Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Tale of 9/11 Post-Trauma

I don't particularly care for 9/11 hype of any kind. While I understand the spirit behind wanting to honor the memory of the fallen victims and heroes of 9/11, I can't help but to feel suspicious of some of the motivations behind all the hoopla. Political motivations, or the motivations of a lot of drama queens trying to feel closer to the tragedy. Human nature either way, but it doesn't mean I have to like it.

Last year was particularly annoying. For months leading up to the big "five-year anniversary," anyone coming within 100 yards of a TV set within the United States was bombarded with gruesome images and ominous reminders that 9/11/06 was going to be some special sort of milestone in post-9/11 US history. As if the pain of burying your loved one is going to feel any different one year, five years or ten years later. I was sick of all the buzz almost even before it began.

I haven't discussed my personal experiences of 9/11 much at all, which is unusual for me as I've always been a big fan of talk therapy. Something's bothering you? Unload to a friend. Get it off your chest. But I find it difficult to talk about any of this stuff. Or especially talking about the death of my nephew in the Iraq war, a direct result of what happened on 9/11. Talking about either of these things doesn't make any of it go away, and doesn't decrease the pain one iota. All it does is make me tear up and try to change the subject or leave the room. It all sucks no matter what you do, so I just try not to do anything.


Despite my desire to shun all things 9/11, I did allow myself to be drawn into the 2,996 Project where 2,996 different bloggers, of which I was one, researched and wrote a tribute to one 9/11 victim. It seemed like an interesting endeavor, and something I could do quietly in the privacy of my bedroom with my laptop computer. No need for a lot of fanfare. I enjoyed writing about my "victim," Geoffrey Thomas Campbell and I was glad to have a chance to ---I don't know, do something. I heard from several people who knew Geoffrey, and it made me feel good to know they were touched by my tribute as well as to receive their thanks.


I posted my tribute to Geoffrey late at night on September 10, and then as any egotistical blogger would do, got up in the morning and went straight to my blog to see if there were any comments. There were quite a few left by other 2,996 bloggers, and so I felt compelled to link to their respective blogs to read their tributes and leave comments of my own.

I got quite caught up in this little project, and soon noticed it was close to 9:30 - meaning I was late for work. No matter, I thought, I didn't have anything incredibly important going on in the office except for a client meeting later that morning. I took my time, showered and got dressed. I made it to the subway around 10:30 or so, which was kind of nice as the morning rush had already well passed. I sat down with my New York Times and settled in for my 45 minute ride into Manhattan.


The New York Times was rather odd that day. A lot of full page remembrance ads from large corporations and other companies based in New York, commemorating the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The train was very quiet, and I recall getting stuck on one of the ads. It was mostly white space, with small black lettering. So stark that I couldn't look away.


After about 20 minutes we came to the Manhattan Bridge, which my usual morning train crosses. Riding across the bridge is always my favorite part of the commute, especially when it's a nice sunny day, as 9/11/2006 was. I enjoy feeling the train emerge from the dark subterranean tunnel into the natural outdoor light, and often I'll stop reading the paper and just enjoy looking out the window.

This day was strange, though. I looked over at lower Manhattan and just thought about the towers. I thought about the morning that George rode that same train and watched the towers on fire as he made his way to work. I thought about what people must have been thinking. I thought about the people who were on that train who knew people in the towers. What that ride must have been like.

Then I started thinking about my own personal 9/11 trauma.


I had flown from New York to DC on the morning of 9/11/2001. I was completing law school at Georgetown, but was only living in DC three or four days a week, generally spending Friday through Monday home in Brooklyn with George. I had stayed in New York late on Monday September 10th because I had job interviews--- so I decided to fly down to DC on Tuesday morning rather than taking the train on Monday evening as was my usual habit. I figured I could get to DC in time for my 9:00 tax class and all would be fine.

I landed in DC around 8:00 am, and rode the Metro from National Airport to the Georgetown Law campus which is about four blocks from the Capitol. I don't recall exactly what I did - I think I went right to my classroom to finish up that day's reading. Pretty soon it was very close to 9:00 am and there was no one coming into the classroom. Strange. But I was glad for the make-up time because I was behind on the reading.

