“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” –John Steinbeck
15 Years Later, New York City: the Memorial and Never Ever Forgetting
How do you start a story about something that you don’t really want to talk about but have to? How Do you tell a story about the lives of people that you were just getting to know who were taken from you through an act of senseless terror, only days after your birthday on a warm summer morning? I don’t know, I know. Maybe this is not a story that will be written well, a page turner if you will, but, it’s not a story; It’s real. Many of us in the little aquarium we call life find ourselves smacking our heads against the glass, wondering why we are trapped and how we can get out. Thanks, Pink Floyd. So, if you want to go on this emotional roller-coaster with me, then here is your ticket, if not, frankly I do not blame you. Honestly, I hate that I pulled that number myself, but at times life is, as I often say, a dark ride. I did not choose it, but you did, so, come on in, it’s a long read, but I hope it’s worth it, and you will understand why I wrote it.
So the Ride Begins: The Preface
My first trip to NYC was when I was ten years old and there were three things I wanted to see: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Trade Center Towers. When you are ten years old, it’s the big things, not the little things that matter to you and this was how old I was when I got to see, firsthand, those sites. To me, the Twin Towers were the greatest thing I had ever seen. I had gone there many times after that first trip. Over the years, I always marveled at the height of the towers and how the steel and glass glistened in the daylight. At night, it would glow like two behemoth beacons beckoning for you to come inside and see the city from its perspective. There was an observation deck on the top floor of one of the towers – I forget which one now, but due to its height and wind shear, you were not allowed to be outside like you could at the Empire State Building. Good for me I suppose, as heights are my Achilles heel. I get vertigo being above ten floors is often, if not always, overwhelming – especially if I am outdoors. I suppose this is what ended my mountain climbing career.
Then it happened, the attacks on the Towers, the Pentagon, and the brave souls in Pennsylvania. When I do speak of that day, and I rarely do, I always cry because, not only the tragic loss of life, but also, the loss of the world’s, and my, innocence. On that fateful day, seven of my friend’s lives were snatched from them in Tower One as it collapsed in on itself – much to the horror of those who watched, powerless and stunned, as it fell. I sat helplessly in Phoenix, thousands of miles away, as I observed the South Tower fall on the television screen. There was nothing I could have done and the hopelessness which gripped me has never been stronger than that day.
The Return – Part One
“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” –Vicki Harrison
Roughly a year later, I was offered a trip to NYC to see the Arizona Diamondbacks play against the New York Yankees in a baseball rematch of the 2011 World Series. I am a diehard baseball fan and jumped at the chance for a free trip and a four-game series inside one the oldest and most historic parks in the US. We planned our entire trip to the big city from what Broadway show to see, museums to wander, and of course, what diners we would be eating delectables in the city. None of us spoke about the towers, not once. The group I was going with knew about my loss, and I suppose did not want to upset me by bringing up what happened that day. I was the only one in my group who had lost someone, let alone seven people – so how to be empathetic was lost on them? They are not bad people, mind you, they just had no idea how to broach the subject and I know I would have been the same way, it’s not something anyone thinks about, until you do.
We were going to spend six days in the city and had everything planned out, except the last day, the last day was a free day for everyone to do what they wanted, on their own time – at their pace. There was the talk of a trip to MOMA or Coney Island. There is much to do in the city that never sleeps. The trip was a great one, and I was pleased that everything went off without any issues and was looking forward to our bonus day, although I had no idea what I wanted to do, well, there was something.
The whole time we were in the city, I longed to go to Ground Zero, the place that even the great King Kong of the 1976 movie fame could not topple – the massive towers and, yet, they were gone.
Morning arrived on my last full day in NYC and as I rose to wash my face, still having no idea what I was going do with the day. I got dressed and while putting on my shoes, there was a knock at the door. I assumed it was just the house cleaning crew as I may have forgotten to put the do not disturb sign on the handle the night before. I was thoroughly taken aback when I opened the door, and my friends, all of them, were standing there. Bob, the elder of the group and the unofficial leader, said, “After you had left last night we all took a vote, it was unanimous, we are taking you to Ground Zero.” I felt my heart swell with pride and love that I had for a group of people who were willing to give up their free day for me to go and pay my respects at the site without having to be alone. Bob was a native New Yorker but had not been living there for over 30 years. He knew the city was hurting, I was hurting, and he recognized this was the right thing to do, or so we all thought.
