How Fragile We Are

September 11, 2011

Everyone has a 9/11 story.  Here’s mine…

 

On September 10, 2001 my grandmother died.  Of course, this was a big loss for my family, especially my father.  We were rallying in Ohio, where she had died, on September 12 for her funeral.  This was going to be a little tricky for me, because I was starting school at Aveda (cosmetology school) on September 11th.  I decided I would attend school the first day and then drive out to Ohio that evening.  I rented a car and reserved a hotel room, but when I called my parents to tell them, they hated my plan.  They really wanted me to fly out there, because they thought the drive would be too difficult for me.  I was offended that they felt I was incapable of driving from NYC to Ohio, and although my parents and I never fight, I couldn’t let it go. We had it out.  Several phone calls later they informed me that I was flying and that they had already bought my ticket.  I was so angry that I hung up on them.  Then I called the airline and spent several hours negotiating a “bereavement” fare, so at least they would not have had to spend hundreds of dollars for a flight I didn’t need to take.  I went to bed incredibly bitter.

 

When I woke up on September 11th my first thought was of the fight with my parents and my stomach churned.  I was still nauseous with anger when I got on the subway to head downtown to school.  Luckily, when I got to the 1 train I ran into my friends, Alake and Suzy, also boarding the train.  Alake’s birthday had been the day before (9/10) and Suzy’s birthday was September 11!   So they were both in a very celebratory mood (Suzy was covered in glitter) and they cheered me up.  I had a long ride to school–from Washington Heights to Soho, and when I got to my stop (Varrick Street) it was about 8:50am.  As I came up onto the street I immediately noticed crowds of people lining Seventh Avenue and looking up and down the street.  I was beginning to wonder if this was what people did every morning in Soho when a caravan of firetrucks came roaring down the avenue.  Everyone on the street cheered and as I looked down Seventh to see where they were heading I saw giant flames leaping out of an enormous gash in the World Trade Center’s North Tower.  It was about a mile directly ahead of me.  I was alarmed, but nothing in me thought it was anything more than an accidental fire.  When I got to our classroom, news started coming in about a plane having hit the tower, and within 30 minutes a hysterical Aveda staff member came to the room telling us that both towers had been hit by terrorists and we all needed to leave the building so we could call our parents. (Many of the students were only just out of high school.)  I left the building, shaking, and called my parents.  I got through pretty quickly to my dad who was beside himself.  He told me the Pentagon had also been hit and I immediately had the idea that whoever was behind the attacks was not done with NYC yet and there would be more to come.  We were supposed to go back to class once we made our calls, but just when we got back the South Tower collapsed, and the staff told us to get to safety.  They suggested we team up and all head somewhere together.  I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible and my thought was,” I do not want to die with these strangers.”  I had the idea that there would be more attacks on landmarks around NYC and mentally made a map of them in my head.  My plan was to walk uptown, taking a route that would avoid as many of them as possible.  I felt that if I could reach 72nd Street and Riverside Avenue I would live.  I couldn’t think of any significant landmarks further uptown than that.

 

As I walked quickly north I noticed that it was eerily quiet.  Many people were just silently transfixed on the remaining tower.  Most cell phones weren’t working anymore and people were very patiently and orderly lined up to use pay phones.  The only sound came from news reports playing out of car radios–the cars parked on the street and surrounded by listeners.  I headed up 6th Avenue from Spring Street to 8th Street and the whole way I was very aware that the drama was playing out directly behind me, but I didn’t want to turn around and look.  I never once looked back at the towers that day.  I knew thousands of people were dying a mile behind me I didn’t want to see.  At 8th Street I cut west across Greenwich Avenue and realized right away that my view of the tower was now blocked, even if had wanted to look.  I started to panic and felt incredibly alone, as everyone had deserted the side streets for the better view the avenues afforded.  And as I walked toward Seventh Avenue I repeated over and over, “I’m ready, I’m ready…”  I thought I was about to die and it comforted me to know I was ready to meet my Maker.  Then as I looked ahead of me the crowds of people on Seventh Avenue began to scream and run north.  The second tower had just fallen.  I couldn’t see what they were running from, though, and I thought there had been a new attack right ahead of me.  My heart stopped and I quickly turned east to backtrack to Sixth Avenue and saw the same scene of people screaming and running there, too.  I felt trapped and terrified.  I looked down at the ground and my legs began to give out.  Everything slowed down and I knew I was about to pass out.  I wanted to just sit down right there and have it all be over, but just as I was lowering myself toward the ground, something in me turned back on and I knew I needed to just put one foot in front of the other and keep walking.