At about 9:45 I was sick of reading my boring tax law textbook, so I decided to go ask around about my missing classmates - I figured the class had been canceled and I hadn't been informed. (As an aside, that is what happened; the professor had canceled the class on Monday night, but the registrar's office somehow neglected to leave me a phone message as they usually do in that circumstance.)

I walked down to the lower level of the school building and saw a huge crowd of students hovering around a TV set in the small dining area. I approached and asked a young woman what was going on.

"Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and another one bombed the Pentagon. They think it's terrorists." Her face looked ashen as she said this.

"What???" I exclaimed. The World Trade Center was one thing - and terrible of course - but the PENTAGON? Someone bombed the PENTAGON? I felt my insides start to churn.

"Are we at war??? What is going on?"

"I don't know." She started to cry and ducked into the chapel room in the middle of that floor. I proceeded into the TV lounge to join the crowd.

The next few minutes are a total blur to me now; I was just trying to comprehend what was happening. I remember thinking it all had to be a mistake. Something must have gone haywire with the air traffic control signals which was causing the pilots to crash. Or some crazy shit like that. I just couldn't believe we were being attacked.


Then the towers started falling down, and people were screaming and crying.

"They said the Capitol is next! We have to get out of here!" I heard someone say.

"But where are we going to go?"

"There isn't anywhere safer. Just everyone stay put." It was starting to feel like pandemonium. I couldn't look at the TV any more so I decided to pace around the floor when I ran into my friend, Father Alexei, the campus priest. He looked like he was going to have some kind of fit, and he grabbed me into a big hug. I felt numb.

"Well this just brings Bosnia and Lebanon and Israel right home to us, doesn't it?" he said. I followed him into the chapel because I didn't know what else to do. Students all around were kneeling in prayer, most of them crying.

We all thought it was the end. That any minute the bombs were going to start dropping.


I sat down just to be quiet for a few minutes and started thinking about George. I knew George usually took the train that goes over the bridge, but that is an express train. What if he didn't feel like switching to the express train that morning? What if he had decided to stay on the local train, the one that goes right under the World Trade Center? It wouldn't be unthinkable for him to do that.

And what about Mindy? She was in New York that day for a client meeting. Her meeting was originally supposed to be in the WTC, but she had told me the day before they had switched the location to midtown. But what if something happened and they switched it back? Could she have been in one of the towers?

And on & on & on. Not to mention that I was fully prepared for all hell to break loose on Capitol Hill.

I started to panic.


I was an officer in the law school's gay & lesbian student organization, which gave me unlimited access to our little office on that floor of the law school building. (Being a member of an oppressed minority group does have its advantages.) So I decided to go hang out in the office where there was a couch and a phone.

When I used my code to open the door lock I discovered about five other students already in there, all making panicked phone calls to their loved ones. "I think we should rent a car and get out of the city" one guy said. I can see why people say it's important not to panic in an emergency; it spreads so easily. That one panicky sentence out of his mouth threw me into another tailspin of intense worry. People are running all over crying, talking about needing to flee to the countryside. This is war. This is seriously fucked up.


Eventually I got my turn at the phone, which I used to make teary calls to George and Mindy. They both thought I was crying because I was so worried about them - which I was, of course. I just don't think either one of them ever understood just how much I thought our entire world was coming to an end, though. At the moment I left those messages I thought it was probably "good-bye" for all three of us.


Next call was to my sister. She picked up the phone so nonchalantly.

"Hi! How's my favorite little brother?"

"You don't have the TV on, do you?"

"No. Why?"

"We're being attacked. New York and DC are under attack."

"WHAT?" She shrieked. I heard her flick on the television, at which point she started gasping. "I can't believe this! What on earth is happening?"

Then I lost it.

"I'm stuck down here on Capitol Hill and they say we're next and George was probably on the subway and he could have been on the train that goes under the towers and I don't know where he is!!!!" I was bawling now. Being no stranger to familial hysterics, Marg snapped into nurse mode.

"Deary, George is fine, I know he is. Now give me all the different phone numbers where you guys can be reached, or other people who he might call to let them know he's OK. I'll help you find him."

