The first thing I recall is being woken up by a knock on the door. It was my boyfriend’s roommate coming to tell us that a plane had flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. As we jumped up out of bed and ran toward the balcony off the living room, there stood the familiar tower, what seemed like just a few feet away, engulfed in flames.
My boyfriend at the time lived in what had to have been the most beautiful apartment I had ever seen. The best part of the apartment, and the boyfriend, was the balcony, with the most spectacular views of downtown Manhattan, the Twin Towers front and center. He lived in one of those new luxury high-rises on the Lower East Side. Part of the heavily financed real estate that, along with the vogue bars and millionaires moving in, would begin to set downtown Manhattan on fire. Now our burgeoning urban oasis was literally on fire. We immediately began grasping at straws. “Do you think the pilot was drunk, or maybe had a heart attack and lost control?” “No, there was probably some malfunction or something like that”. We considered every possibility from technical malfunction to human error, but never once human intention.
We decided to head to the roof to get a better view and to confirm the reality of what we were seeing, when we heard the first scream. As we stepped onto the roof, like the flip of a screen shot, there stood the towers, now both on fire. As the screams from inside the building continued, and we stood in silence among the other traumatized residents, we comforted each other by insisting that as soon as they put the fires out, everyone on the other floors would be okay. We told ourselves that because it was still relatively early, most people probably hadn’t even arrived to work yet. But the desperate sobs of the woman trying to unsuccessfully reach her husband who worked on the 99th floor assured us we were probably wrong.
I was 25 at the time, dating an older man who refused to commit, living in a 4th floor walkup with 7 roommates, all of us aspiring starving artists. Most days were spent in dingy Greenwich Village coffee shops, when they still existed, bemoaning our struggles. Just 10 hours earlier, my greatest worry in life was not being prepared for the audition scheduled on that doomed Tuesday. That moment on the roof instantly snapped me out of my self-absorbed, insulated bubble, into the jarring reality of an unpredictable world, and the fragility of life.
When we heard the news about the attack on the pentagon was when shock turned to panic, and the realization that we were under attack set in. This isn’t supposed to happen in real life, at least not here. How spoiled and out of touch we were. Hours later, when the boyfriend asked me to leave because he was having friends over, I left the apartment in a daze. Almost dissociated, I walked down the empty streets in the blackened fog toward the building where the audition was being held, just in the unlikely case this wasn’t really happening. An attempt to will myself awake from what I hoped was just a dream perhaps? I remember walking, zombie-like, as such odd and inexplicable feelings washed over me. I felt devastating guilt for not having done anything, for being at a safe distance just watching while thousands of people were dying. Why didn't I do anything? I know that was irrational, but at that time it felt very real. Watching the buildings crumble in slow motion, countless souls among them, is an image that I will never be able to erase. It’s an image that I don’t want to erase. And it’s a day that I don’t want to forget. It would be an insult to the thousands who lost their lives, those who lost their loved ones, and those who lost their innocence on that day. It’s a reminder that at any moment, anything can happen. Of course, at times we will forget, and as humans it’s in our nature to complain about the little annoyances of everyday life. We’re wired to produce and cast our own personal dramas and we likely won’t stop doing that altogether. But by remembering the horrors of past, like 9/11, and the ones that are happening right now all over the world, maybe we’ll remember to make the most of each impermanent moment we have and respect what, despite all, is the beauty of life.
Allison Abrams is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice and a mindfulness coach with the NY division of Leading Minds Executive Coaching. If you are an individual interested in learning how therapy can help you achieve your goals, contact Allison at GoodTherapy.org. If you work for an organization that can benefit from executive coaching and mindfulness, call to inquire about Leading Minds Executive Coaching services.