In January 2001, six months after getting married, Harlan and I moved from SF to NYC and settled into a 400 square foot apartment in the East Village. Our shoebox of a home had views of the Empire State Building to the north and the World Trade Center to the south. On September 11th our southern view was forever altered when the towers fell. Harlan was in Seattle, having flown there for a business trip several days earlier. He was supposed to return that morning. So I was on my own during the attacks and for several days following. I stayed with a friend (and her husband and young baby) on the Upper East Side that first night, too shaken to return to my apartment. I remember holding my friend’s son and having a hard time reconciling this new life with the thousands of lives lost just hours earlier. When I returned to my apartment the next day, the emptiness of our southern view gutted me. Where the towers had scraped the sky there was only smoke: thick, acrid, and toxic, permeating the barrier of my window. A few nights later I walked north to Union Square to attend a candlelight vigil to honor those who had died. Harlan was still stuck out west, but my sister-in-law and I found one another in the crowd. Strangers held each other and cried, finding comfort in the midst of anguish. There was an aching beauty in the communal grieving.
Living in Lower Manhattan I was about as close as one could be to the epicenter of our national tragedy. But, though our apartment was less than 2 miles from Ground Zero, I wasn’t as traumatized as many. I wasn’t a first responder or one of the many volunteers who helped clear the rubble. I didn’t know anyone who had died in the towers, the Pentagon, or on any of the flights. There were family members of people I knew, and friends of friends, but no one I personally cherished. As close as I was to it all I wasn’t in the eye of the storm. I was grateful for my incredible good fortune. But I was also chagrined to find myself morbidly curious about what it was like for those in the “inner circle” of loss. People like my college a cappella sister whose close friend perished in the towers, or a high school classmate whose partner had arrived at One World Trade Center that morning for his first day of work and never returned home. I had no stories to tell about losing someone I loved. And a part of me (embarrassing though it is to admit) felt like my experience of loss wasn’t as legitimate as theirs because of my dumb luck.
Now it is 19 years later, we are in the midst of a new crisis, and I have once again (so far) been incredibly lucky. My family and friends are healthy and safe. I know a few people who have come down with the virus, but they have thankfully recovered, relatively quickly and at home. Nevertheless, a global crisis of this scale means it’s likely just a matter of time before someone (or many people) I love will fall critically ill or worse. I am no longer young and naive. I am not at all curious to discover how it would feel to be part of this club that no one wants to join. I have a husband and three children who mean everything to me. I have aging parents, one with compromised health. I have my own health issues. I am already intimate with grief. My experience of this time will be valid whether I experience a personal tragedy or not. We are all grieving, albeit for different reasons and at different depths. I don’t want to have a story of great loss to share someday. The only story I hope to tell, when this is all finally over, is that of how blessed I was that everyone I loved survived, how I learned and grew from this challenge, and how the world slowed and stilled and breathed and came together as never before.