 

When I got to the avenue I walked a few more blocks north and along with everyone else, was in a complete daze.  Then I heard someone calling my name, and a car pulled up next to me.  In the driver’s seat was a friend and I just walked over his car and got in.  He hadn’t invited me to ride with him and was actually en route to pick his mom up from work and get her to safety, but I told him I was riding with him as far as he was willing to take me.  I don’t remember talking to him at all, but when we got to 34th Street he told me he needed to drop me off.  I got out and headed west–away from the Empire State building–and started zig-zagging uptown, avoiding the Lincoln Tunnel, Port Authority, Times Square, Columbus Circle and Lincoln Center.  I began to notice that already, everywhere I looked, there were American flags.  There was a feeling on the street of being very united with everyone else.

 

My only focus was to reach 72nd Street and Riverside Drive, and once I did I began to feel that I would live through the day.  I still had about 80 blocks left to walk in order to make it home, and just a few hours later I was walking in my door.  The next few days are a blur.  I knocked on doors all over my apartment building to see if everyone was OK and hosted a prayer night that many neighbors came to.  Two of my best friends married each other September 15th, and I know we had parties for them throughout the week.  (I can remember looking out the window at their rehearsal dinner and seeing the fighter planes circling the city.)  My parents came in for the wedding and I remember my mom choking up as she held me, telling me she was never going to tell me what to do ever again.  The nightmare she had been envisioning that week was “What if Renee’s flight, that we insisted she take, had been one of the hijacked ones?”.  And my 30th birthday was September 16th.  I think I spent most of it in bed.  As the days, then weeks went by, I began to find life’s rhythm again.  Of course, September 11th changed me forever.

 

What I think about most from that day was that moment where I almost gave way to terror and sunk to the ground on Greenwich Avenue.  Coincidentally, my church now meets on that block and I walk that same stretch every Sunday.  I went there today and sat down with a friend and prayed.  I thanked God for giving me the last ten years.  So many blessings have come to me in the past decade, especially the blessing of being Rahul’s mom.  That same sinking/I’m-not-going-to-survive-this feeling has come to me a few times in the journey of loving and helping him, and that same “something” has clicked on inside me each time.  Urging me to keep walking.  To survive.

 

How Fragile We Are VIDEO *click here*

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Let me start by saying, I never had any intention of going to Disney.  Ever.  I’m just not a “Disney Person” if you know what I mean.  But then last Thanksgiving, as my niece and nephew were talking about their trips to Disney with Rahul I saw the look in his eyes.  He wanted to go.  He would never say so, but I could tell.  My mom saw it too.  She looked at me sternly and said, “You know you have to take him.” And so I began concocting a plan.

 

By Christmas I had enlisted my cousin Kathy to come also, with her daughter Gabby.  We could share a room and cut down expenses and the kids could ride all the roller coasters together!  I am severely motion sensitive, as is Kathy, but our kids are daredevils.   And I have enough friends who LOVE Disney to know I wouldn’t have to plan anything.  I would just do what they did!  My sister and brother-in-law had taken their kids 2 years in a row during the last week of August and had found Disney to be low on crowds and less expensive.  Its off-peak since kids in the South are back to school by then.  So Kathy and I settled on traveling down there the same week and staying only 4 days (for my sanity).