When we got downtown, my anxiousness and fears set in as there were no behemoth towers, as we drove up, where they were supposed to be. There is an old joke; you know that light at the end of the tunnel? That is the train coming. Here I was stuffed into a cab on a hot summer day with the smells of the city and Aqua Velva emanating from the driver, as the reality of what had happened in NYC on September 11, 2001 hit me with full force.
This actually happened. I am going to have to own this pain now as this is not a dream, they were gone, and nothing would change that, nothing.
We arrived a few blocks from the site, and I scooped up my disposable camera I had bought to take pictures to hang in my office and, with a deep breath, began to walk toward the debris that even after a year was still was being cleared away. In the distance, I could see the makeshift memorial, the pictures, the flowers, the hope that, for some unexplainable reason, a loved one or friend would rise from the ashes and hug them again. I was only one block away but… I never made it.
Instead, I dropped to my knees, unable to support the weight of the pain of my loss. There were now, not just seven people in my mind, but thousands and the burden of seeing those fliers on buildings, fences, and trees were too much, I was having a panic attack and didn’t know it. Bob was the first one to reach me, as he was literally by my side, but he was unable to lift a guy my size. The others quickly came to me and helped me up and asked the standard question, are you ok? I was not, even my dry wit had abandoned me, and I quietly murmured, I want to go back to the hotel.
So, we did. I made my way to the hotel bar and asked for a drink, a stiff drink. I know if there had been a pool of whiskey or vodka somewhere, I would have been swimming in it and drinking my way to the bottom. It was depression to the highest order, this was anger, and it was unresolved sorrow. I drank until I passed out and not one of my friends left my side. They put me to bed, helped with the hangover the next day, and never said a word.
The Return – Part Two
“While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till it is digested, and then amusement will dissipate the remains of it.” –Samuel Johnson
I am writing this the day after my trip to NYC (New York City) to speak about a point in my life that I had been putting off for over 14 years. I had been to the city a few times after 9/11, but I could never bring myself to go to where the towers once stood proudly in the financial district of the city, near the banks of the Hudson River. After 13 years from that first trip back, I had yet to return to that part of New York again. I had been up once or twice, but I never went downtown to the district. It was where “it” had happened, where the towers were taken down, and the fact that I am, in fact, utterly human and completely fallible. The debris was gone, a new single enormous tower was constructed next to the site of the original Twins, and the city had moved on. I received a message from my friend Rayanne Thorn that she was coming to NYC to meet with friends and do some business and was hoping that I could come up for a family style dinner on a Thursday evening. I had finished a project and was waiting to start a new full-time role a few weeks away, and I thought why not, so I said yes knowing full well that although I did want to see her and others, I had an alternative motive this time to return.
I called my good friend Steve Levy and asked if he was around to pal around with me on Thursday before the dinner and I had a favor to ask of him. I wanted to go and see the tower and the memorial for 9/11. Steve had lost a friend, no, a brother who was one of the firefighters that died risking his life to save others. He carries his picture in his wallet with him, as I was later to find out. Me, I only had names and memories. He, of course, said, “Absolutely man, absolutely.”
I arrived on Wednesday had dinner with a friend, Mike Astringer, a fellow recruiter. A drink later with Levy and then it was Thursday morning. I awoke with palpitations and angst, the same I had felt those many years ago. We had breakfast and took the subway to downtown to see the memorial, the tower, and my past. I don’t know if he did it on purpose, not knowing my previous encounter with this site, or he did it for effect, but we got off a few blocks away from the Tower and began to walk.
We joked like we always did when we were together and the jocularity kept things light as the magnificence of the Freedom Tower loomed closer and larger, as did the angst rising within me. When we got to the tower, the landscape was entirely different, I recognized nothing, it was all different, but in the right way. The sun was shining and although it was cool outside the mood, was nothing like that. There was hope in the air. There was no more crying, no more leaflets or trash, and there was actually laughter in the air. Children were staring in awe at the foot of the Freedom Tower, not knowing the history, just taking in the magnificence.
