Tuesday, September 10, 2013

9/11 Memorial

I am lucky. On so many levels. I will list them all in due time, but today I will focus on something that I don't talk about often. I don't talk about it because I never felt I had anything to add to the conversation that wasn't already better said or better left unsaid. I'm still not sure I do, but this is my story. 

My (incredible) husband and in laws hung with our kids, and I was able to visit my beloved city recently; alone to just be Jennifer for an entire weekend. I hadn't been to ground zero for a very long time and felt that I needed to pay my respects to the victims, New York, and my life within it all.

I lived in New York at the time of the attacks, just a year out of college and on the path to fulfilling my dreams of a professional dance career. I am lucky. I survived. I am not a loved one of a victim, and I didn't lose anyone I loved that day. I was at a safe distance away. I spoke to my mom that morning after the first plane hit so she knew I was safe. She was able to tell family and friends I was ok. I am lucky. I never felt that I had any right to feel anything about it because so many more suffered far worse than I. 

Around this time every year I get sad, really sad. It's not even a conscious choice and most times I don't realize why I am feeling down until the day is upon me. You just push it down and keep living, until it boils to the surface. I remember a Halloween party I attended in my hometown in 2004. There was a costume party and the winner was dressed up as Bin Laden. I was furious and went ballistic. I couldn't believe people were glamorizing evil in such a flippant way. I was sobbing uncontrollably and ended up at a friends place. I could tell they were at a loss of how to console me, but that just made me cry harder. We were in such different spaces, they could never truly understand. I felt so alone with the pain. So you push it down, ignore it, keep moving forward. Until it comes crashing in like waves and I wait for it to dissipate with the tide again.

It took 10 years for it to really catch up to me and on that anniversary I was out of country, away from my family and I was overcome with sadness and pain that I could hardly contain. I was staying with friends in London and hearing their stories helped me open up about mine. I saw the effects of someone else's pain who was nowhere near New York at the time. It is rare for me relate to someone about it who wasn't there, and for the first time in years I chose to share my story with them; two of only a handful of people I had ever talked about it with. All the emotions became very overwhelming and combined with missing my family it shook me pretty hard.  The volcano was gearing up to blow and that day in London, on the 10 year anniversary, was that moment.

I remember every detail, every decision starting with the night before. It starts playing in my mind here like flashes. How I ended up back at a diner on the upper east side instead of going to an insider favorite near the towers; in the wee hours of the morning. On late nights I most often stayed with my two best friends living in midtown, but I chose to head home to Astoria that morning. My mom waking me a short while later praying I was home safe in my bed, the last phone call for hours that got thru to me. Crawling up my wrought iron headboard hovering in sheer terror as the first tower collapsed, and then the second. I couldn't tell you how long before I came down. Waiting to hear if some of my closest friends down in the area were all safe. The cops thinking I was nuts for going back into the city that night. But I was desperate for familiar faces and human contact. Riding the subway when they finally lifted the lock down and staring at my fellow passengers, everyone silent. That moment frozen as we went below the water to emerge in the city. Walking out to desolate streets. Meeting my friends, all of us like zombies unable to express what we were feeling. Not leaving each others sides for days.  Even writing this I can feel it in my heart as if it is still happening. A fear I hadn't known until that moment, but will forever be within a thoughts reach. I remember the months of walking by the armory with a wall of missing people flyers, thousands. The candlelight vigil's happening all around the city of people gathering and coming together not to figure out what the hell just happened but for compassion and camaraderie. Searching the newspapers for familiar faces, firemen and financial people who were my regulars for years at the bar I worked at. Slowly surfacing, needing to share their story. I remember all of them, their stories on a loop playing back like an old film movie. The anxiety every time a fighter plane flew overhead, or the heavy guns and military presence everywhere you turned, or watching low flying planes. Panicked they might be headed into anything nearby. I remember sitting on the uptown bus imagining the buildings falling on top of me, what it would feel like, how/if I would survive.

In 2003 I was on tour in China and I remember being on stage performing and I couldn't get it together. I felt awkward and I was completely disconnected from it, as if in a foreign body. Auditions started to feel more like a chore and I stopped going to class. I couldn't see the point and it all seemed really silly to me. Dance seemed frivolous and completely indulgent rather than art.  All I really know is that I felt differently before and after the attacks; like I lost a part of me. I tried hard to get it back, to not "let them win" but I just didn't have the same passion anymore. Not that I realized any of this at the time. I was bitter and resentful, and made some choices that I'm not entirely proud of.

 Travelling to Africa, changed my path again. For the first time since the attacks, I had left New York for an extended period of time and was able to let go of the fight I didn't realize I was fighting. I felt at peace there and I knew that if I didn't make a change I would blink my eyes and wake up 10 years later so far from where I wanted to be. Walking away meant believing in today and having faith that it would lead me in the right direction.

My parents gave me the strength and support to walk away and change course. They always told me it was my choice and leaving wasn't a failure. I never questioned their love or what they would say. I only knew they would love me and support my decision every way they could. I am sad they were never in a Broadway theater to see me perform, or that I never got to fly them to Paris to see my opening night; but it had run its course and the time for change was upon me.  I'm sure they had a million questions, but respected me enough not to ask. And at the time I couldn't have given any answers.

I had gotten quite good at suppressing it, but thoughts of that time in my life had been haunting me alot that year. Bin Laden was found and killed, I had recently moved away from family and friends again; and I couldn't stop examining the decisions that brought me to where I was today. After some soul searching and help I realized for the first time that maybe I had survivor's guilt or PTSD or maybe even both. At first I couldn't accept that, still struggling with it, but with time I am learning to let go of the guilt and allow myself to open up about it. It took 10 years to begin the process of understanding the effects of such a tragedy on my life and I am still coming to peace with it all.

Going to the memorial was a moment I needed to take. I went with a friend, a great friend; one of the only people I know that understands what can't be put into words.


We were put off by the tourist feel of entering the memorial. Felt as if we were in line to visit numerous other attractions in the city. There were more than a few people taking selfies at the fountains that made me want to rip their camera's out of their hands and throw them, but gazing past that it was remarkably peaceful and beautiful.

A pear tree that made it thru the attacks that day, nursed back to health and then survived hurricane sandy. Fittingly named The Survivor's Tree.

Quiet waters fueling a powerful waterfall. The bottomless hole in the center matching so many of my feelings about that time.

The white roses placed on the victims names on their birthdays. Such a simple gesture but one that reminds me I am not alone in my thoughts.

The coldness of the stone the names of souls lost are etched in.

Many there to reflect, gather, remember, and keep the conversations going; the ripple effects still visible. Finding peace through this tragedy seems impossible at times. Among many things, I used to believe that if you work hard you can make anything happen. It's just not true. I lost my innocence. The reality of evil bringing about understanding in a brutal way. I want my kids to plan and dream and fight for what makes them happy, but to know full-heartedly going in that it is not a guarantee. It can be derailed in an instant. It's how you channel those moments that will define your life and hopefully guide you back to happiness. 

I still feel the pain as real as ever, but I am finding peace. With that comes the ability to live in the moment and enjoy life in spite of the sadness. This year I'm starting a new tradition of lighting a candle in the morning and letting it burn til end of day. The peace and calm of the flame to quiet my mind and free myself to be happy. 

Being happy is ok, more than ok it's what we all should strive for. I look at my kids and I try to freeze the moments in my mind; with the hope they will be the ones that I recall in an instant that make my heart hurt with love. The feel of their cuddles, watching them learn and the pure joy in their souls, this incredible family I have. These moments are happening each day and I get it. I am a lucky girl.