If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.
~Sandy Dahl, wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl~
On the Tuesday of 9/11, my assistant told me to put the TV on right away. It was 9 a.m. We watched a replay as the first plane tore through the World Trade Center. Then came the second and the explosion. This doesn’t look like an accident. We were mesmerized as the edifice crumbled. There was a mess of rubble and twisted metal, broken glass, and the thick gray dust that hung in the air and covered everything. We could hear the muffled screams of people on the streets being picked up by TV cameras. The footage played over and over again.
Those of us watching were crying and hugging each other. Our office was in midtown, about a mile away. There were a lot of landmarks around us. The public library, Grand Central, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the GM building, Rockefeller Center…our whole area could be the next target.
We needed to go.
I had to get to my son.
When I got to the street, I began running, toward Fifth Avenue. As I ran, I just kept thinking that if there was another strike nearby, I might never see my son again. No one was talking—just running and looking back. It got harder to breathe. I had the wrong shoes on for running. I wanted to take them off. Names were flying through my head. I heard myself saying them out loud. All those people I loved and needed to see again.
Someone grabbed my arm. A stranger. “Everything is going to be okay,” she said. I held her hand, tears falling from my cheeks. She must have heard me talking to myself. I was shaking. “Don’t worry, we will be okay,” she said softly. She walked with me silently for many blocks.
Daniel. I have to get to Daniel. I walked past Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, past the GM building—one less target—past Central Park. No one would bomb us up here, right?
I looked to the sky; to the north, it was blue, but to the south, it was black with smoke.
When I arrived home, I fell into Peter’s arms. We had been dating for the past year. He had a plan—to get his car. If we couldn’t get the car, we’d get to Queens. Rent a car. Take stuff. How much stuff? We might not be coming home. A change of clothes for Daniel, Kermit (his favorite Muppet), and water.
“Let’s go,” he said. “NOW.” His voice was overly protective and demanding. We both wiped tears from our faces. We were okay. We were together. Daniel was fine. He was safe at school on Long Island. My feet were blistered and bleeding, but I didn’t care. I had to get to my son at school. He was an hour away. I was afraid that the bridges and tunnels would be shut down. There was no time to waste. We had to walk another 50 blocks south to the garage which was near the UN .
According to the news, sections of the city were being closed off. The whole area by the U.N. was off-limits. The blocks over there would be heavily guarded by security personnel. Though it seemed strange to me, we were able to get the car out.
They should have denied us entry and exit to the garage. They should have, but they didn’t.
“That was strange,” I said as we drove out onto First Avenue.
“You would have walked to get to your son; driving is way easier.” Peter smiled and reached for my hand.
We drove to the entrance of the Midtown Tunnel. A fortress of police cars was blocking it. The tunnel was closed, and traffic was being rerouted to continue straight past the tunnel. There was no other way to get to Daniel’s school. We pulled alongside one of the cops. I looked at the officer. He was wearing sunglasses. He locked into my eyes, the dark lenses reflecting my face. Did he see the desperate fear? Did he hear me say, “Please, please, let us get through the tunnel—I have to get to my son. He’s only nine. He’s a child with special needs, and he’ll be afraid. Please.” He didn’t hear me because I thought all of that, but never said a word. He looked at me for a few seconds, and then, with a flick of his wrist, we were free to drive into the tunnel. There was no one in front of us, and as I turned to look back, I saw no one behind us. Why us? Why? Why had he let us go? No other cars were being allowed through the tunnel.
I had never seen the Midtown Tunnel empty. It was usually heavy with traffic. The long Island Expressway was empty, too. The tunnel in both directions was closed. Ours was the only car. How did we make it through?
Outside Daniel’s classroom, my knees buckled. I knelt on the floor and wept. His teacher came out and told me I had to pull myself together. I wiped my nose and eyes, put my sunglasses back on, and walked into the room. He was in his favorite chair, reading. He looked peaceful and calm. He had no idea of what had happened. I stood behind him for a minute.
He looked up and smiled. “Oh, hi, Mommy. Hi, Peter.”
