Much has changed in the years since September 11th. Our country’s appetite for war is practically gone. No one hops on a plane without wondering about its safety, even if just for a moment. And my husband and I are no longer together, doing our best to co-parent our 8-year-old son, Javier, a boy who may never have entered our lives if it weren’t for his dad’s quick thinking on September 11th, 2001.
At the time Ed and I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. One of our favorite parks jetted out over the river for a clear, unobstructed view of the Twin Towers. We walked our dog there often.
On that famed Tuesday, Ed took the PATH train from Hoboken to the World Trade Center at about 8:30 a.m., just like he did every morning on his way to his job at Goldman Sachs. As he came up the escalator onto the main concourse of the Trade Center, he was confronted with a sea of people running every which way, the panic in their eyes as clear as the sky outside. He also saw smoke, albeit for a brief moment, which kicked in his instincts. He did what we all learn to do in kindergarten in the face of an emergency: He ran for the exit. When he stepped outside into the shadows of the 110-story buildings, office papers rained down over him, and he could make out bodies in windows, signaling for help.
He dialed my number and before I could say hello, I heard this:
“Turn on the news and tell me what the f@#! is going on!”
Ed never spoke to me that way. The fear and confusion was wrapped in the high pitches of his voice. Still at home getting ready for work, I turned on the television and heard Matt Lauer from the Today Show say a plane had hit the World Trade Center. The word terrorism had not yet been said out loud. The second tower had not been hit either—but then suddenly it was. I told Ed as such as I watched it on television. He said he could hear the deafening boom above. I told him to run to his office and get out of there, but then the line went dead, and I didn’t hear from him for three grueling hours.
Those hours somehow seemed to both snake by and move in fast-forward motion at the same time. As it became more and more clear that we were being attacked by terrorists, it was near impossible to get through cell phone lines. When I watched both towers fall later that morning, I sank to my knees in our living room with the big bay windows overlooking Manhattan, wondering if Ed had stuck around, as so many of us do when we come across a horrific accident. We can’t help but look, stare, or strain our necks to get a better view. Had he done that for long, he would have had to run for his life as the buildings collapsed. The images on TV were terrifying. Lower Manhattan was engulfed in dust and debris. Even if he had made it to his office in time, was that a safe place to be anymore?
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I spent those hours on the phone with his sister, who lived in upstate New York; my brother, who was down in Miami; and honestly, I can’t even remember who else, but I know I was on the phone virtually the whole time, with someone or other telling me that Ed was probably fine. Probably wasn’t good enough. We’d been together two years. He was my love and my best friend. With our beloved 100-pound mutt, Guiness, nestled against me, I watched television and dialed Ed’s number a trillion times.
Finally he called.
“I tried to get the ferry across the river but they aren’t running,” he said, breathless. “So I’m walking uptown to my brother’s office and we’re going to spend the night at my cousin’s apartment on the Upper East Side.” Like a balled-up fist that spreads open suddenly, I released the main source of my stress, the fear that he was hurt or worse, killed.
The next 24 hours were lonely in that Hoboken apartment. I no longer felt safe, and as night fell, it was impossible to sleep. This is what those terrorists want, I thought, they want us to feel fearful in our own homes, on our sidewalks and planes, as we ride a train to work, and that’s just not okay. The next morning at sunrise I hopped on my bike, the one Ed had just given me for my birthday, and rode down to the park for a look at our new skyline. The gaping hole was symbolic of the hole in the hearts of all Americans. I have never before felt more patriotic, more grateful, and oddly, more alive.
When Ed finally made it home that night via bus, he had with him a dusty mask that someone handed him as he ran uptown. It was layered with particles. What were those, I wondered. Dust from fallen buildings, or crushed bodies? I remembered a scripture reading that says we come from dust, and to dust we shall return. The mask smelled awful, but Ed wouldn’t let me toss it. To this day, he has that mask hidden away somewhere. I’m not sure what he does with it, if anything, but I like to think it’s a reminder that to be alive and well is a gift to be cherished.
An odd feeling of invigoration, of having made it through something catastrophic, carried us through the week as we learned of friends and colleagues who perished. “We are so lucky,” we kept saying to each other. We just couldn’t believe how close Ed had been to the greatest terror attack in our nation’s history.
On the Sunday following the attack, Ed shocked a lot of people, including me, by choosing to propose. He did it on a sailboat he chartered to take us up the Hudson River, but we barely made it 100 yards before the Coast Guard stopped us to say they had decided to close the river for one more day. Luckily, Ed had been so nervous he popped the question before we even left the dock. It was a ray of sunlight in an otherwise dark and stormy week.
My 9/11 memories end with the bittersweet beauty of a marriage proposal that led to a beautiful son and one of the greatest friendships I’ve ever known. Ed and I may no longer be together, but he is one of the best human beings I know, and it is an honor and a privilege to raise a son that has half of his DNA. Many families whose loved ones were also affected by the events of September 11th don’t have that same privilege, and that knowledge is far from lost on me. The best I can do for them is live my life as honorably and gratefully as I can, rejoicing in the silly songs my son makes up and the way he rolls around with our new puppy, Lola, just like his father used to do with our beloved mutt.