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Another 9-11 nightmare

I do my best to completely block out any association between 9-11 and the actual date of September 11th that occurs every year. It lingers in my subconscious, though, that "tip of my tongue" place where it seems like there is something I am forgetting. I get antsy this time of year, anxious. I avoid news, all news, even more assiduously this time of year. And I've only begun watching news again---after I got on the wagon from my last newsaholic bender---a little bit. Internet, reading, mostly.

But it's unavoidably out there, even in the most innocuous places. Like, the memorial link on one of my favorite blogs. Or the special report on TV last night, on the channel near the season premiere of my favorite show.

Still, I block. My disassociation is ironclad.

Until last night, when I dreamed of it, and this morning when I woke up and said, oh, we're just barely a week out. September 11 will be the 9-11 fifth anniversary. As if such things should have an anniversary, and yet, they do. We always note significant event dates, there is no rule about good or bad.

So my nightmare.

It begins as always. I am in Tower 1. In an office. It's normal. People are sitting at their desks, low-walled cubicles. Some are on the phone. Some are talking, some are making copies. The usual thing. It's early morning so there is more clumping and talking than there might be later on, when people focus and get their work groove going.

And then the big big big big hit.

Paper flies, people scream, what was that, oh my God what was that.

Calm down, the calmers are saying. just calm down, don't worry.

I don't know, me and people like me say, that can't be good, no, that has to be really, really bad. Some of us are remembering the parking garage.

I am standing near the door to the elevator bank. A noise alerts me. I look at the elevators. I think they are dropping down. I can't tell. But it decides me.

I think we need to go, I say, yes, yes we need to go!

The calmers hear the hysteria in my voice and see it is passing along to others. They try to reassure, but we are having none of it and we make for the stairs and begin running down.

At first a few try to be cool, and say how it's going to suck to have to work in sweaty clothes the rest of the day. Others force a laugh and agree, saying, won't we feel foolish and Dave's going to be so mad, I had that project and he's stayed there working on it, and things like that. I feel a pressure building inside me and I don't laugh, but say, I'd rather be foolish than sorry.

I know they are just trying to "normalize" but I don't want this to feel normal. And I resent being so sucked into myself, rather than one of the calmers or strong ones.

I'm remembering one building I was in, where the fire alarm always malfunctioned. After almost six months of racing down sixteen floors at least twice a week, we got cocky. Then, one time the alarm went off and we ignored it. Until we looked down out the window and saw about five fire trucks. Then we took it seriously and luckily it wasn't too late. The real fire was in another part of the building.

We're running, running down the stairs and more and more people. Someone is yelling, it was an airplane! And everyone thinks he is crazy. An airplane? How can this be?

My perspective shifts. I'm on top of a building under contruction. There are only steel beams overhead. I know whose perspective this is. We hear the airplane first, so we turn and watch in horror as we see it is barely overhead...and watch in agony and disbelief as it flies directly into the tower. The foreman yells, we better get down, I'm not sure this will be strong enough to hold after what is going to happen. We know enough to agree, and his leadership is set so we follow him. Let's head for the river, he says, the boats are more likely than the trains, he adds with confidence, as if he has been through this before. And he was in the military, so maybe he has.

Back to my original perspective. Running down the stairs. Almost out, almost out.
When we get out, finally, we turn around and look, just like you are not supposed to do. But we look and we see how bad it is, and every sentence that starts in my brain is melted by the horror.

All the people still in there, we have to go back, we have to go back to the office and tell them, they have to get out now.

It's irrational. Either they are on their way out or it is already too late.

But too late isn't an option, we have to go back in, but it's impossible.

My mind leaves me. It goes inside. It flies up up to the top of the building. Magically there is no center of the building. I can see in every office. There are people all standing there, faint and smoky, looking at the hollow center, sad and confused, and I think, they are already ghosts.

My perspective changes and again, I know whose perspective this is. I see a terrible smoke blowing, black, thick, wrong. My boss is beside me, at my desk, and I don't even remember why or what we were talking about. I feel it, something big and bad, and I picture home, the only place I want to be. Right now. I start to rise. I know her, she will say, sit down, calm down, we're not going to react to this, we have deadlines. But oddly, this time, she doesn't. Instead she says, you know what? I think we need to go, NOW. I have no idea where she went next, but as we all fled, fast, I didn't see her again.

