My daughters are 9/11 babies. They were born in 2002, a little less than nine months after 9/11. I was very newly pregnant that day, but so early I didn’t know I was pregnant for 4 more days. We lived downtown and one of our favorite parts of our one-bedroom apartment was the view out of our living room window straight down 3rd Ave to the Twin Towers. That morning my husband left early to vote in the NYC Democratic Primary before heading uptown to work. I was still in the bedroom putting together my notes and thoughts before I started my day of writing. All the blinds were down.
My husband burst back into the apartment and told me to open the blinds and look out the window because one of the Towers was on fire. When we looked out the window it was apparent that they were both on fire at this point. We spent the next incomprehensible moments watching out our window while watching Peter Jennings on TV at the same time. And then the unthinkable happened – the first tower collapsed. We were frantically on email since phone service was down. We waited to hear about one friend who worked in one of the Towers. My sister showed up at my apartment at some point, having watched the same horrific scene from her roof downtown. I couldn’t get a hold of my dad, a doctor in Brooklyn Heights, who was at his hospital as it tried to handle the inundation of stricken, shocked and debris-covered people who had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge looking for help, too stunned to process what had happened. My mom was on vacation in Denver, unreachable. Her apartment downtown was soon behind military barricades, the meatpacking district looked like a military zone.
We walked to our neighborhood diner at some point, just sitting there collectively trying to eat and trying to figure out what normal would be in NYC. We lived right off of Union Square, which quickly became the site of missing posters, of flyers, of family and friends holding out hope, trying to feel proactive. It’s still hard to describe how this giant city felt like a small town. How everyone was scared but bonded all at once. There was nothing more horrific than what happened that day – but there was also a determination and understanding among New Yorkers that we were in this together. As much as it happened to America – as much as politicians still try to use it for their own purposes – it truly happened to New York.
Everyone in my childbirth preparation class had a 9/11 story. My pregnancy was in the shadow of that “recovery.” I switched doctors partly because the hospital at which I was supposed to deliver was right across from Ground Zero. My whole pregnancy I worried (and still worry) about the air I inhaled, especially that first week, when it was so intensely filled with the stench of burning steel, acrid odors, and a yellow haze. Being pregnant during the aftermath of 9/11 was both life affirming and scary as hell.
So, how do I talk to my girls about that time? The attack on the Twin Towers, the attack on NYC, is not just about terrorism and fear. One of the things I most want them to understand – if anything can truly be understood from that awful day – is how the city came together during that time. How hundreds of volunteers lined up to feed the first responders and firemen and policemen who tirelessly kept searching through the burning rubble to find the possible survivors, or find the remains of the victims so they could be properly buried or memorialized. How volunteers came from all over the country to help. How a mayor who we didn’t even like, stepped up to fill a giant vacuum of leadership and really came through when the city – and country – needed someone to lead. How even though I was stunned and shaken and not sure if my beloved city would rebound – I was still hopeful because collectively the city had proved itself to be an extraordinary place full of kindness, grit and compassion.
Today, all over the country most people have moved on. But, in NYC this still feels like a day meant only for memorials and remembering. I am still shocked when someone invites me to something frivolous on 9/11. This day remains different in NYC. We remember not just because we lived through it, but because these were our fellow New Yorkers. And I want my daughters to know they should proud to be New Yorkers, but not take for granted this amazing city full of different cultures, languages, food, energy and opinions. I know I never will.