Twenty years

September 11, 2001 has been the subject of several posts here over the years …

Today I am adding a piece written in 2003 at the Eastern Virginia Writing Project; a time when the memories were still fresh. They still are.

Hero

It’s my first full week as an elementary school librarian. Everything is new –the building, the books, the staff, the students, the lessons– everything. As I run my eyes over the plans for the day, the guidance counselor hurries in the door of the library. “Something’s wrong,” she tells me, “a plane has struck the World Trade Center. It isn’t clear whether it was an accident … carry on as if nothing has happened … say nothing to the children,” then hurries out the door to the next classroom to repeat the news.

In my mind’s eye I envision a Piper Cub tail sticking out of the World Trade Center, as fake as a B-movie set. More anxious about the day ahead, I shrug off the image and mentally rehearse my opening lines to the 5th grade class that is about to come in. The morning announcements drone over the PA system, there is a moment of silence, the pledge of allegiance, and then a blur of new faces.

The end of the first block brings whispers about another plane, a jetliner, hitting the World Trade Center. For the first time the realization sinks in that something awful is happening. I walk over to my computer and send an email to my parents: “Where’s Art? Is he okay?”

Art. My younger brother by two years and three months. We’re as different as any two siblings can be and the sibling rivalry that dominated our childhood hasn’t abated in our adulthood. We’re both parents now, with stable middle-class lives. None-the-less, for reasons I can’t fully fathom, we haven’t seen each other for three long years. Initially Art’s choice, our separation has become consensual. There are too many words, too many hurts, intentional or not, that can’t be undone.

The computer announces, “You have new mail” and I dare to read it. Art is okay. Off for the day, he wasn’t in the city when the planes struck the World Trade Center. But he’s no longer home. He is going in, already gone. He had to go, chose to go, without question.

The whispers continue. A plane in Pennsylvania. Something about the Pentagon. As I walk through the main office on my way to lunch, I catch a glimpse of a TV screen and look away. Over lunch, the guidance counselor repeats her admonition to say nothing to the students. It is their parents who must tell them, must try to find the words to explain the horror. Tomorrow will be soon enough for us to deal with the aftermath.

The afternoon is dreamlike, in the worst way. I go through the introductions and orientations with students by rote, repeating the same words over and over. I don’t go online, not trusting myself with the knowledge. I cannot know what I cannot tell and hope to conceal it. And so I wait, until at last, the school day ends.

Driving home takes five short minutes, but the NPR broadcast fills my ears with harrowing tales from people watching the jumpers who chose to leap from the towers rather than face the inferno of jet-fueled flame. But then the towers fell. Art couldn’t have made it in to the city that quickly. He must be safe. Mom and Dad would have emailed or called if he wasn’t. The towers are down, the worst is over. He will be safe. It’s going to be okay.

As I walk into the living room, Don is slumped in his chair by the window. The television is droning in the corner. “Art’s okay,” I tell my husband, “It’s going to be okay.” But I’m wrong.

Don chokes out the words, “It’s Chuck.” Chuck, the uncle who has been more like a big brother to Don over the years. Who was planning to retire in the next few months from his lucrative, glamorous, world-trotting life selling nuclear power reactor insurance. Who commuted an hour and a half each way from his Jersey Shore home to New York City. Whose office was on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center north tower, who had a meeting at 9:00, who has not been heard from since he left home this morning.

We watch the television. Watch the planes strike the towers over and over and over. Watch the tears well up in our daughter’s eyes as we tell her the news. Watch building 7 collapse, not knowing that Art is close by, crouching in a doorway, enveloped by the rolling cloud of debris. Watch reports of emergency rooms and ambulances, empty of all but a precious few survivors. Watch as the smoke rises from New York City.

The phone lines are jammed. Email carries our hopes and fears there and back again. Hours become days. Hope thins and finally vanishes. Art is safe, but Chuck is gone.

We get in the car for the long drive to the Jersey Shore. A Shoney’s Restaurant where we stop to eat is decked in red, white and blue. A hand-lettered sign inside reads, “Our prayers and sympathy are with the victims of the World Trade Center disaster.” As we head north we realize there are flags everywhere. Signs reading “God Bless America” appear on gas stations and churches alike.

