. Cathleen Beke
    Cathleen Beke says:

    A few years ago, I read all your 9/11 commentaries in order. How horrible. How moving. How tragic. How amazing — to see your resolve, to experience your memories as they expanded, to have you put 9/12 in perspective. Thank you for sharing these painful, important memories.

  9. Renee
    Renee says:

    I have your original post bookmarked and I read it every year. I had no personal connection to the attacks but still feel deeply connected to the tragedy that befell our nation that day. Your words still move me.

  10. MJS
    MJS says:

    I was across the country, at work, and we all learned quickly that a relative of a co-worker’s wife was on a high floor in one of the towers. A young person with a lot of promise, there at the beginning of what would have been a great career step. Some years later that young person’s parents divorced and one of the settlement items of high energy and conflict was custody of the cremains. I think about that a lot, devastated people ultimately fighting over who got to hold whatever was left of the promising child. I cannot think of much more deeply sad than that.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      OMG that’s such a sad story. People don’t write a lot about families falling apart after 9/11 — they mostly write about resilience. I’m on the health registry though — people who were at the WTC or the area right around it that day answer a big set of questions from researchers twice a year. Two things strike me about the questions. First how many questions focus on mental health issues and cancer. Second how many questions focus on not asking for help. I think they are related because we hear so little of the struggles after 9/11 that when people have them, we’re less likely to say we need help.


  11. Kristi
    Kristi says:

    Penelope, thanks for posting this. Yesterday was a blur of mundane things, for me, and your post gives me a second chance to stop and think.

    What you said about how choosing life can look like choosing a terrible path, I hope you won’t mind me saying that it immediately reminded me of this weekend’s This American Life episode. The episode follows people involved with the Never Use Alone hotline, which is a hotline for people who are going to use heroin or fentanyl so that someone will be on the phone with them if they overdose. There was a mom who was is an volunteer for the hotline because her daughter uses, and all she wants is for her daughter to stay alive, even if she never stops using. I have so many friends and family who are gone or not the same because of opiates, and I really needed to hear about how choosing a terrible path could still be choosing life.

    • Ann
      Ann says:

      I never heard of this until I read it here and then a piece about a volunteer came up on Facebook. What an extraordinary thing to do for strangers because it drug use has impacted your life.

  12. Penelope
    Penelope says:

    I love that there is a never use alone hotline. And it’s a perfect example of what I was talking about — how good choices don’t always look like it from first glance.

    The concept of don’t do it along comes from such a great place. This reminds me of the day Y was in a traffic jam in Boston and they saw someone overdose right on the sidewalk near their car. Y’s friend turned off her car in the middle of traffic and ran to the person and revived them with narcan. (Not sure if I have the lingo right – but I have the scene right.)

    It made a huge impression on Y (and me!) and Y learned how to carry around something to save someone overdosing. And they learned how to use it. The whole process made me so much more conscious of how we can be doing lots of small steps to keep people who are addicted alive until they can start making small steps for themselves to stay alive.


  13. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    Small world. I helped an overdosed person in a donut shop when the staff were too shocked so I took their phone and put in on speaker phone beside the person to 9-1-1. The person’s partner took off after giving me the n. kit. The young lady died temporarily, but still didn’t want to go to hospital.

    I could easily take action because I had made a decision in advance that I would always act. (As I have before, too) I presume I would take action for a future minor 9/11 if I could.

  14. celestial
    celestial says:

    9/11 is to this generation what Pearl Harbor was to our parents. I hadn’t seen the Challenger disaster or Reagan shot or any number of highly televised events; this was my first. My brother works in NYC and we couldn’t reach him for at least a day; he had to walk home to Brooklyn where he and his partner watched the towers fall. A man I walk with in the dog park was in the Pentagon on 9/11; he is one of the toughest dudes on the planet and couldn’t make himself enter the Pentagon ever again. It is amazing that you were able to survive that day to still live and function, Penelope. I’m glad you did.


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