"OK. I have to go. I love you." I thought it could have been our last conversation.


I stayed in the office for the next several hours with a few of my law school friends who eventually showed up, which was a great comfort at that point. Every 20 minutes or so one of us would venture out into the TV lounge to see if there were any updates.

After three hours with no more extreme calamities (save for the horrible Pennsylvania plane crash of course) we started to calm down, figuring nothing more was going to happen that day. My friends invited me to come home with them, but I decided I wanted to get to my room in Silver Spring, Maryland, and start thinking about how I was going to get back to New York to find George.

Luckily, I knew he was alive at this point because we had both had the good sense to call my cousin out in California to let him know we were OK and to ask for his help in finding each other.


I barely slept a wink that night. I left my radio tuned to NPR because I wanted to know right away if anything else happened. This meant being forced to listen to the same gruesome newscast all night long. Over and over they kept playing the voice of a woman on the street who was screaming "they're jumping out the windows! People are jumping out the windows! Oh my God!"


The trains were running again the following morning, so I got myself on an Amtrak Acela back to New York. It took an unbelievably long time because of all the dramas and delays getting into the city. Hours and hours later the train finally pulled into Penn Station under Madison Square Garden.

And this is the memory I just can't shake.

I had just exited the car of the train and was making my way to the subway tunnels when I noticed that every inch of every wall was covered, completely plastered with "Missing Person" posters. Makeshift posters with photos and magic markers, people as desperate as I had been to find George, but who weren't as lucky as I was to have my loved one still alive. People who had watched the towers collapse, knowing their loved ones were inside. People who already knew the truth, but who needed so badly to hang on to any small shred of hope.

It absolutely broke my heart.


I didn't return to DC for another week; I couldn't bear to leave George alone up here. Everything was just so bizarre. An eerie quiet in the streets, with such a sad heaviness in the air. And the smell. It was just awful, as we live just downwind from lower Manhattan, across the water. Sometimes the odor was so strong I wondered if we should be wearing some sort of face mask to avoid breathing in the dust and fumes. One time it got so bad it actually woke me up in the middle of the night, and I rushed to turn on the TV just to make sure nothing new was happening.


After about three days of non-stop 9/11 talk (even though we weren't yet calling it "9/11") I just kind of shut down from it all. I didn't want to hear any more stories about where people were and what they were doing when they heard and who they called etc. etc. Listening to any of that just brought me back to that awful place when I thought George was crushed in the subway and the bombs were about to drop on the Capitol. It was a place I didn't want to be any more.

So, any time the TV started talking about the attacks, I switched the channel. I stopped reading the newspapers. I averted my eyes whenever I encountered a wall of "missing person" posters - which was pretty much anywhere you went in public. After about a week my friend Stephanie and I were talking and she blurted out "I wish they would take all those posters down. What, do they think these people are just wandering around the city?"

Every now and again I would notice some "pre-attack" poster or advertisement featuring the World Trade Center, which just seemed so bizarre - and unbelievably sad. One day I was on the subway and was noticing all the "old" posters with pictures of the WTC. I just stared and stared at one of them for so long that I missed my stop and had to turn around. I felt like a zombie. I think everyone in New York did.


Which brings us back to my subway ride to work on September 11, 2006. The big five-year anniversary. As I looked out the window at where the towers used to stand and thought about the sheer horror of that day, the image of those "missing person" posters creeped up on me. I felt myself go short of breath, and I sat down, closing my eyes. Nothing but miles and miles of posters. "Last seen 9/11/2001. Worked the breakfast shift at 'Windows on the World.' If you have any information about this person, please call (212) 555-1234."

All those people. All those people.

I started tearing up, which I really didn't want to do on a public subway train. But the harder I tried not to, the more the tears just forced themselves out.

All those people. All those posters with all those people.

I started sobbing. The gentleman across the aisle looked over at me, so I just turned my head.


Pretty soon we were back in the tunnel coming into lower Manhattan. We approached our first stop and I was still crying.

"Ok, this is getting ridiculous," I thought. I have cried many times before, and it's usually a somewhat cathartic experience. A release of pent up emotion. But this was starting to feel different. I really didn't want to be crying, and I really really wanted to stop. But I couldn't.


