All that sadness turned me into a supernova.
You never wake up knowing it's a day when tragedy will strike your life like lightning. If we did, we'd pull the covers back over our head and wait it out, our bedrooms a makeshift bomb shelter against our whole world blowing up right outside our windows. There's no advance notice because we'd end up living life on perpetual hold.
That morning was like any other morning. I woke up, fed the dogs, brushed my teeth, caught the D train from Kingsbridge Road to Rockefeller Center, and nodded off on the way in like I always did. Work was work until it wasn't, until the news started filtering in and everyone froze in place, and when we finally thawed out there was Before 9/11 and After 9/11.
A giant rift right down the center of our timeline, separating the way we were and the way we could never be again. For months afterward, I dreamed in ashes and woke up wishing I'd stayed in bed that day.
The specifics don't matter. Everyone has their story. I could tell you how the second tower looked coming down on a TV with terrible reception. I could tell you how the closer we got, the more ghosts we saw come screaming out of the wall of white smoke, powdered in pale dust and crimson debris.
I could tell you how tightly I held the hand of the boy who walked home with me, the dry heat of his palm, the sandpaper swirls of his fingertips. I could tell you how we all cringed at every loud noise, looking up to the sky, ready to dive into the nearest doorway.
But really, those are just the things I saw, the things that show up like graffiti on the backs of my eyelids when I can't sleep because of the way my brain is replaying it once again. That's my very small part of a very big story, but it's also a very big story in my very small life. It's how I learned to be happy.
It seems counterintuitive, I know, that such unforgiving amounts of death and destruction could birth a better life for me. It wasn't a road to Damascus moment. There was no bright and blinding revelation as I walked across the George Washington Bridge, staring blankly out at the aching hole smoking in the skyline.
It was a gradual awakening, as though what rose from the ashes wasn't anything so grand as a phoenix but the smallest and most fragile moth, translucent and tumbling along toward the light through the tunnel of sadness that surrounded me.
When the worst thing you never thought could happen to you happens, when you wake up the next day in the same body but a different life, the whole world shifts within you.
I survived planes crashing through the clouds, fear like wildfire on the wind, darkness so profound that none of us could see the blazing sun right in front of our eyes. I'd gotten my New York legs.
Somewhere between the tiny office where we watched a screen full of billowing smoke and the moment my feet touched the floor of my sh*tty third floor apartment, I stopped being so scared. I no longer cringed in hopeful invisibility when the old men shouted at me from beside the bodega.
When a man with skin the color of sun-cracked leather approached me on Fordham, face two inches from mine, my eyes were like knives and I left him in ribbons on the sidewalk. I stopped carrying my keys in between my fingers when I walked home and didn't formulate an escape plan every time I got in a taxi. Prayer began to feel as unnecessary as fear.
But the things I stopped doing weren't as important as the things I started. Every leaf that danced past me in a cool October wind wrote a poem in the strands of my hair blowing back like a secret veil.
I smiled at the woman who sold me dulce de leche ice cream in the bodega at the end of my street. I tasted snow from our dirty rooftop, and it was ice cold freedom sliding down the back of my throat. I held the hand of a homeless woman who might have been twenty or might have been one hundred, and touching her was holy.
I said "I love you" and "I forgive you" with increasing frequency. I let things go when it mattered, and held them close to me when it didn't. The whole world became a possibility, not a punishment. The sky was blue and wide open, and I stopped looking at it with suspicion.
There's a Leonard Cohen song I love that goes:
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
One of the worst days of my life was a crack as big as everything, but that's how all this brilliant, glorious, life-light got in. All that sadness turned me into a supernova, and I'm still exploding.