Boston is awash in a sea of haze this morning. The skyline is barely perceptible. I had not even realized that I was almost there; I had spent the previous forty-five minutes battling traffic…and my own thoughts.
For me, and I think for a lot of others, today is not just another day. It is The Day. It is That Day. It is The Day That Changed Everything. But it was not a day like today. The skies over New York City were bright blue. The sun was shining. There were no clouds in sight. The day held so much promise.
It was my second day of college. I wandered the campus, looking for my classroom like any other freshman. I walked down a corridor, the windows let in a steady stream of light as it reflected off the bay. I found my way. I took a seat. And I waited.
I had my head down, scribbling notes. I was precisely forty-six minutes into class when it began. I just did not know it yet. Seventeen minutes passed and I still had not heard the news. There was commotion in the hallway. Another teacher came into our class, pulled our teacher aside, whispering. Their faces looked grave.
“A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center,” he calmly announced. “Do not panic. They are investigating. Just stay where you are until we get notified about how we should proceed.” I grabbed my belongings and ran towards the door. “I said to stay put,” he said as I brushed past him. I did not respond.
People were lining the hallways. Some were hysterical crying. Some looked catatonic. I reached for my cell phone to call my grandmother. Busy. I tried again. Busy. I tried again. Busy. I made my way to the office and tried using their landline. I finally got through. “Just get here,” my grandmother told me. “Now.” There was no news.
I managed to catch what I later learned was one of the last buses leaving the campus. City buses were being taken out of service and redirected to Manhattan to get relief workers downtown. The bus was packed. Everyone was confused and full of conjecture. I kept my head down, impatiently tapping my fingers against the bag in my lap. The bus crawled.
I slipped my key into my grandmother’s lock and let myself in. “What’s going…” I trailed off, not finishing the sentence as I walked into a room of stony silence and shocked faces. The only noise was the television. “Any news?” I finally managed to ask.
“He was there. That’s all we know.”
“What can we do?”
“Wait,” my grandmother paused. “All we can do is wait.”
I turned my face towards the television. “What,” I started asking, “What is that? What’s going on?” My voice was getting thin, high-pitched, almost like a screech, desperate.
“She didn’t know,” my grandfather said to no one in particular.
My grandmother leaned over and gave me a hug, wrapping her weathered arms around my shoulders. “Lisa, honey,” she said. “His building fell a half hour ago.” I shook my head. But the tears did not come.
“No. That…that can’t be. Those buildings…they wouldn’t. They…This isn’t happening.” But when I looked out to the street, ash was falling like snow. Blackened remnants of inboxes and file cabinets and the little notes we office workers put up in our cubicles lined the streets.
To take our eyes off the television, we tied up the phone lines. I could not reach my father, who worked across the street from the devastation. And we had not heard from Him. No word. We briefly heard from his wife that he was going to try to get out, but we did not know if he did or if they had found each other in the commotion.
Hours passed. Then days. We tried to stay hopeful.
Calls to hospitals were useless. Everyone was posting flyers looking for friends and family. I wondered if Kinko’s had enough ink to keep printing them. They covered walls, signs, construction site fences. They were layered like wallpaper lining the city. There was no room for another face, another life. Makeshift memorials went up everywhere. There were candlelight vigils every night. Churches stayed open all day, every day.
“Any word,” my father asked me a few days later.
“Nothing I haven’t already told you,” I answered simply. He did not press for more.
I spent my days on my grandmother’s couch. I fielded calls from concerned friends and the family that was not local. Concerned friends brought food. They stopped by to check on us. Each day was the same routine. We would crowd into the living room, each taking up residence in the space we had claimed as ‘ours’ and we would wait. We would wait because that was all we could do. We were powerless.
I do not remember how long it took before I finally accepted that Charlie was not coming home. Days, maybe. Not weeks. Certainly not weeks. Try as I might, it was impossible not to think about it. I imagined he had gotten out, pulling a John McClane when he encountered obstacles. It may sound ridiculous, but that is always how I saw him. John McClane. MacGyver. And a little Gene Simmons for good measure.
Charlie was the youngest of my grandparents’ children. He was my father’s godchild. He was my confidante. He would leave for work at a local restaurant, his wallet dangling from a chain. As soon as he would leave, I would attack his stereo and blast Twisted Sister’s “Stay Hungry”. I would jump on his bed, constantly knocking the model Star Trek Enterprise off the ceiling. Heavy metal did that to me.
He once made the mistake of leaving the silver metal handcuffs he typically wore on his belt, at home. I cuffed myself to the refrigerator. My grandmother tried everything to get them to come off. Hand soap. Cold water. Warm water. Olive oil (we are Italian, after all). Sheer force. Determination. The only thing that worked was a phone call to the restaurant for him to come home with the key. We laughed about it for years. We sometimes still do.
Charlie took me to my first concert – a KISS tribute band. I was barely a pre-teen. It was at night. It was on the beach. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen up to that point in my life. He threw the best parties. He had the funniest laugh. He was smart and determined. When I would act out in typical Rebellious Lisa Fashion, he would growl “I’mma put your head through a wall”. In his thick Brooklyn accent, it always sounded like “I’mma put yah head tru a wohl”. I never took him seriously because he never followed through.
Not long after he started working there, he invited me to Windows on the World and gave me a tour. He was the Purchasing Director there. We had lunch. We were facing our roots – Brooklyn. I watched The Staten Island ferry wind its way through the harbor to dock downtown. We talked about ‘making it’. We talked about life. We talked about being happy.
People tell me I have tenacity. That they admire my strength. That they do not know how they could survive a portion of the things I have been through. I have grit. I have determination. That I might get short-sighted and overwhelmed at times, but in the end, I do whatever it takes to Get Things Done. I learned a lot of that from my parents, but I would be remiss if I did not point out that Charlie had a lot to do with that too.
It has been 12 years. I have experienced all of the stages of grief. And every September 1st, I go right back to isolation, anger and depression. “It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal circumstance,” I have always been told by the professionals. The panic attacks become more frequent. The insomnia becomes unbearable. I do not turn on my television. I do not watch the news cycle. I attempt to distract myself, but it does not work because this feeling does not go away. I carry it 365 days a year and have for over a decade now.
I do not feel tenacious. I do not feel strong. I do not feel determined or full of grit. At least not at the moment. Not in September. “Wake me up when September ends,” Billie Joe Armstrong sings. Yeah, Billie. I can relate.