I keep reading Nine Years Later posts about 9/11, and I feel a mixture of guilt and relief that I haven’t posted something. I left a message for my brother, Pete, on the 12th, which was one day late. But he didn’t send out his annual letter, which is really different. Finally, we spoke yesterday, and he said that since 9/11 had been on Saturday this year, it just sort of happened, and it passed, and that was it. For me it was the same, except I was actually camping with my son, and I found myself hiking a very steep trail with a sleepy toddler on my shoulders. It was such a hellish experience that I thought, jokingly, that maybe 9/11 would finally have a new horrible memory attached to it for me.
But of course, I’ll never fully forget that this is a terrible anniversary, and yet the luckiest anniversary of all for my family. My brother worked on the 102nd floor of the South Tower for a company called Aon, but on September 11th, 2001, he called in to his office to say he wouldn’t be going to the scheduled meeting that day. Instead, he would go to the Jersey office. His wife was eight months pregnant and feeling a little off. He wanted to be close to her. (And honestly, he would admit to me, he just was feeling lazy that morning, which saved his life.)
Everyone in that meeting died. My brother’s boss died. His boss’s boss died. My brother was in the Jersey office, watching people sob over the phones while they spoke to their doomed co-workers in the Tower. The second plane hit below the Aon offices, so most of those people had no chance to get out. My brother’s boss called his wife, who heard him say, “Oh my God,” and then was cut off, the last words she ever heard from him. At Aon, 250 people were lost in the Tower.
The first I heard about 9/11 was a call at 6:30 in the morning, California time, from my brother, who said, “I’m not in the World Trade Center. I just need you to know.” I had just woken up and was extremely confused by his statement, but he wouldn’t stay on the phone for long, because he said he had to call everyone he knew.
He managed to call most of the family, but of course, the New York folks were having all kinds of phone difficulties. So oddly enough, they were the last to find out. One uncle, in his 80s, did not know that my brother was okay for three days. When he found out, he broke down crying. My dad didn’t know for 30 minutes–the worst 30 minutes of his life, he later said.
My brother’s first child was born three weeks later–a colicky little guy who cried for 18 months straight. Pete moved up rapidly at Aon, taking the place of his slain coworkers, so he suddenly was saddled with tremendous responsibility, working on very little sleep. Fortunately, he’s strong. My mom insisted he get therapy for PTSD. His therapist told him he didn’t need it. Pete was depressed and traumatized and felt guilty for surviving, but he was muddling through. Apparently he was doing great, considering the circumstances.
For years, my family went through a yearly ritual of waking up on 9/11 and calling each other to begin the annual rehash. And then we’d take the sick, awful journey down the What If Road. I tried to write about this once for a story telling night at my theater company, but I don’t know if I did it justice. We simply could not stop our obsession with the alternative universe in which my brother went to work that day. Would he have stayed in the South Tower or left after the first plane hit the North Tower? Would he have tried to call his wife before leaving, which would have given him less time to escape? But why would he have even thought to escape? No one suspected a second plane was coming. Maybe he would have thought staying inside was the safest option.
I realize now that I no longer remember the exact times that the first plane hit and the interval between that and the second plane hitting. I used to use those times as constants to do some sickening algebra in my head, the variables being possible behavior of my brother. And actually I used to work in the Trade Center back when I lived in New York, so I knew about how long it would take to get to the lobby and then the subway. One phone call to his wife might have given Pete enough time to escape. But then, Pete might have called my mom, too, which would have sealed his fate. Or maybe he would have left right away. He never was one to hang around if it looked like something would be a real pain in the ass. But I actually don’t remember the exact times the planes hit anymore. I can’t believe that information has faded from my memory, but I’m also just so relieved to learn that it has.
In 2001, I ran the Honolulu Marathon, so I was in Oahu on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. My friend who went on this adventure with me had to take a break from carefree beach hopping and accompany me when I was drawn to a get together taking place at the Pearl Harbor memorial museum. Relatives and survivors reunited to commemorate their losses. An elderly woman stood up and said her brother was still entombed in the ship beneath the waves. I think about her every year. What would the next 60 years be like for me, having suffered a loss like that?
So this year it faded somewhat. Pete says he’ll do his annual letter next year, on the tenth anniversary. I’m sure no one will let us forget that anniversary. The media will be all over it. And really, we’re so very lucky that we even have the option to consider 9/11 just another Saturday, if we want to. Obviously most of the families of Pete’s co-workers do not have that option.