Another quick perspective change, and again, I know who this belongs to. I'm on the phone, complaining to a contractor, who is assuring me he'll work out the technical bugs, yes by tomorrow. I crack a joke, trying to soften the complaint, and he starts to laugh but is suddenly cut off. Hello? Hello? I say, Are you there? Did you hang up on me? I turn to my officemate and say, He just hung up! I'm calling back. I try him several more times, and get no answer. Nothing, not even voicemail. I try to quash the irritation I feel. I'll get a coffee. My officemates calls to me as I start to walk to the door, did you say, he was at the WTC? she asks. Yes, what a blackout? We'd be hit too. No, she says, you need to come see this...

I'm back in my own original perspective. I'm stopped in a small space. Concrete around me.

Quick as a dropping elevator I fly down the building, stopping, now and again, to look and note the people. People in an office, some still unknowingly clutching a folder of paper. The one office, some sort of doctor I think, now realizing I had noticed the many different businesses...a pregnant woman and another woman, in chairs, their heads leaning back, eyes closed, why won't they get up, get up I yell, get up, why won't they get up, why won't they open their eyes. I feel the panic shut down, end. I look at them and I know. The people who were there, every day, like they would be anyway, the people who were there, by random fate. And in a weird way, I accept it. Part of me anyway.

With an odd peace, something just past numbness and into a small spurt of gratitude, it is later, and I am at home. My daughters are curled beside me, one on each side. I kiss the tops of their heads and feel my own blessing.

For a minute.

I awaken when Persistence body slams me, my physical alarm clock.

And that's when it hits me with a dull thud. Five days five years.

I feel guilty. Angry at myself. Ashamed. How dare this be my drama. It's not my drama. It didn't happen to me. I was beside it, not in it.

I drift back through the incredible detail of the nightmare. It's never been this detailed before. It's always vague feelings, vague little scenes.

Then I let myself feel, for a second. Find my priorities.

Then I let myself recall the real day, the real thing that happened.

I was seven months pregnant. We were over the moon, after trying so long. These days I was being a little sluggish and self-indulgent. Giving myself extra space in the mornings. I had heartburn that was getting worse and I sometimes woke in the night, thus was often tired. I don't remember whether my husband was already gone when I got up, or whether we said goodbye. It seems like you ought to remember a detail like that. I know I tried to, desperately, while driving to the point we said we'd meet at when we last spoke, after the attacks.

I got ready, like usual, humming a bit here and there and talking to the baby. On the way to work, I decided to stop at a great bakery and treat myself. They had outrageously good pistachio donuts, made fresh. Since I had been craving it, I also got a chocolate milk. See, those are the details I recall. Low priority details.

So it was late, as I entered the parking lot to my office. As usual, I was listening to NPR. The typically unruffled newscaster suddenly gasped and yelped, then tried to collect himself to say, "It appears there is a fire of some sort at the North Tower of the World Trade Center...there are reports that a plane crashed into it...nothing is confirmed yet...some are saying it was on purpose, a terrorist attack...there are no reports of bombs...oh my god oh my's on fire...we're receiving images now..."

I raced into my office building, and ran right into the media department, where people were clustered around Frank---the media guy---and his television. The television he used to edit our helpful little instructional videos. The silly television we watched the silly video in which our coworkers either goofed, spoofed, or woodenly acted out their parts...was that the end of last week? Was there popcorn?

I stood in horror and watched Tower 1 on fire, and then like a movie, it was TV, it wasn't real, I watched a plane glide into Tower 2, the south one, oh so smoothly. I really expected to see it glide through the other side. I really did, just like that, with no harm, like a movie. But instead, eruption. We all gasped. The head of our division made no sound at all until she said, "My son works at the top of Tower 2. I need to go call him."

Yes, we were still thinking that...that we could call, and be reassured, and all would be well.

We all broke up, and went to call...whoever...or do...whatever. Sit in shock I imagine.

I turned on my little radio for news, and heard there were two or three more planes. "One is believed to be headed for the Financial District. All people in that district should evacuate," the monotone voice told me.

My husband. My husband works there. My heart was too frightened and too shocked to hammer in my chest. It would beat, hitch, beat, hitch.

I called. I told him what was going on.

"I know, I heard, I saw," he told me. Then he said something he never has, "I'm scared."

"They said there's another plane, and it's heading for you," I said, my breath hitching into a sob, as it all hit me. "They say you should leave your building, I think you should."

Then I heard they were shutting down the subways and commuter trains. I started to tell him, but he said, "Hang on, hon, someone is banging on our door...what the..."

