MOURNING A MORNING FIVE YEARS LATER
I wish I could say what I thought about when I went to bed that night. But I can't. I don't remember. I'd just gotten back from a week in California, and my internal clock was messed up. I slept most of the day on the 10th, though I don't recall what I did that night, other than go to bed early, jet lag hiding in every corner of my body. Maybe I watched Baseball Tonight to see if Bonds homered. Maybe I surfed the web, trying to avoid the surmise about Gary Condit and the intern. Maybe I thought about the diplomatic fallout from the US plane that landed in China earlier that summer. Maybe I wondered how W would work that one out. But really, I don't remember. I suppose I forgot a lot of things.
I remember waking up.
Mid-morning, lazing in bed, half-sleeping, falling back into a snooze. I had a vague sense the phone rang that morning. Maybe twice. Putting on my glasses -- 10:50 AM -- I went into the living room to hear my sister-in-law's warbling on the answering machine. In Korean. I called out to the bedroom, "It's your sister again." She'd been calling incessantly. From Korea -- the long-awaited trip to my wife's family, friends, & homeland was set for Monday the 17th. Two-and-a-half weeks observing the formalities, bowing & addressing parents, siblings, friends, what-not. These daily calls were a preview. Where do you want to stay? Should we arrange to go here? Can Mike do that? Will he undertstand this? Ugghhh, what could it possibly be this time?
My wife wandered in from the bedroom and listened to two messages, both from her sister. Apparently query number one related to whether we wanted to go to Cheju Island, an island off the south coast.
"Just tell her we'll figure it out when we get -- ?"
"Shhh, I can't hear," she waved at me, trying to listen carefully to the next message. "She sounds serious. Something about an accident . . . check the TV."
An accident! On television! Her sister was so anxious she was now checking New York traffic reports, wondering if the jack-knifed trailer on the Long Island Expressway affected our journey to Cheju Island. I turned on the TV as I did every morning, and switched to NY1, a local, all-news station on Channel One. Weather, subways service changes, traffic reports.
Where I was greeted by a sight I'll never forget. And I sort of half sat down, half fell back onto the couch. My wife looked at me and at the TV. "Oh . . ."
The site lines of NY1's shot were the same as every other morning: looking downtown from the top of the Empire State Building. Only this morning, there were no Twin Towers at the end of Manhattan. They just weren't there. I actually blinked, like one of those "dramatic" double-takes in a movie, trying to re-focus. I wasn't even frightened yet, it just made no sense. And I read the graphics on the screen:
"Twin Towers Collapse After Being Hit By Planes."
Again, I tried to focus, to digest. Eventually, something stuck in my head: The Twin Towers were gone. No thought of people yet, of those who died, only a brief realization that an iconic piece of my New York, the weight that balanced the downtown side of the skyline, wasn't there. That part hit me immediately: a conspicuous testiment to skill & ambition, a citation in Western Civilization's chapter on architecture & engineering. Gone.
And the realization of deaths still hadn't hit. I was still stuck on this "plane bringing down two buildings" thing. After-all, the B-25 that hit the Empire State Building in 1945 caused serious damage, but no collapse. I re-read the on-screen graphic and then the final letter caught me: The "s" in "planes." Planes.
I shuddered, picturing dozens of kamikaze F-16s piloted by anti-government McVie types, smashing into the towers, maximum payload, huge explosions. Then, they pulled me out of the fog: the video. And again. Over & over again. That haunting scene of a royal blue, United Airlines 767 streaking through a stunning, blue-skied Manhattan morning & disappearing into the South Tower, only to re-emerge in a fire-ball on the other side. As the North Tower leaned next to it, also aflame.
And somehow, that's when it hit me: The People. On the planes. In the buildings! Oh my, tens of thousands of people in there . . . were in there.
Both towers had collapsed over an hour earlier. And five miles away, I'd slept through the whole thing, informed of events from someone living 7,000 miles away. Welcome to our brave new world.
A little later we headed out towards a hospital to donate blood, walking past hordes of shuffling migrants, treading north, away from the danger. The sounds of fighter planes zooming overhead cut through the silence. The unbearable silence. The streets were crowded, the sidewalk bars, cafes & restaurants full, as everyone had left work. The weather was sublime. And a palpable excitement, or more accurately, a nervousness, floating through the air. After-all, no one knew when the next plane was gonna hit. But, nonetheless, very quiet.
And we were walking to a triage center where the victims never arrived, to give blood even though no one would need it. Already the first "Missing" signs started going up on lamposts & phone booths. Homemade signs -- first of hope, later of desperation, finally of mourning -- were up in the first few hours, destined to stay well into November. Markers, plaques, gravestones of those we'd lost. Family members, friends, lovers. Unspeakable loss, grief, writ large for all to share. We all needed to share. Our citizens. Our buildings. Our New York was hurt. She was hit, visibly so. She was wounded.
We all mourned, some more than others, and my respects to them. And thus began my habit of looking at every sign, trying to garner a sense of life from that piece of paper recognizing the presense of death. Seeing if I knew anyone who'd perished, reading carefully, hoping not to find anyone I knew, but also wondering if I would.
I never did, and I'm glad for that. But I know what we lost that morning. I missed it then, and I miss it now. And I know it's not coming back.