I took him in my arms and held him there as if I would never let go.
He wrenched away from me. “What happened? Why are you here?”
“Let’s talk about it outside.”
We went to a TGI Fridays. I tried to find a booth where I could shield him from the TV, but the screens were everywhere. CNN played and replayed the planes flying into the buildings.
“There was a plane crash?” he asked.
“Yes, darling. There was.” How would I describe this to a 10 year old, when I didn’t even know what happened.
“Did people die?”
“Yes, they did.”
“Are we going home?”
“I’m not sure. We have to find a place to stay.”
“Why can’t we go home?”
“Because the roads are closed.”
“Who flew the planes?”
“We don’t know.”
We couldn’t drive back to the city. I found a Yellow Pages directory and searched for a hotel. No luck. Everything was booked because anyone who’d otherwise be trying to get back into the city needed a place to stay. It was already close to 6 p.m. I thought of everyone I knew who might have a place nearby. I was lucky enough to get through to a client who had a weekend home out east in the Hamptons. It was about an hour away. We had no idea how long we would be staying there, but he was generous to offer. We were safe, and we were together.
When we got to the house, I took Daniel upstairs to get ready for bed. His questions didn’t stop.
“What happened? Why couldn’t we go home? Why did a plane fly into a building? Who would do this? Why? Did people die? How many people died?”
“I don’t know, honey. I wish I could tell you; I just don’t know.”
I tucked him in with Kermit, and he drifted off to sleep in my arms. I listened to his slow, even breathing. In the listening, there was peace. After that, I crawled into bed next to Peter. He was usually easygoing and calm. He held me tightly. It felt safe to be with him. When Daniel had first met him, we’d gone to an amusement park. They went on a Ferris wheel, and Daniel reached for his hand. He and Peter sat that way, holding hands, the whole ride. I took a picture of them.
I closed my eyes, but I kept seeing the crashing and people running, and the dust, and people falling.
Peter and I clung to each other and cried.
The next morning, we didn’t say much. We were thinking it, but we never said it to each other. The question hung there: “Is it over?” Two weeks earlier we emerged from the Fulton Street subway stop. We’d turned and looked back. I’d pointed, and said, “ Daniel, look! There are the Twin Towers; look how tall they are. That is where some of the world’s most powerful businesses are. I’ll take you to the top someday.” We stood in that spot for a few seconds, just looking down the block at the buildings.
By 5 p.m., one of the bridges and the Midtown Tunnel were reopened.
We packed up our things and left. As we drove toward the tunnel, I saw the black smoke rising and the hole in the skyline. Daniel was chattering away in the backseat. He had lost a tooth. There was a hole in his mouth where it had once been. A small loss. A new tooth would grow in its place. As we drove, we wrote a letter to the tooth fairy. But ahead of us, there was a hole in the sky, and I somehow knew, nothing would ever be the same.
When we got home, I searched for an old picture.
My best friend Kathy and I were twenty. We skipped class that day. We went up to the top of the World Trade Center. We ate grapes and talked about all the things we were going to do with our lives.
There were no Towers anymore. The sky was empty there. The world was fractured—in how many places, I couldn’t imagine. I thought about the arrivals and departures, the knowns and the unknowns, which had forever changed me since the day Kathy and I had taken that picture…marriage, birth, death, divorce, and the day that would come to be known as 9/11. I thought of the interminable letting go. How would we grieve this? How would we eventually accept this? Acceptance seemed impossible, but that is the only way peace comes.
Downtown, the air was thick with the smell of the fire that still burned in the sky. My heart cried in silence for all the loss, long after the tears left my face. Daniel asked if I would sing to him. I heard myself singing. The words just left my mouth, but I couldn’t hear the tune. I closed my eyes. I was happy we were safe and home together. I told him the angels would come and bring him sweet dreams. I left when he was sleeping.
In my bed, I thought of the cop who had let us through the tunnel. Maybe he’d heard my sister, my guardian angel, whispering to him, saying that he should let us drive through. I closed my eyes and clung to my pillow. Then I remembered my promise.
The tooth fairy would still come.