After about the third stop in Manhattan I was starting to freak out with the crying thing. "What is wrong with me? Something must be wrong with me or I wouldn't be in a non-stop crying fit!" Of course, the best thing to do in any emotionally tenuous situation is to panic and allow the whole thing to snowball. I'm really good at that.

"I have to be at my client's in 45 minutes. And I'm a mess. What am I going to do?"

I decided just to pack it in and go home. But I didn't have my cell phone! OK, so I'll use the pay phone. But wait, I have no change! It's OK, I'll just call our 800 number and speak to my boss. She'll call my client for me. But what is our 800 number?

I was COMPLETELY useless. A total mess.


Lacking a better alternative, I decided to go into the office with the hope that I would stop crying by the time I got there. By this time I had been crying so long and so hard that I was kind of doing that panting/gasping kind of thing which would have made people think I was crazy if it hadn't been for my smart business casual outfit.

I started considering whom I could talk to in the office in the event I couldn't stop crying. It was not going to be a pleasant decision.


I did the gasping sob thing all the way up 44th street until just the point where I had to turn the corner onto 5th Avenue, where my office is. And suddenly I regained my composure, or at least well enough to fumble in my briefcase for a pair of sunglasses and pack of Kleenex. But no more sobbing.

I went up the elevator and zoomed past our receptionist with a very quick "good morning!" Thankfully, hardly anyone was around and I was able to make it all the way to my cube without having to see or speak to anyone. I immediately called my client and begged off sick.

"Wow, I hope you feel better. You sound awful."

"I know, I really need to go home to bed. Thanks for understanding."


The thought of returning to our neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn was more than I could handle. Bay Ridge had just about the highest concentration of 9/11 victims of anywhere in the city. It felt like a very sad place, and I didn't want to be sad.

I called George.

"Will you come to the city and get me?"

"Oh, aren't you feeling well?"

"No, I'm OK. But I'd just like to spend the day with you."

"Awww!" He made a sweet noise, the kind he makes when he gets the warm fuzzies over me. "What do you want to do?"

"I don't care. Have lunch, maybe. Just come, please."


Georges rock. Everyone should get a George.


George and I had a lovely afternoon together, just enjoying each other and enjoying being alive. Isn't that the secret to life?

And that is the day we saw Little Miss Sunshine. Which led to our online pageant.

So I guess 9/11 doesn't always have to be bad, does it?


Marni said...

Wow, CP. Thank you for sharing. I don't know what else to say...

{{{ hugs to you and George }}}

Tanya Espanya said...

Yes, CP, thank you for sharing. That was moving and beautiful.

Coaster Punchman said...

It's more like...thanks for reading! Could this post BE any longer? :)

Splotchy said...

Heavy, man, heavy.

Bubs said...

That was beautiful. Thank you for writing it.

And I didn't consider that a long post at all. It was riveting.

Anonymous said...

I pushed yesterday out of my mind because it makes me so sad. Thank you for making me remember how lucky I am to be alive. I was stuck in a Nashville airport when it all happened. Me there, my kids here, I will never forget that feeling.

Flannery Alden said...

Bless your heart for writing this. This is the only thing I've read, seen or absorbed on 9/11 this year and is it just right.


Dino aka Katy said...

I agree everyone should have a George. Thanks for sharing this I am sure it wasn't easy to relive those moments and thoughts

Anonymous said...

I agree with bubs, the post was not long, it was riveting. That is some writing! As one of my grad school professors said on a paper I wrote, "Get published! You write exceptionally well".

I remember the morning of 9/11/01 because our old mare Lass had been very sick with pleuropneumonia, and she had let us know that it was not yet her time to go. So we borrowed against my George's 401K (except my George's name is Don) to pay the nearly $7,000 vet bill. I was feeling pretty good and hopeful, because it looked as though Lass was finally starting to come out of the woods, and I was late to work, as usual. Then I heard Bob Edwards (I think it was still him, anyway) say, sounding very surprised, that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center. We watched it on TV at work.

