A gripping sensation stealthily squeezes the air from my chest with each step closer to the ground where the Twin Towers once breathed. I pretend it’s not true until a sharp pain darts across my chest and I reflexively put my right hand across my heart. Nearly 20 years has passed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks beat down my city, shattered lives and nearly stole mine. But the feel of the air downtown wrapped between the tall buildings, the smell of the grass along St. Paul’s Chapel, and the wails of ambulances calling out still whisper in my ear. I’m retracing my steps, reminding my senses that I was indeed in the brutality of it all.
Kit Noble has come to town from Nantucket. We met the summer of 2019 and became friends over coffee, walking the docks at the Boat Basin picking out our future yachts and trying to top each other’s adventure stories. He came to see a Broadway show, explore the city and have dinner with friends at my favorite Italian spot in the city, Il Buco. He also came hoping to visit the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. He’d never been. Neither had I. Why would I need to go to a museum about the most terrifying day of my life? A day I spent every day after trying to keep quiet in my mind.
In those blurry days and months following my experience on 9/11, I was plagued with nightmares of falling from a building and my dreaded “chewing gum dream.” All night I would imagine that there was something stuck in my teeth, and I would work and work, grinding to get it out but never succeeding. I didn’t talk much about the dreams or the head aches or the persistent pain in my shoulder. I was alive. I just went to work.
As the first anniversary approached, I felt a quiet dread. There had already been a six-month marker on my birthday, March 11th. Two towering, ghost-like blue lights that shot up and sent a glow over the night sky installed where the buildings had stood, mesmerized the city. They were eerily beautiful and chilling. Those nights I dreamed that all the souls lost that day were trapped in the blue lights, desperately fighting to break free.
I knew I couldn’t be in the city for the one-year anniversary, and I asked my boss at NBC News if I could take a “community service sabbatical.” Every few months when the company would review our performance there was a question about our community service participation. It always felt like a trick question since the job required so many overnight hours and no extra pay for doing so. When I explained to my boss, David Corvo, that I wanted to take a few weeks off to do some meaningful service, surprisingly he said yes. Nobody had ever asked before he told me.
I travelled to South America and worked in an orphanage in Lima, Peru run by nuns. My first day the nuns who were not impressed with my high school Spanish had me change the diaper of a severely disabled boy who looked about 15-years old. It took every ounce of strength I had to lift him. For the rest of the week, I hung wet laundry on the roof by myself. The last few days the nuns started speaking English to me and one morning they told me about a little girl who had been left on the doorstep the night before. The brown-eyed beauty wouldn’t speak to anyone or let anyone near her without erupting in screams.
Her crib was near a door that led to a veranda circling a lush garden below filled with trees and native flowers. There were a few toys the children could ride on in the hallway that led to a pathway down to the garden. I saw the little girl watching me as I put away the clean laundry; most likely she was curious. I wore blue jeans and a white t-shirt instead of the robes the nuns wore, and my reddish blonde hair wasn’t covered like the others. The head nun saw the girl noticing me and asked me to try and find out her name.
I took one of the dolls that had been left on the ground and I propped it in the seat of a ride-on toy car. I looked over to see if she was watching and gave her a mischievous smile. I pushed the toy with the doll in the driver’s seat and sent it careening down the hallway. It made a glorious racket as it raced wildly down the garden pathway announcing with a giant thud its destination, at the foot of a thick tree trunk.
The little girl hurdled out of her crib and came running to see the scene, her eyes wide with excitement. She took one look at the doll still sitting in the driver’s seat and ran to retrieve her so she could try sending it off down the path again. When the doll launched off into the ferns, the little girl let out a belly laugh that echoed through the hallways. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to retrieve the muddied doll so we could do it again and again and again. When we finally sat to take a break from crashing the car, she asked me what my name was. My cheeks ached from smiling so much when I went to bed that night in the bunk room I shared with three med students.
After I left the orphanage, I worked at a makeshift school in a shanty town that had a dented tin roof filled with joyful children eagerly arriving in spotless, perfectly pressed blue and white pinafore uniforms. The teachers were so happy to have someone who spoke English, they asked me to teach the kids some familiar phrases. I wrote English phrases on index cards that I had brought with me. The children laughed at my Spanish, realizing it was me who needed the language help. The children giggled as they made their own flash cards in Spanish to teach me. It was exactly where I wanted to be.
My last assignment was working at a home for elderly people. Each week they had a community dance and I was invited to attend. When I walked in the porch room that had metal folding chairs cleared back to the edges of the cement floor, I couldn’t imagine how it would go. One by one and in small groups, men and women shuffled in and found seats. As soon as the music started playing, every resident at the home got to their feet and started to swing. An elderly gentleman with a clean shave who barely reached my shoulders dressed in a crisp white shirt and a bolero tie took my hand, pulled me to my feet and twirled me around the dance floor until I could barely feel my toes. It was more fun than any NYC nightclub I ever was jammed into. When the dance was over an hour later, he kissed my hand and said, “You made my day feel like sunshine.” And I replied, “You made my year feel like sunshine.” I cried in my bed that night. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had fallen in love with Peru or because I hated the idea of going back to my life in New York City.
