On September 11th

We were married and for the longest time, we didn’t want a baby yet. And then, we did. I’d had a mental checklist of pregnancy pre-requisites: love, a career path, and a place to live that didn’t feel unhygienic. This last requirement wasn’t easy while living in New York City on a budget. The checklist was an old one, almost unconscious by the time the requirements were actually fulfilled, but once complete, there was an emotional sea change. Suddenly we were surprised to find that we’d become aspiring parents. While W job-hunted in locations cheap enough for me to stop earning money for a while, I read pregnancy books and ate the What to Expect diet. We prepared in earnest.

And then, it didn’t happen. After so many years of prevention, we expected that just by setting our new course, we’d be on our way. Instead, nothing happened, and then nothing happened again. We became more and more deliberate: tracking cycles, interpreting mucus, checking basal body temperature, and following a specific schedule. A repeated, obligatory, schedule. We waited for Something To Happen, and it didn’t. And then it didn’t again.

Temperamentally, we tend to be happy people. But there was a growing dull ache for both of us, a bruise nudged by the cheerful couples pushing strollers on the streets of our bustling Park Slope neighborhood. I’d ride the subway all summer interpreting my sense of smell: did I have a hormone-induced heightened sensitivity to odors, or did that woman just stink? Everything was a false alarm, and the hope that we’d shared began to sour into disappointment with a risk of impending sorrow.

Then, eight months into our baby-making efforts, there was that beautiful, terrible morning of September 11th. By chance we both happened to be in lower Manhattan, although we weren’t together. From his office diagonally next to one of the towers, my clever husband was efficient and proactive: calling his parents as soon as the first plane hit, convincing people who feared missing their court summons that they should really just go home, and leaving the area. As horrified coworkers looked up to see people jumping from the towers, he kept his head down. He couldn’t help but witness the resolute firefighters rushing to the scene, but he was composed enough to realize that seeing too many vivid images would only add to future nightmares.

View from W’s office when he went back to help relocate

Meanwhile, my subway trip to an appointment was halted by unexplained delays, and I wandered, confused about what to do next, slow to comprehend the magnitude of what had happened. I hiked the length of a tunnel to find a “better” exit, only to step up into police officers yelling for me to run back the other way in a swirl of dust that was, it turns out, the first tower collapse. Then I began a trek in search of a working phone, fearful that if I left Manhattan before confirming that my husband was okay I could be trapped, unable to reach him if he were shuttled to a special evacuation place that we all speculated would be created, full of wounded people to be helped. When the second tower collapsed, I stopped and watched, transfixed, an image that was action-movie unreal. From where we stood it must have been a rumble, but what I remember hearing were the gasps and sobs and one man’s gargled shriek of “Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus!” It was about noon when I was able to reach W via the payphone at the Astor Place K-Mart. I’d gotten quarters along with cheap sneakers for the walk home—the shoe aisles were filled with women with sore feet. My husband helped me with directions for the walk over the bridge and home. That afternoon it was closed to vehicles and completely filled with pedestrians, many alone, some clustered together. There was muted crying and laughing, except when the fighter planes tore through the sky above us. Then people would scream and duck. We were all jittery.

When I finally got home, W was on the roof, watching smoke rise from the site. Our tv was out—we’d been antennae-only people, and the signals used to come from the top of the towers—and so we didn’t see the speeches, the endlessly repeated footage that others remember so well. I cleaned the kitchen, savagely scrubbing every crevice of the refrigerator.

That day and the next, we couldn’t work, but we’d been told to go out and about: “keep calm and carry on”. We walked through the hushed streets of Park Slope, meeting dazed neighbors everywhere. All of the restaurants were full and quiet. On the weekend we left the city to visit my parents, hunching over a map of lower Manhattan, recounting what had happened where. At the suburban grocery store, there were stacks of huge bags of kibble that people had bought to give to search-and-rescue dogs. To me, it seemed so self-indulgent: were we really going to waste time shipping stuff like this, which could be bought in the city, anyway? But of course we all wanted to help, and we all felt so powerless. My husband had shown up with a friend at ground zero with flashlights and work gloves and they had been sent away, and it seemed that our whole neighborhood was lined up at an overwhelmed blood donor center. We wanted to do what we could, and of course, we were still waiting then. There were posters up, there were searchers searching, and we thought that surely some people would be saved. We expected, any minute, that a group of survivors might be found alive, a small community within a pocket in the rubble. And then it didn’t happen. And then, it still didn’t happen.

We were bereft in spite of our own immense good fortune. No one truly close to us was gone. Our mourning felt profound although it was completely superficial: friends of friends, the places that we used to meet. I have a terrible sense of direction, and for years I would get lost and call my husband and he’d literally tell me where to go by using the towers, saying okay, you should be walking with them to the left and almost behind you. The loss left us unmoored. We told each other, we just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, the days will come and go, and before we know it, it will be a year away, or five years, then even ten years. Yet each step, at least starting out, felt like quicksand—the ground shifting, the fear sucking.

A week later we were trying to achieve normalcy. My husband’s office was attempting to relocate, we grudgingly signed up for cable tv. My subway line ran through the WTC area, and it didn’t stop there, but it would slow down as we passed the platforms. They looked pretty normal, except that they were empty. But it smelled terrible—three quarters electrical fire, one quarter charred flesh. The first time I rode through it my eyes filled with tears, but I held it together. After that, I’d sometimes notice someone who was doing it for the first time—they’d look startled, then stricken, and then they’d put the subway face back on. After the first ride almost everyone seemed to wear the same expression: pissed-but-determined. We’d glance at each other, sometimes, and there would be silent agreement: we aren’t going to lose it, we are going to work, we are tough New Yorkers and we’re going to ignore that smell so that the terrorists don’t win.