 

 

The cost of the whole package was a lot less than I thought it would be, but it was still a stretch for me. Between paying for Rahul’s day camp at the beginning of summer and Disney at the end of it, I worked my butt off all year.  I finally paid for the last piece of the trip about a week before we left, leaving just enough money for us to spend on vacation.

 

Then Hurricane Irene loomed.  We had tickets to fly out of NYC the Monday morning after it was supposed to hit (on Saturday and Sunday).  Saturday I had to drive up to the Catskills to pick up Rahul from sleep-away camp.  My Jeep has been breaking down all summer and I have been stranded more than once.  Honestly, I think it has spent more time with the mechanic than with me lately.  I plan on trading it in for a new, RELIABLE car, but just haven’t had the time between repairs to make it happen.  So I was just hoping it would keep running until I got Rahul back from camp.

 

(Oh. Sidestory that brings context to this whole tale: The week before Rahul’s camp I drove out to my parents’ house where he had been spending the first three weeks of August.  Its a 7 hour drive and when I was just past the halfway point in the drive the traffic slowed to a stop and black smoke drifted into the air ahead of me: a tractor trailer had caught fire and the section of the thruway I happened to be on was a parking lot for three hours while they put it out.

 

These are the kinds of things that frequently happen to me, especially when it comes to traveling.  Seriously, if I had been 15 minutes ahead or behind myself I would have avoided it completely.  But, of course, there I am peeing in a cup in my back seat while the contents of the Family Dollar truck burn to a crisp.)

 

 

So as Rahul and I were winding our way down the Catskills in the rain that Saturday before Irene, my main concern was making it home without incident.  We did, but as soon as I walked in the door I got a call from JetBlue informing me that our flight was cancelled.  My heart stopped and I settled in at the phone for what I knew would be a long call.  To their credit, the “on hold” music at JetBlue was “The Tide is High” by Blondie. They had a whole playlist of hurricane/flood related music, and believe me, I heard it all.  I spent six hours on the phone with various airlines, trying to find SOME way out of town.  The whole time, though, I saw our vacation slipping away.  My final game plan was to book a flight out of Rochester (6 hours away, but in the opposite direction from the path of Irene) departing Monday evening.  Rahul, Baby Fish Mouth (my dog) and I would drive up to Albany Monday morning and meet my parents (coming from the Rochester area) at my sister’s place.  I’d leave my Jeep there and drive to Rochester with my parents.  They would drop Rahul and I at the airport and take BFM back to their place for a few weeks.  (I’m a fiercely independent person, but I couldn’t be nearly so without the help of my family.)  I booked the flight out of Rochester on a Delta plane and got an Amtrak ticket to Albany for the Saturday we’d be back from Disney so I could pick up my car and drive it back home.  Rahul and I would arrive in Orlando one day late, but it would be better than nothing.  With that plan firmly in place, Rahul and I went to bed Saturday night and slept through the hurricane’s arrival.  In the 22 years that I have been going to my church it has never been cancelled before.  We had 26 inches of snow fall one Saturday night and the city was virtually shut down the following Sunday.  We still had church.  But for Hurricane Irene we cancelled our service.  So I slept until 9am–probably the latest I’ve slept in years.

 

 

I spent Sunday packing and when Monday morning arrived Rahul, Baby and I  got ready to set out.  I pulled up whatever traffic information I could, because I knew there was flooding.  The hurricane had hit, but had not impacted NYC as much as expected.  A lot of roads were closed and on our way out the door I learned that the NY State Thruway was shut down on both sides of Albany.  I called my sister and my parents, eventually deciding to bypass Albany altogether and head directly to Rochester across NJ and PA through Binghamton, NY.  I could not get reliable information about the condition of Route 80, but it seemed to be open, so I headed out, hoping I’d manage to get to Rochester at some point before 6pm.  We got about halfway across NJ and the traffic was bad, but the highway was open so we were feeling pretty good.  We stopped for gas and I pulled the car over to the side of the parking area so I could use the restroom.  And when I got back in to the car to leave, it didn’t start.

