It is easy for us all to get lost in the melodramatic details of every day living, the frivolity of excess we all have in our lives. But on this day every year, I am reminded, if even for just the day, of what life is really about and what we all have to lose at any given moment. I had to bear witness to a family’s painful loss of a loved one on 9/11/01, a scar still fresh on my memory six years later.
It was the most beautiful day. Bright, crisp blue skies with a few wispy white clouds hung in the September air. I was on my way to work as the assistant manager of the Judi Rotenberg Gallery on Newbury Street, clad in a long denim skirt and sleeveless tan turtleneck sweater. I boarded the T at Lechmere Station and emerged minutes later into a world I didn’t know. I walked dumbfounded down the street as people cried and rushed by me, my cell phone ringing and an eerie feeling hung in the air. As I approached the gallery, I saw Judi, the owner, sitting on the steps hunched over. I rushed over asking her what was wrong and she looked up at me with eyes so full of desperation that I was taken aback.
“He’s on that plane. Richard, he’s on that plane!”
I had no idea what she was talking about. Richard was her kind-eyed husband who I adored. What plane? Where? I ushered her into the gallery and into a waiting chair and asked her to explain to me what she needed me to do. Just then, my phone rang again, my boyfriend in Connecticut, and as I brought the phone to my ear I could hear him yelling for me to get out of the city immediately. I begged him to explain, Judi too gripped by fear to illustrate what was happening. Once he told me, I looked at her and my heart felt as though it were made of lead and my stomach flipped in a wave of panic.
Judi was trying to get her daughter Abi, the director of the gallery, to the Newbury Street location and their calls to each other, tear drenched and scared, made me begin to cry as well. Judi asked me to call Richard’s travel agent, and as I dialed the numbers with shaky fingers I said a silent prayer that he had missed his flight or was mistakenly on another plane to Los Angeles. I handed Judi the phone and minutes later it came. Flight 11. Her face crumbled into pure grief, she dropped the phone and just repeated “No, no, no”. I burst into a fit of sobs and hugged her, which seemed so trivial a consolation for someone who had just found out her husband had been murdered.
Abi burst through the gallery doors and took one look at her mother, who simply nodded her head and Abi fell to the ground sobbing. Her mother became so stoic and strong for her heartbroken daughter in that moment, and softly ran her hands through her hair as she cradled her on the floor. Abi had also found out that one of her best friends was at work in one of the towers that fell. I stood there so awkwardly present to this life altering moment for this family. Tears running down my face, I was absolutely helpless to do anything. They gathered themselves and told me to get home and for a few minutes I sat in that silent, empty gallery, still thick with the loss that had occurred within it’s walls, and I cried. I cried for them, out of fear, for the world.
I stepped outside, feeling as though I was not actually inhabiting my body but rather wearing a costume of a character in a movie. I looked up at the sky and wondered how such a horrific thing could happen on such a beautiful day. I began walking home, too scared to go below ground and be confined in a steel box. I don’t remember getting home, I just remember looking up and being there. I was numb, in disbelief. I remember speaking to my family, wondering if I should get in the car and drive to Vermont, away from all these tall buildings which seemed to be targets. Instead I sat in front of the TV all day, all night, silently staring in the flickering blue light. Over and over watching the planes hit the towers, and thinking of Richard.
The next few weeks I helped organize the funeral arrangements, ran the gallery which stayed empty except the transient client or passerby who wanted to send their regards to the family. The entire place was draped in sadness and every night after work I cried. I could not imagine losing my father or husband so instantaneously. Richard was a wonderful man who loved his family and didn’t deserve this. I wondered where he was sitting on the plane, what it must have been like, how one decision- to take that flight to that destination, ended his life.
I left my job at the gallery months later, needing to make a break from the heaviness that plagued my days there and move on. But I never forgot Judi, Abi and Richard, or the tragic events of that day. We all lost our innocence, our ability to live without fear and without hearts filled with hate and pessimism. That one day, mere hours of it, changed the world forever. Families lost loved ones, men and women in the military who never dreamed of seeing combat are now on their second and third tours of duty, and we all live life with a violent chip on our shoulders. It cannot be avoided, it is the way of the world now. And even though my daily life is not drastically different, which makes it easy to forget, I want to remember it all in order to give my life that frame of reference.
Hug those you love, smile and enjoy the small things, take nothing for granted, be present and do what you love. It could all change in a moment.