The first tower opened the year that I was born, near enough to Manhattan’s bridges and tunnels for my father to traverse them daily. I only went inside of the World Trade Center a handful of times, but I looked to the twin towers constantly. When they came into view from one of the New Jersey freeways, it meant an adventure was close at hand – always a day inside of one or more of the museums, maybe a stop at FAO Schwartz if I was lucky.
The first time I boarded a plane in Columbus, bound for the LaGuardia airport without an adult, it was my 10th birthday. From that point on, my little brother and I made that trip about three times a year to see our father. Divorce had moved us to Ohio with our mom. I always asked my dad if he could book our flight there at nighttime so that I could look for the city. The hammock of skyline bounded by the Empire State building and the towers helped me pick it out. In all of the awkwardness and emotion of a family split, there was comfort in its glimmer.
We got at least one Manhattan adventure on every trip that kept growing in scope — more Broadway, more restaurants, more celebrity-gazing. (Thanks for waving to me when I was 11, and looked at you wide-eyed in Central Park, William Hurt. It was sweet. And frankly, Sean Penn, you kind of scared me.) As a kid, I never imagined that I wouldn’t live there in my adult life.
Seven years ago this morning, I remember turning on the television, seeing both towers still standing, but burning, and wondering what strange apocalyptic movie VH1 was strangely airing that I had never heard of. I realized the same scene was on every channel. Then I had the body memory of standing on the top floor of Tower Two on a spring day so windy that the outdoor observation deck was closed. The building swayed, and over and over, my knees felt weak. I called my dad, thankfully home and safe in Connecticut, who was processing the scene himself, then getting off the phone to talk to my stepmother, who had just arrived in Grand Central station, safe, but stranded in the chaos of the island for the day as everything shut down, as we all watched in shock as the two towers crumbled.
We were safe, and after I waited for news of colleagues, as well as college and childhood friends for several days, I found out that they were safe too. But my dad and my stepmother talked of the empty cars left at the train stations that week, and the heartsickness that pervaded the entire region for months, the heartsickness that’s clearly still there as I’m watching the children of victims, teenagers who must have been so tenderly young when it happened, place flowers on memorials this morning.
Two months before that day, the company that I worked for decided to shut its Columbus office. I could come work in Los Angeles, they said. How about Atlanta? Then one man called and said “would you be interested in coming to New York?” And Dan and I talked about it seriously. Married less than a year, maybe we could move to Hoboken. Maybe I could move there for a few months alone while he tried to sell his business. But moving for a dot-com didn’t seem very wise, finding a place to live with our beloved dog in or around Manhattan didn’t seem feasible, and shutting down in my husband’s night club seemed like it would leave a cultural wound in Columbus. I imagined in an office 13-ish blocks away, and felt selfishly grateful to instead be at a distance of 477 well-worn miles.
But for all of the hours I spent weepy and confused and frightened and on the phone or watching the horrible-ness and heartbreak and tragedy of it all on television that day, there’s one memory that stands out in my mind most of all. My mother called me to remind me that it was my grandmother’s birthday. I called her close to evening.
“Well, whoever thought I wanted this for my birthday was a real shithead,” my grandmother told me. She wasn’t that salty-tongued most of the time, but you know, sometimes events call for it. “They should take it back.”
In two more days, she would be facing the two-year anniversary of my grandfather‘s death – a man she spent 61+ years head over heels in love with, parented five children with, laughed with and adored. He went into the hospital on the eve of her birthday, then clung dearly to life until he was more than a day clear of it, willfully fighting (if you ask any of his children or grandkids) to leave September 11th with no significance other than it being Grandma’s birthday. He died just a couple of hours after she kissed him goodnight and we all left our hospital vigil, in the early morning hours of September 13.
She had lived through the great depression and World War II. The state of the world shifting, friends and loved ones living in danger of violence — these were not the new experiences for her that they were for me. And September 13 was the day that she received the deepest scar on her heart.
We lost her in 2004, a year before my son was born. Her simple assessment of that day reminded me of how fragile we can be, how quickly scarred and how, reluctantly and painfully or just because we have to, we learn to adapt.
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