 

 

My heart sank.  Because of all the other trouble I’ve had with my car lately, I knew this would be a major repair, and because of all the flooding, I knew it would be hours before a tow truck would be able to get us to a mechanic.  There was nothing we could do, but sit and wait.

 

 

Three hours later, a tow truck came and took us down the road to the mechanic.  Everyone who looked at our car that day had been dealing so exclusively with flood-related issues that they didn’t beleive me when I told them my car had not been sitting in water.  One mechanic pulled me over to the side and threatened me, saying “You’ve got to be honest with me.  What really happened to your car?”  Somehow, I convinced him I wasn’t lying, and they went to work diagnosing my Jeep.  As Rahul and I sat there waiting I looked ahead of me at the gas pumps and started laughing.  We were supposed to be boarding a Delta plane right around that time…

Technically, God DID get me to Delta.  Then I asked to use the restroom.  The attendant gave me the key and I started laughing again.

NOT the Disney I had imagined.

 

 

Anyway, a while later they informed me that my car would need a part that they didn’t have in stock and wouldn’t be able to get until the following day.  I had heard them manually start my car once or twice so I proposed instead of trying to find a place to stay overnight with my kid and my dog in the middle of rural NJ during a major flood, that they manually start the car and let me drive it back to the Bronx.  They agreed to do that, warning me not to stall out (I drive a stick) and teaching me how to hot wire my car if I had to start it in an emergency.  Rahul and I held our breath all the way home, but we made it safe and sound.  I had been holding it together remarkably well all day, even as I was promising Rahul that I would take him to Disney someday and thinking about all the money I had worked so hard for going to waste.  But when I called my parents to tell them we made it home I lost it.  I didn’t have any food in the house and had no money left to buy any for the week, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around how depressing our week was going to be, while Kathy and Gabby were having fun in sun without us.  I needed to get back on the phone with JetBlue to process my refund (thinking that was some money that might get us through the week) and when I spoke to the reservationist I cautiously asked if they had added any flights that we might be able to get on.  And yes they had.  And yes, they had seats.  My first instinct was to just let it go.  I was exhausted and didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment, but then she offered to change our returning flight for free so we could stay one day later.  That would give us the 4 day/4 night vacation we had booked and would only mean adding one more night to the hotel reservation.  I had JetBlue on one phone and AAA Travel on the other and was speaking to both at the same time (“JetBlue, how many seats are on that flight?” “AAA, does Disney have any rooms for Friday night?” The JetBlue lady thought it was adorable.  The AAA lady wanted to stab my eyes out with her pencil.)  Miraculously, it worked out.  We got one more night at the hotel and got the last 2 seats on both flights with JetBlue.  And Delta and Amtrak both refunded our money!

 

 

So, again we went to bed in the hopes of making it to Disney the next day.  Early Tuesday morning I got my mechanic to tow The Green Nightmare to the garage.  Then I got the kennel to let us bring Baby in (they had been flooded in the day before).  Then I got my neighbor to drive Baby and I to the kennel.  Then Rahul and I grabbed our bags and started out to the airport.  I had no money for a cab, and obviously no car to drive us there, so we took the subway.  Which meant we had to take the bus from Riverdale to Inwood, then catch the A train, literally, from one end of the city to the other.  It took a little over 2 hours.  Strangely, and admirably, Rahul was a perfect angel through this whole ordeal.  We even decided we would take the A train to JFK airport from now on!

 

 

Well, from there the story gets much happier.  The plane took off.  We were on it.  It went to Orlando.  And somehow, despite every element seeming to be against us ever arriving at Disney, we made it there.

 

 

And it was magical.