The first eight months of 2001 had not been great. My dad and brother had both gone into rehab, each for their own personal poison. In July, I’d abruptly been fired. One moment I was sitting in my quiet office at a national magazine, the next an HR woman was at the door with papers to sign. Five minutes later I was carrying a box of notebooks and photos through an empty hallway, my coworkers all intentionally clustered in a conference room far from the action.
That same night, after I’d arrived home, my oldest friend called to tell me her 30-year-old husband had cancer, and not just in one spot. In August, after surgeons cut most of it out, he developed a blood clot that traveled to his lungs and nearly killed him. In early September, he started chemo, the same week I learned that another good friend back in California had been found dead in her apartment from a heroin overdose. No one knew whether it was intentional.
That’s where things stood on Tuesday, September 11, in the small Pennsylvania town where I lived. I was awake but still groggy, having no job to get me up and going, when my husband called from his office in a Philadelphia high-rise.
“Turn on the TV,” he said, and for a few short weeks, we were no longer alone.
We are suddenly acting in unison: staring mute at the television, trying to make sense of an image of the World Trade Center sliced through by a plane. A mechanical malfunction. A drunk pilot. But no. Minutes later, another plane hits the second tower. Our minds race. Our mothers call.
“Turn on the TV,” he says, and for a few short weeks, we are no longer alone.
On a smaller inset screen, the Pentagon is burning. And then one of the towers does what it was never meant to do. It falls in on itself, going from skyscraper to dust in seconds. We gasp and put our hands to our mouths. Reflexively, we ache for the building itself, for the aspiration it represents. We know the Trade Center more as architectural symbol than office building.
But there are thousands of people inside. They are gathering at the windows. Debris is falling, and some of that debris may be bodies. We back up and sink into the couch or the chair. The second tower falls…