I heard a loud, angry man's voice yelling, "By order of the police and fire EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY, GET OUT NOW, please leave this building and this area of the city...if anyone is handicapped, you must assist them or tell us now, we have to move on...are there any other offices on this floor?"

Despite these loud orders, they hesitated.

I said to my husband, "Hang up NOW and RUN! RUN! Get to the trains! I'll meet you at..."

And he said, okay. Just like that.

I tried to be cool. I tried to act like it wasn't making me hysterical, but it was. I wanted to do something but I was powerless.

I asked my boss if I could leave, go pick up my husband at the train stop, and she said, sure. Do whatever. Nobody will be working much today, I'm afraid.

I felt like a fool, the only one who felt like the world was falling apart. Everyone else appeared so together. All I could think was, whatever else, this is a tragedy, but so huge, so unbelievable, I can tell, more bad things will come next.

The news reports were garbled and confusing, and it seemed one minute we were at further risk and the next, not at all. I kept telling myself to calm down, we didn't know anything. It could be nothing. I kept trying to call my husband's cell phone but couldn't reach him. The circuits were all busy.

I arrived at the train depot. Crowds of people gathered. We were all hoping our loved one made it out of the city, made it home. An older lady came up to me. "When are you due?" she asked, trying to smile. "Two and a half months," I told her, although it ended up being less. We gave up trying to talk of normal things.

"Did you see it hit?" she asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Who are you waiting for?" she asked.

"My husband," I told her, "And you?"

"My husband and my son," she said.

And then we didn't know what else to say, but she took my hand and held it and said, "It'll be okay. He'll be on the train."

The train came very slowly, pulled in to the station carefully, not the usual screech and slam. You can't imagine. I've never seen anything like it. It was so full of people, some hung onto the rails on the sides. They were crammed, and silent. Cattle car.

Hundreds, literally, of people spilled out of the train. I watched and waited.

The lady beside me inhaled and smiled, "There they are!" and ran to greet her family.

I watched and waited. A thousand scenarios in my head. My husband was too late, and missed the train. He got there, but it was too crowded and he gave his space to someone else. Anything he might do. I felt angry with fate, I need him, I thought. I need him now. I tried to calm myself. People were still coming off. I felt it less likely now. He wouldn't have gotten there so quick as to be in the interior of the train.

But I underestimated his speed. There he was, one of the last people off. He walked towards me, almost as pale as our wedding day. Still, I was beyond glad to see his face. I was relieved, grateful, guilty, happy, worried. We hugged, and said, let's go, let's go home.

We watched the news like everyone else. We saw everything that happened on TV. My husband listened to the news casts and scoffed, "Those buildings will fall, it's a fact." We prayed there was enough time to get everyone out. We thought it could happen.

Then I started thinking about everyone. Everyone I knew there. And we tried, off and on, to call people. None of whom we reached, not that day, or the next. Eventually, two to three days later, news of people, our specific people, started tricklng in. Friends, cousins, relatives. But those stories are their own.

You all know the rest.

That day was pivotol for our lives. It changed a lot. We weren't in NYC, so it isn't really our story. We have a story about that day, like everyone else, but the tragedy? It isn't ours personally. I feel almost ashamed to have the strong feelings that I do, the feeling of being a part of it, anyway, despite it not being mine.

So I hate talking about this, but every now and again, for some reason, I need to. I'm sure I'll get my blockers right back up and will go back to saying, "Next week? Let me check my calendar, it seems like there is something that, hmm, nothing...well good, let's schedule it!"

But for others, people for whom it is a real anniversary, not the date that the world shifted on its axis, but the date their world collapsed, at least for a little while...may I say, I hope strength, peace and caring sustain you.

I won't note the date. I'll probably post about my kids on that day. It'll probably end up being subconscious, an affirmation of living on, going forward. But you'll have read this and you'll know.

By Julie Pippert
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© 2006. All images and text exclusive property of Julie Pippert. Not to be used or reproduced.


Kate said…
Can't say anything. Had to say something. Was thousands of miles away myself, but still...

Momma Star said…
I was farther away, but pregnant too. It was the day before my ultrasound.

Bea said…
This was an incredibly gripping post. I don't read everything I see about that day, but nothing I've read has been like this - very vivid and real.
Ally said…
Hey Julie, I'm just reading this now in 2007. I was pregnant 7 months pregnant 9/11/01 as well, and had a very strange and scary day, too, but like you said, it wasn't tragic, compared to the real tragedy so many others suffered. Still, I think it was good of you to write down your experience, as it was haunting your dreams and thoughts.

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