Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Six Years Ago Today
The phone rang at seven in the morning -- ten back East -- and my mother said, "Turn on your radio." (She knows we don't have TV.) "Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center, and another one flew into the Pentagon."
"What?" I said, struggling with sleep. "What kind of planes?"
"Commercial jets. They say it's a terrorist attack. Turn on your radio."
I woke up Gary and we turned the radio in the bedroom to NPR. We were both sitting up in bed when the newscaster announced that the first tower had collapsed, and I watched Gary's jaw drop, literally. I'd always thought that was just a figure of speech.
I was having a medical procedure, an endoscopy, that afternoon, and I wasn't allowed to eat, which made the morning even more surreal than it would have been otherwise. We had radios on all over the house, all of them tuned to NPR, broadcasting horror in stereo. We were numb, disbelieving. Back East, we'd lived in Jersey City, directly across the harbor from the World Trade Center. Gary took the ferry across every weekday morning, and then took a subway to work from the WTC itself. I often took the ferry across to rollerblade on the long bike path that ran past the WTC and the World Financial Center.
We worried about friends in the city, especially my friend Claire, who worked in the WTC. A few days later, we'd learn that she was okay: she'd left for work late that day, and by the time her train pulled into the WTC station, people on the platform were yelling, "Don't get off! Stay on the train!" She took the train into Brooklyn and another back into Manhattan, and then started the long walk home to the Upper East Side. Her husband Peter, who worked in the Wall Street area, was doing the same thing. Neither of them would know for hours that the other was still alive.
Back in Reno, a friend from church picked me up to drive me to the doctor's office; since I'd be sedated for the endoscopy, I needed someone to take me home. My friend's son worked in DC, near the Pentagon. He was okay, thank God.
As I was being prepped for the endoscopy, one of the techs and I talked about the attacks. We agreed that there must have been at least 10,000 people killed. I'm still amazed that the death toll wasn't higher than 3,000, as incomprehensible as that number is.
The endoscopy showed that I had GERD but no precancerous damage, which was good news. It was hard to take in what the doctor was telling me, between the morning's news and the fact that I was still in a haze from sedation. My church friend took me home, and Gary and I kept listening to the radio. We couldn't wrap our minds around the fact that the World Trade Center wasn't there anymore. "It would be like waking up in Reno and finding the Sierras gone," Gary said.
On Wednesday I taught. My students were angry and grieving and acting out, especially in my workshop class. One woman punched my desk, furious at my comments on her manuscript. "The only reason you don't like my story is that you don't know anything about fantasy!" (In any other context, this would have been funny. At any other time, I also would have called the campus police if a student displayed any kind of violence in my classroom, but that day, I let it slide.) Another student, a young man whose mother was a flight attendant and knew one of the pilots who'd died, exploded in my office. What had I been thinking, telling everyone that I'd lived in New York? Did I think I was the only person affected by this?
Of course I hadn't meant that at all, but everything I said that week seemed to make someone angry.
On Thursday, I blew out the brakes of my car. I'd been driving with the emergency brake on: everything was so much more difficult than usual that it didn't occur to me to wonder why driving was, too. The brakes went out on a quiet side street, when I was already almost stopped. A minute earlier, I would have been on a very busy, 50-mph road, and could easily have been killed.
I called AAA, who towed my car to my garage, where I proceeded to become semi-hysterical. My mechanic sat me down, gave me a glass of water, and said gently, "Susan, the important thing is that you're all right. You wouldn't believe the stories I've heard this week. Nobody's normal right now. But you're all right. The car will be all right. Everything will be all right. Nobody got hurt, and the damage can be fixed."
On Friday, I went to a prayer service at church. By then, everything was plastered with American flags, but it seemed to me then -- and still seems now, although I've drawn plenty of criticism for saying so -- that nationalism was part of what had created the horror. I wanted to try to find a way to express solidarity with all victims of terrorism, wherever they lived: not just here, but in Europe and Asia and the Middle East and Africa. So my bumper bore a Planet Earth decal, instead of a flag. I wore a cross to the church service: I'd carefully avoided that the rest of the week, because I didn't want it to be seen as an anti-Muslim statement, but I figured I'd be safe wearing a cross in church.
I walked in, wearing my cross, and promptly ran into a friend who was sitting at a table making American flag pins. She tried to give me one. "Thanks," I told her, "but I'm not comfortable wearing that right now."
She glared at me. "Why not?"
I tried to explain about wanting to express solidarity with all victims of terrorism, not just the ones in the United States. I told her that I respected her position, but also felt the need to honor my own. She sniffed and said, "Well, that's very nice, but it wouldn't hurt for you to wear your colors."
Hands shaking, I held up the cross I was wearing. "Here are my colors."
Her voice was icy. "Well, excuse me, but I think that's bullshit!"
Whereupon we both burst into tears.
I wound up being bundled into a bearhug by one of our priests, who kept telling me it was okay, I was okay, whatever I was feeling was okay. During the brief service, I sat in a back pew and bawled, hunched over the kneeler. I felt shamed, isolated, miserable. When I finally opened my eyes, I discovered that I was surrounded by tissues: boxes of tissues, pocket packs of tissues, individual clumps of tissues. People had crept up during the service and put them next to me, as if I were some shrine.
After that, things got a little better, although it was months before I could look at photographs of the ruins without crying. Gary and I wound up being immensely glad that we didn't have TV: I'm not sure I'd have been able to turn it off, but looking at the endless-loop footage of the planes flying into the towers would have been more than I could bear.
Most of my friends in New York, meanwhile, told me that I had no right to my own grief. I wasn't there. They were there. It was their disaster, not mine. I couldn't possibly understand what it was like. (This is undoubtedly true, but they clearly couldn't understand what my experience was like, either.) I did my best to listen to them; they didn't want to listen to me. This makes perfect emotional sense, but it still hurt.
I kept hearing people talk about how much nicer people were to each other after 9/11, but that wasn't what I saw and felt. I saw people discounting other people's feelings, angrily dismissing any pain that wasn't theirs, scoffing at anything except scripted, hegemonic symbols. With some notable exceptions -- my mechanic, the priest who bearhugged me, the tissue donors during the church service, a friend from Canada who knew I was from New York and called to find out if Gary and I were okay, if we'd lost anyone we knew (we hadn't, thank God) -- I saw far more lashing out than reaching out, along with a terrifying insistence on conformity.
It was an ugly time, and it brought out a lot of ugliness. I know, and am immensely grateful, that there was love mixed in too, and kindness, and generosity. But on the level of national policy, the first prevailed, and we're going to be paying the price for that for a long, long time.
Let me be clear: I'm not trying to privilege my own 9/11 story over anyone else's. I'm trying to point out that all of us have 9/11 stories, even those of us who weren't near Ground Zero, and that all of them are compelling and important.
So what's yours?