About a week after Sept. 11th it was also time for my husband and I to try again. The thermometer and mucus said so. It didn’t feel like a good idea. The world felt darker, more sinister, and it seemed entirely possible that things would never get better.

And yet.

We had made a plan. We had wanted a baby. We still wanted a baby, even if we were scared of bringing a child into this sorrowful world with its chaotic uncertainty and endless pages of obituaries in The New York Times, with the stench and pallor that hung over the city. We’d been trying for eight months, and we couldn’t skip an opportunity that only came every 29 days. Because that would be letting the terrorists win.

I know it seems silly. But at that point, it felt like the mere activities of daily life took more courage or energy than we had. But carrying on with our routine was the only way that we knew how to respond. In the face of of it all, we felt morally obligated, patriotically obligated, to demonstrate our hope, our faith in the future, and our love.

There are so many who lost family and friends, so many heroic people who risked much and saw too much, and their enduring courage in carrying on every day, in rebuilding lives with pieces wrenched from their souls, and in facing annual national remembrances of what is for them a profound, particular, and personal grief, is beyond anything that I can imagine.

On anniversaries, it feels like that September 11th just happened moments ago. But for us, really, it’s been a lifetime. This morning it was another beautiful, glorious September 11th. We spent ours with our daughters—our elder daughter turned 8 on June 18th—along with most of the town, out on the soccer fields. The children are oblivious to the significance of the date—even those who have been taught the facts don’t really comprehend.

But the grown-ups remember. Nine years ago today all of us were stunned, frightened, and sorrowful.  Since then, there’s been so much joy.   In spite of  all of those who were lost and all that was lost, our hope, and our faith in the future, and our love endures.

16 Comments

  1. Cheri

    Katie, that was an amazingly real account for all of us who were only watching helplessly from afar. It must have so scary. While I’m sorry for all that happened on that day, I am grateful that it brought you and your family here, with all of us.

  2. Michelle

    Amazing story to read – thanks for sharing it!

    We were not close to NYC, but my husband (then friend from afar!) was stationed at the Pentagon on 9/11. Ironically, it was the fear of losing him that brought us together. We were married a few months later.

  3. Melinda

    This has me in tears, Katie. Thank you for posting it. We were in Florence, Italy on our honeymoon on that tragic morning and struggled to understand the agitation of people out in the streets. A woman in a stationary shop tried to tell us what happened but in her broken English it came out as if a helicopter landed on the roof of a building, which seemed completely un-newsworthy to us and it was several hours before we got back to the main downtown area, with other tourists bustling about, and started catching snippets of shocked conversations. I’ve always felt a little disconnected from that “I can tell you where I was when….” experience that goes along with national tragedy as by the time we returned a week or more later, people were more or less hunkered down in their TV re-play fatigue . Whether vicariously or what-have-you, you’ve tugged me back into some semblance of connectedness. Thanks for sharing your story.

  4. Melinda, thank you so much for the kind words. I know what you mean about feeling disconnected: I was in France studying abroad during the LA Race Riots, and I knew that it must be a big deal because it was making the papers there, but it was still a small-ish blip with all of the European news. On the bright side, I also missed the primary election sex scandals that year. . . .

  5. Jenn

    This was very moving Katie. My dad was supposed to be at the towers that day. Luckily, he had a MD appointment that morning and canceled his meeting with Port Authority. I know many who lived in the city (one friend was 8 months pregnant walking across the bridge into Queens). This was beautifully and poignantly written.

  6. Big Sister

    I don’t know how I missed this one last year, but I am glad to read it tonight just as the drumbeat of tenth anniversary remembrances becomes almost too much to bear. Your recollection is different because it is personal to me and therefore more dear. I remember that day too and Cute W. somehow getting through on the clogged mobile phones (before all circuits crashed) to let me know you and he were safe. (My honey and I were in town from Dallas and stuck in the city in an overpriced hotel filled with other stunned and hollowed out guests for what seemed like a surreal eternity. The thought of you walking over that bridge home still makes me weep. Relief. Disbelief. And not too much later, to sit across from you both at dinner out and get the news that you were pregnant. It gave us such happiness and such good news when there wasn’t much to find. Cute W. so vigilantly protective. You, shy and turned inward. And then in June, the divine Miss M. born on MY birthday. She was then and will ever be the best 40th birthday present ever. Thank you for this good story and your beautiful telling of it.

  7. Awww, Big Sister. Thank you!

    I remember going out to dinner with you two shortly after and your honey kept refilling my wine glass while I was still trying to stay incognito at the very beginning.

  8. Mary Ellen

    On 9/11 I had 3 young children. My oldest, a 2nd grader ran off the bus and said “The United States is at war”. His 4 year old brother and 8 month old sister were in swings enjoying the September afternoon weather. I never really understood the baby boom after 9/11 . The helplessness as a parent was awful. How can you protect your children from something unimaginable? Thank you for story. You are a wonderful writer.

  9. Thanks, Mary Ellen. Ugh, I think that it would’ve made me feel sick to wonder what people were telling my 2nd grader all day when he wasn’t with me. . . .

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