I had just finished an afternoon workout at my place of work (one of the true blessings of working at Rodale, we have a gym and are encouraged to use it) when a colleague called over that there had been an explosion near the finish line at the Boston Marathon, and it didn’t appear to be accidental.
The group of us gathered ’round the TV, in the too-familiar ritual, and stared at the smoky view down Boylston Street, and the crawl across the bottom of the screen. And away I went. Back to 9/11.
I imagine everyone has a memory like this: mine is in the living room of my then-home on Sunnyside Avenue. I was watching CNN, my wife sitting on a couch in front of me, me standing. We’re looking at a hole in the World Trade Center, trying to figure out how a damn fool could have flown into such a huge building on such a crystal-clear day, and how much plane does it take to make such a hole—a Cessna seemed too small, maybe it was a helicopter or a corporate jet. Definitely a corporate jet.
Then the shape of an airliner passed behind the towers and 20 or so seconds later it crashed into the second tower. The fireball exploded out the far side of the tower. My stomach dropped and knotted at the same time. I think I got out a “Fuck.” I leaned over and kissed my wife on her head and said, “I gotta go to work.” (At least, that’s how I remember it. Research suggests that isn’t exactly what happened, that my mind compresses and distorts, an expert storyteller in its own right. But, I think, I recall it so vividly.)
I was out the door in a matter of minutes, and suffered through the most fraught (sober) drive of my life, listening to reports from New York, Boston, DC and Western Pa., scanning the sky for What Comes Next.
I walked into the office to a tempest of noise and emotion and, again, another group of people gathered around the TV. One of the editors turned to me, red-eyed and crying, and said, “It just fell.”
I was the sports editor for the site then but I spent most of that day and night updating the home page with everything that became so familiar in the months and years to follow. Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, the hijackers, Shanksville, Logan, box cutters, the Pentagon. The rest of that year was a nightmare: war and fear and anthrax and anxiety. That was followed by a time as a nation of blindly swinging at threats, real and imagined. We landed a lot of punches. Sometimes we hit our foe, and sometimes it was bystanders who went down.
At the time, I remember thinking, In 10 years I’ll be past it all. But it’s 12 years later, and when we gather around the TV and the crawl includes death tolls, I still Chute-and-Ladder in my mind back to 2001 and my living room and that plane hitting that building.
I’m waking to the idea that I’ll never be “over” 9-11.
So what can I do? If I can’t get away from it, then I must learn to sit with it—with the fear, the vulnerability, the sorrow, the sympathy, the guilt, the panic. Because, you might suspect as I now do, it’s not going anywhere. So breathe. And know this life of ours is big enough to encompass September 11s’ and April 15s’ both good and awful, people who do heinous and heroic things, laughter and tears. Big enough and heartbreaking enough to include Martin Richard, an 8-year-old killed by the blast who can be seen all over the damn Internet holding a selfmade sign that says “No more hurting people. Peace.” Big enough and inspiring enough to include Martin Arredondo, the guy in the cowboy hat who jumped over the barrier after the blast to help Jeff Bauman, who had both legs amputated at the knee. When I think about this or read about it, I can feel my chest tighten. I can feel the anxiety and the disgust and the sympathy and the fear, all mixed together.
So I’ll breathe. And sit. And accept that until I lose the ability to remember, this doesn’t end.