This morning, tear drops formed in the corners of my eyes before I was fully awake and it took me a moment through my sleepiness to understand why.
From my bed, I can see the tops of houses and trees and also a generous patch of sky and the blue part took me back to that day, 13 years ago, when New York awoke to the bluest sky she had ever seen.
The morning was crisp and clean, and maybe it was warm, but it was definitely blue; I was 26 years old and living at a women’s residence on 34th Street and I don’t remember how I got to work that day. Maybe I walked or maybe I took the subway; what I remember is that I was in a world of my own. New York and I were still getting to know each other and her magic and my awe were palpable; everything spoke to me and I soaked it all in.
I remember much from that day and the memories roll in like a montage of images and what sits with me is the feeling they leave, mostly—and I wonder if I’m forgetting more on purpose in order to protect this precious heart of mine.
What happened that day and in the subsequent weeks changed me, forever; I know I am not the only one—so many lives were altered, so many lives ended. We all carry a scar that runs deep and the world has never been the same since.
I like to think that most of us pray for peace and dedicate our lives to living with kindness; the truth is that the world is run on fear and with that comes war and murder—and with that comes too many lives lost each day because we would rather be right and righteous than admit fault and ask for forgiveness.
What is etched in my mind is arriving at work on 23rd Street and the words about a plane hitting one of the towers tumbling out of a friend’s mouth and we both looked at each other like she was crazy. The only television in the old building was on the top floor, in the deserted office of our director, who was in the hospital, fighting meningitis for his life.
We gathered, all of us, some of us, trying to figure out what was happening and what we should do.
At some point, we made the decision to go into the street—maybe we thought that out there, things would make more sense and we wouldn’t feel so isolated and alone. The first tower had collapsed at that point and as we turned the corner onto Broadway, we were met with a kind of chaos that I have not met since.
People were everywhere, gathered together, in tears and shock, some frozen in place. The air was thick with sirens and smoke was billowing out of the lower half of the city.
I remember that maybe we held hands or maybe we didn’t; I remember numbness and I remember thinking, the second tower is going down, and before the thought finished itself, in the time it takes an inhale to fill two lungs, the second tower crumbled, unable to live life without her twin in a city that could steal your soul if you let her.
I wanted to turn away, but the stubborn part of me wanted to witness this death. I wanted to be strong for those that were dying as she fell; I wanted to be strong for those that would have it harder than I in the days that followed (and I would only begin to understand this kind of pain four years later, with the death of my mother).
I remember the rest of the day in fits and starts, the blacked out internet and the need to not be alone. I remember the one phone call that somehow, magically got through and I remember the voice on the other end.
I am okay, I said. Tell them I am ok and that I love them and I love you.
I remember bodies falling out of too-tall buildings and I remember singed pieces of paper floating in the air; I remember the smell of hope and bodies burning and how it followed us, stuck in our nostrils, on our clothes. Sisters for life now, a tribe of three of us, made our way on foot uptown, moving farther from the scene of the crime and closer to safety and sandwiches—and the sirens just didn’t stop.
New York was my training ground for heartbreak before and after she fell; her streets and her sidewalks over the years would counsel me in their wisdom and I would walk for hours and hours, until her lines were imprinted on the soles of my feet.
That day, we walked and walked—and the days after, we walked and walked, too.
The next morning, or maybe the one after, we three began our trek downtown, moving closer to the sorrow, the city deserted, weeping in violation of the very freedoms she stood for. I remember the air grew heavier as we got closer; I remember talking our way through every check point. The cops, God Bless Them, just as dazed and confused as we were—they were, after all human, too and none of us was prepared for the unexpected.
We walked until we could get as close as we could get and then we stopped. We ended up on the edges of a war zone; it was easy, in that moment, to trick myself into thinking we were on the set of a movie. What met us was like nothing I have seen before and here the words falter as I hold in my heart a crystal clear image of what surrounded us.
We stepped through the ashes and we found the hotel we needed to find and we walked up the dark stairwell; maybe we had a flashlight or maybe someone lent us one or maybe there was no light but my feverish desire for one. We were scared, that I remember, too. In the lobby below was a collection of all sorts of beating hearts from every walk of life and in the diffused light that fell in through the dust-covered windows, as I glanced around, I saw only fear staring back at me.
Here is where I reach the boundary of my memories; I cannot push further through what happened next and maybe later I will call my sister, the one that became my blood on that day and ask her if she remembers, so I can remember, too.
What is there comes in flashes; I am hesitant to take myself back but for the ones we lost, I must and the tears have started again and I am grateful for the warm cat curled up on my right.
I remember being afraid to turn off the news on the tiny television with the built-in VCR from the single bed in my tiny room; I remember my irrational fear at the thought of leaving the city because I was convinced that something-more would happen to her if I left; I also remember the desire to flee to the safety of my own country although I had doubts that anywhere in this world would be safe, now; I remember hearing my parents on the other end of a working telephone line and the love and worry that tumbled through the line and how they tried to reach me and what they found instead was a shell of the daughter they once knew, farther away than they could reach; I remember a tenderness that filled the human population of New York City for days and weeks after that horrible day—everything forgiven, a truce, in honor of the innocence that was lost; I remember picking myself up with effort and volunteering for hours and hours, as many as I could, to help wherever I could; I remember the first time I heard music and the first time I laughed and how guilty I felt in experiencing life, again; I remember being kidnapped by friends that cared about me and being driven over a bridge and how naked and strong my city looked from my view across the water; and I remember how we each tried to pick up the pieces—not realizing until years later how we would carry our memories, the initiation, a rite of passage into a warriorship we didn’t ask for.
And I sit here, still in bed, letting the memories flood in.
Who I became after was someone different than I was before, and someone different than I am now.
In five minutes, someone that loves me and that has lost me a thousand times to my own grief and fear will knock on my door and take our dog for a walk. In his hands will be a hot coffee and I will say, thank you, quietly, and after a hug, I will crawl back into bed beside the still-sleeping cat and these words.
I have sent messages to the two remaining people that remember intimately that time of mourning.
I messaged my sister, the one that came to me through tragedy, both of us carrying the identical marks of two words—Never Forget—in the shape of two towers at the base of our spine.
I know she lost someone close to her that day and each year, in my remembering, I remember that, too.
To my dad, who is in Newfoundland, about to stand on stage to do one of his talks, I wrote: Today is the day that changed me 13 years ago and I love you, to which he responded, I have been thinking about that since last night, to which I said, I woke up with tears and for a moment I couldn’t figure out what for.
Life moves on—it is hard to believe in a moment that ends what we know to be true that anything good could possibly happen again and if we are to believe what we are told, day in and day out, we can easily continue to fuel ourselves with rage and allow a cycle of blame and violence to move us forward.
We can continue to sit idly behind our screens and watch silently as human beings with blood that runs the same color as our own are murdered for the color of their skin, the religion they practice or beliefs that differ from what we believe. And for the ones that we accuse of committing crimes or the ones that do, we can continue to play God and decide that they are separate from us, not for a moment pausing, blinded by our own audacity to think that we are any better or worse than them.
We can continue to point fingers and use cruelty as a way to hide our own insecurities and I’m sure that this will continue to work for some time, maybe years and years to come.
The killing and the maiming and the hating will keep going until not one of us is left.
The city that I love so, the one that raised me in many ways and the one that feels like home, still, though I have not lived there for many years, will sit, abandoned by our greed; the sky above her will be the bluest blue and the wind will rush through the trees in the great big park and the only witness remaining will be the ghost of two tall ladies.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Bryonie Wise