We also know about that thing of not being able to stop crying. After we euthanized our potbellied pig Princess Swiana, I told Don that it would have been okay if he had cried; I would have tried to comfort him. He said, "I was worried that if I started to cry, I might not be able to stop!"

Not that all of our animals are always getting sick or dying. We have just had a lot of animals, had some grow old or get sick or injured, and had to sometimes make those decisions.

Love to both George and you,
Your cousin Cathy

Beth said...

I'm crying just reliving your experience through your (beautifully written) words. I thought I had a rough day down here in Atlanta; I can't imagine the fear and pain and anger and anguish you and yours experienced. Thank you for finally sharing this. I was a bit jaded yesterday ... but this brought it back home.

I'm glad you have a George. I need to get one.

Zed said...

An excellent post, CP! Excellent. The missing persons posters were a terrible heartbreak to witness, and the ongoing events of that day just kept bringing new shocks to the system and robbed us all of a sense of safety and normalcy.

Living a few miles upriver, I had a different experience. At the towers' collapse, a rumble moved up the Hudson, shook the George Washington Bridge, and then shook my high-rise building enough to move small objects across my desk. There was a terrible rumbling sound accompanying the shaking, and when I ran to the windows, all of the birds in the trees had taken flight. Studies show the collapse of the towers was equivalent to two small earthquakes in the NYC area. Since then, the rumble of a large truck or the too loud hum of a jet passing overhead on its way to LaGuardia will cause me to stop in my tracks.

I lost family that day, something I don't discuss. But I'll say this: 9/11 was far too close to home in so many ways.

Coaster Punchman said...

Thanks for the kind words everyone. I don't know if writing this was a good thing because it seems to have opened up old wounds which is making it difficult to do anything today. Oh, well, tomorrow is another day. At least we have it, right?

Zed, I'm so very sorry for your loss. I hope you and your family have been able to heal as much as possible.

Dale said...

I was thinking earlier today of a post Flannery did a few days ago about what things that make you cry. I could add this to my list. Wonderfully written and heartbreaking CP.

Grant Miller said...

Wow. You have a fantastic memory. That whole period is a blur for many people.

I still haven't seen that movie.

Flannery Alden said...

It's funny Dale, your post about waking up in the morning at the cottage had made me cry and it inspired that post. Your post would have fallen under my generic category of "beauty".

Anonymous said...

I wish I had the video of Mama Gin when I told her that my brother Michael, who was working in the 2nd tower, had gotten out just in the nick of time. She suddenly got very religious but I was thoroughly confused by her Confucious meets Jesus Christ hail Marys, er, hail Maoies?!!


BeckEye said...

Thanks for sharing that experience CP...I actually teared up reading it and we all know that I have a heart of stone.

GrizzBabe said...

Wow, that is a very powerful story. I can imagine that those who lived in the actual cities where the tragedies took place experienced a different type of trauma than those of us in the rest of the country. The way you describe your experience is much like living through a war.

Writeprocrastinator said...

Well written, well said and just amazing.

Keith Kennedy said...

Wow. It's the personal interaction between our hearts and our minds that define who we are in this world. The ability you have to write this tells of the conflict you went through and how you must have grown in your introspection through this experience.

Great work.

Great life........

Bella Rossa said...

Dude, I had no idea about any of this. Thank you for sharing, and please accept a big digital hug from me. XO.

Tumuli said...

Thank you for sharing. Unforgettable.

wonderturtle said...

You are a damn good writer. Shit like that is hard to express. Thank you.

Old Lady said...

I agree with Turtle. You write so well, it's an easy read. But, you also write so well, I for one, am eager to read what is next. I sometimes go too fast and have to re-read.

anandamide said...

Great stuff. I sort of avoided 9/11 stuff this year (probably out of depression about how our response has turned out...), so this was just the right way to remember...

Jake's Mom said...

Sadly, I remember. I think we all will always grieve.

I also remember waking Jake and telling him and how very sad he was. That was the beginning of the end.

I wish the hurt would go away for us all.

Johnny Yen said...

My eyes teared up reading that-- your account of that day, and happiness that you and George found one another in your lives. I don't think people like us will ever get over the unbelieveable sadness of the event, but we have to make sure every day to be thankful for what we have. May you and George have many, many happy years together.