We made our way to the Memorial and walked up to where the South Tower once stood and those feelings came back to me: pain, fear, despair, and loss. I was older now, and there was a distance created by time, yet it felt like 2002 all over again, and there was a tightness in my chest. We pressed on and arrived at the Freedom Tower. I was amazed; here I stood at the tallest building in the northern hemisphere, and I looked at it as if I were meeting one of my favorite authors, star struck. I am telling you; this was a bucket list moment.
The Memorial, the Hug, and Releasing Everything
Where I live, if someone gives you a hug it’s from the heart. – Steve Irwin
It was time to go to the Memorial and say goodbye the proper way, while paying my respects to not only the seven but to all who lost their lives that senselessly day. When I arrived at where the South Tower once stood, I was silent. I wanted to look for the names of my friends, I wanted to scream, I wanted answers, I just wanted something, what I wanted was peace, I wanted them back. I was holding it all back just breathing heavy and staring at the names and the splendor of the water flowing down the falls, the endless repetition of the water, there was so much beauty in front of me yet I only felt heartbreak. Steve and I made our way to the North Tower, the last tower to fall, and the one that, when it did, took his friend. He told me the stories of being lifeguards together when they were together and showed me the picture he still carries in his wallet of his friend. Soon we separated, to reflect alone, and that, my friends, is where it all sort of fell apart. I was just standing, staring at people, thinking, remembering that night we all met, what a night it was. We were all recruiters sharing stories about life, about ourselves, safe, now gone.
,A couple around my age were taking pictures and trying, as our generation does, to take a selfie of themselves in front of the inverted fountain before us. I stared at them wondering why this was some Kodak moment for them, but trying to feel no emotion and not completely break down, I went to move on only to have the wife jump in front of me and ask if I would take a picture of them. I replied, if you agree not to smile, this is, in a way, a graveyard and should always be respected. I have never seen eyes like hers stare at me and say, “You are of course right, we just want to document that we were here, our first time in NYC and all.” I realized my arrogance and said, just kidding in a genuine way to make them feel better as I was wrestling with my demons of 15 years and trying to stay calm. I took a few shots of them and, oddly, they did not smile, they knew, maybe, that this was not a celebratory place, but a memorial.
Once picture time was over, I smiled and was ready to slide back into keeping inside, pushing down my feelings and fighting back the tears trying come out. The woman said, “Thank you so much, are you from here?” No, I said, I lost seven friends here 15 years ago and at that moment the world stopped turning, there was no sound at all, just quiet within my mind. Pompeii then rose, and there was no holding anything back. I began to shake then cry, and the tears flowed. With no lack of hesitation, the woman standing by my side, the woman whose name I did not know, took me in her arms like a mother comforting a wounded child. She whispered, “It’s going to be all right,” her husband put his hand on my shoulder and said a short prayer then waited until I could finally, let go. It was nothing less than cathartic and cleansing; the demons were found and released, and I could breathe again. I nodded my head and wandered till I found Steve, it was time to go somewhere, anywhere else other than here.
The Dinner and New Beginnings
Steve and I wandered the city after that, continuing our inner reflective journey. He often spoke of his world before and after, I was, oddly quiet as I am usually more verbose. Later, we had a drink with a mutual friend then off to a dinner planned by the irrepressible Rayanne Thorn. I don’t care much for large gatherings and usually shy from them but on the same note, it’s often hard for us to all meet up somewhere without the pressure of talking at a conference. Other than Steve and Rayanne, I knew no one at the event planned yet, from the moment I walked in I felt as if I was in a room of siblings and family I never knew existed.
We laughed, smiled, and told our stories of how we all knew and met Rayanne; oddly it was mostly in a bar…another story I suppose. 😉 All the while, the day that was now behind me still lingered in mind, one last little demon still tapping on my brain. I was present but felt that to sum up the last 15 years needed to be brought out, I am a storyteller, you know. So, I told them at the dinner table after our meal the story you read here and the love that I felt, hugs that I received, and the stories that we shared made it one of the maven nights in this guy’s life. I must say that I thank all of you who were at that table for taking a moment to pay tribute to those who died that infamous day. Although I will never forget the seven people that I lost, I am grateful for the seven new friends I made that night, honored, humbled, and appreciative.
#truestory and, well #life