Arriving in Sea Girt, scene of so much happiness over the years, we dread what is to come: a funeral with no body.

My parents have driven in from Long Island and join us at a bed and breakfast where the owners have offered us rooms free of charge. The B&B is full, but there is a sobering stillness, hushed voices and downcast eyes. I dress quickly and go down to the front room, waiting for the others. The service at the church will take place within the hour.

A door opens and I look up from the page I’ve been reading, over and over, without comprehension. A tall, lean man stands at the door, his face gaunt. I don’t even recognize him at first. I’ve never seen him in full-dress uniform. I didn’t know he was going to come.

Art. A Lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York, he has left Ground Zero to come to the Jersey Shore. Left 24 hours shifts and smoldering ruins to be here, now. I get to my feet and give him an awkward hug. It’s been so long. What can I say? Shaking his head, he tells me the tale of his journey, the free train rides and meals that have taken him from Long Island to Manhattan to New Jersey. He’s a hero to all who see him. No one will take his money.

My family –parents, husband, daughters– join my brother and me. We walk to the church packed with dark-suited men and women. Many wear Sea Girt Volunteer Fire Department uniforms, a tribute to Chuck, who was one of them. As members of the immediate family, we are escorted to the front of the church. Art slips away, murmuring, “I’ll stand with the brothers back here.” His brothers-by-choice, the fire fighters, “who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life.”

25 thoughts on “Twenty years

  1. The poignancy of your words, the realness of them, the love that comes through for family, for Uncle Chuck, for the honor of his life, for the bravery of your brother Art, is so moving to read Liz. Twenty years, the blink of an eye as well as the thousands of days of remembrance. For many of us, personally and collectively but especially for New Yorkers, this anniversary, every anniversary holds so much…all I can say to you and Don is how sorry I am for your loss.

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  2. Dear Liz, through blurry tear welled eyes… Love to you, Don, Art, for Chuck, and the brothers and sisters by choice who go into the face of danger for all of us. Thinking of the gathering for my dad, the men who came from his department, and the fire rig parked out front.

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  3. So beautifully written .. thank you for sharing all of this. Hard to believe it has been 20 years .. 20 years stolen from so many. I am praying for you along with all the others that lost a loved one that day.
    Sending Blessings
    Tina

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  4. LA – the crazy things we humans do to each other – long lasting suffering to what end. May the warm and calm of love hold those who hold such sadness from this craziness. Go well. B

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  5. It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago… On the other side of the coast, in Seattle, I will never forget how silent the world was that day. Sending love.

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  6. How much I missed over the years with kids and sister etc! To read this collection is to be deeply touched. Especially the longer piece of writing. It gave me chills. Reminded me yet again how much harder that day was for New Yorkers. I hadn’t read any testimony of firefighters or family’s, so it was very touching to hear how nobody would take your money. The solidarity of the brothers. The newfound connection with an estranged brother. The memorial! And Don’s incredible piece. Thank you for putting all these tributes and remembrances together. And I’m so sorry for your and Don’s loss of Chuck.

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    1. I can still “hear” Chuck in my mind … once when we kvetched about the challenges of parenting, he recalled his own and ended with “it’s a roller coaster sometimes, just enjoy the ride” … it became our oft-repeated mantra and one of our dearest memories of him

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  7. This post is so full of love, and loss, and sorrow, and love—-most of all, love. Chills chase each other up and down my arms. I am so so sorry for all of the lives lost, all of the dreams and hopes that were crushed by flames and falling buildings. Sending love and quilted hugs to encompass these long—-and oh so short— 20 years.

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  8. it was like a bad dream as I watched the towers fall. from my office that morning. I could not sleep that night. trying to imagine the reality of if. But I really couldn’t grasp it.

    love….

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  9. As if it happened only yesterday…. So beautifully written, Liz ! It’s breathtaking.
    I also checked out ‘Tirana’ from your comment on my blog and it really is lovely ! Some streets had houses with orange-yellow stripes. Merry and bright indeed ! Hugs, Annick

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