The 9/11 anniversaries since have been spent in quiet ways with my husband and three children. Usually, a long walk somewhere by myself. By days end I would have messages and calls from my mom and kind friends reminding me that they were happy I had made it home that day. When the ten-year anniversary came, NBC asked if I would be part of a special program, but I didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to say. I didn’t think it was my place to say anything. I didn’t lose a father or a mother, brother, sister, or lover at the World Trade Center and for that I believed for many years it was best to keep silent. But I was there that day and it changed me forever. I was an eyewitness to the terror and the devastation, and I lived when I thought I would die there. It took me a while to reach that point; to not continue to carry the guilt that I lived.
Even still I wanted to say no when Kit asked if we could go together to the 9/11 Museum and Memorial on his visit to New York. I knew it was about time I went. My children were getting older and asking questions about it, and I wanted to eventually take them there to see it. He was a good friend and he seemed genuinely interested in going with me because he knew I had been there that day. It seemed like a good trial run, I agreed to go.
When we arrived at the site, Kit wanted to take photos. I sat on a bench along the edge while he walked the perimeter of the memorial weaving past all the other visitors taking it in and reading the names of the dead. Sitting there at what felt like a tourist attraction I wondered what it must be like for family members of the dead to go there? I wondered if it comforted them to see all the people interested in remembering that day. For me it just made me feel cold sitting there with the sounds of chatter intertwined with the rush of water plunging down into the black marbled walled memorial. My body felt shaky standing there taking it all in.
I went to find the name of the only person I knew who died that day: Blake Wallens. We had gone to grade school and high school together in California. We must have bumped into each other a dozen times walking in New York City in the most random places. Each time he would greet me with his characteristic goofy grin and we would laugh about how often it happened. The last time I saw him he was at my neighborhood Italian spot. I noticed him because I heard his hearty laugh. There seemed to be a glow around his party. He was exceptionally happy looking celebrating something special. I didn’t interrupt him that night. His name was right near a corner, and I thought of his sister and father and wife and nieces and nephews who had probably come many times before just to touch his name.
Kit kept a close eye and a safe distance from me as we descended into the belly of the museum space. As I held my breath and said very little, I am sure he was wondering what he had gotten himself into by taking me back to this place. I was wondering if I should just turn back and wait for him outside, but I was curious about what I might find in there. How they portrayed it. If it fit with what I knew.
Much like that day when I came upon the scene, it is the enormity of the space that struck me. You feel just like a little ant inside those barreling cement walls. There was a baren quality about it that felt raw and uncomfortable. The many objects displayed took me back to that day: the pieces of clothing and shoes left behind, the news footage, the video of that first Saturday Night Live that made me proud to be a New Yorker. But it was the art installation by artist Spencer Finch at the beginning that stopped me in my tracks. It is the soul and center of this space for me.
The large- scale art piece exhibiting the endless shades of blue is made up of 2,983 individual watercolor squares- each representing a victim of the 2001 and 1993 attacks and symbolizing the idea of memory according to the museum website. Everyone who has a story of being in NYC that day most likely starts with the same sentiment: It was the most gorgeous blue-sky fall day. And it really was. But everybody sees the blue a little differently. And just like our individual perception of color, our memories share a common point of reference. Within the larger art installation is a quote: “No Day Shall Erase You From The Memory Of Time” from book IX of The Aeneid by the poet Virgil. Each letter was forged from recovered World Trade Center steel by New Mexico artist Tom Joyce. It is a simple and genius idea and reminds me of what made that horrible day survivable for me. A simple act of kindness from a stranger.
This 20th anniversary I want to remember the people who didn’t make it out. And I also want to celebrate and call attention to the million little heroes like my stranger who propped me up and wrapped his arms around me that day.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about why I went running to those buildings. Was it really because I was such a dedicated journalist or because I was accustomed to putting myself in dangerous positions? I believe there was some of that, but the deeper truth is that I was unhappy. I was willing to risk my life because I didn’t value it. I was struggling in a marriage with a man who had an explosive temper that buried me. The fear I felt trapped me and I clung to my job and my work that I loved because it was a place to hide. A place where I thought I had more control. And amid the horror of that day a stranger saw me and risked his life. He showed me kindness and selflessness. My beautiful stranger, he did save me.
Living in New York City for the better part of my life now, I know that there were undoubtedly countless acts of kindness that happened on 9/11 that we will never know about. Those heroes will never have their names on plaques, and they probably don’t care to. I’ve seen the same kind of hero every day during the pandemic walking down these dirty, glorious streets in hospital scrubs and doorman uniforms. While I have stayed safely home with my three children Zooming and writing in my new bedroom office, I have watched from 6 feet away, the delivery people, restaurant workers setting up the makeshift outdoor cafes, the women at the grocery checkout, the jazz musicians playing in the park and the hero teachers. And now watching the heart-wrenching scenes unfolding in Afghanistan, I know there are heroes there helping innocent people trying to survive. I am especially praying for the women and children there.
My oldest is going off to college this September. A huge milestone in both our lives but especially his. My three kids and I have been through a lot the past six years: navigating cancer treatment for my husband, an abrupt end to my marriage and then the pandemic. We have found our way through it together.
My hope for my three children is that they live long and happy lives and when difficult things happen as they do, they will have a hand to hold to help carry them through. And when they find a stranger in need that they will step up and offer what everyone of us is capable of giving: simple kindness.
As for me, I can’t wait to see what my 50’s bring. I want to keep pushing myself, learn new things and find something extraordinary. I have no intention of gliding into this next half of my life, I want to charge into it with purpose. I am hopeful that there is another great adventure waiting for me and with some luck and a little magic, maybe a tender, thoughtful, and strong hand for me to hold along the way. Stranger things have happened.