Remembering 9/11 twenty years later – An excerpt from my memoir

There have been countless memorable days in my life and I tend to focus on the happy ones. But the circumstances around September 11, 2001 cannot be forgotten. This morning I felt compelled to open my memoir and revisit the chapters that summed up that experience.

I’ve decided to share them with you. The names of my daughters have not been changed – all others have.

Chapter 55

The contractor came highly recommended. Rusty stuttered a little. One of his fingers was a nub at mid-joint. Day or two old stubble, fine and sandy-colored, poked from his cheeks, and he avoided eye contact. A plaid flannel shirt, pilled and faded with one corner of the pocket ripped loose, flapped open over a thread-thin tee. Pleased I wouldn’t have another chatty business partner, I welcomed his quirkiness. Innate goodness shone about him like an aura and my gut said I could trust him. 

Work progressed at snail’s pace but Rusty delivered with a precision worthy of any obsessive-compulsive perfectionist. Every week he brought receipts and a bill for his time. I paid with an eagerness that surprised me.

Summer passed with the lingering smell of sawdust and turpentine ever-present in the house.

Joy, my fashionista, had been packing for weeks. Outfits went into the suitcase and came out a day later, replaced by other outfits. She would be in a dorm on the FIT campus in the heart of Manhattan, the Fashion Institute of Technology, her dream.

I flew with her to New York. It was the second time in that city for both of us, and we planned to decipher the subway system, get her settled with her roommates, and say goodbye.

All was accomplished in three short days. I was due to catch a cab for the airport the next morning and Joy would walk a couple of blocks from our hotel to the campus to begin her new life. A blanket of grief wrapped around me. We crawled into the room’s one bed and I couldn’t stop the great salt streams drooling from my eyes.

“I’m sorry I’m crying, honey. I’m really so happy for you!” I blubbered as we hugged each other and rocked back and forth. “You’ve always wanted this.” Joy had tears too, but I knew they were only in response to my distress.

“Oh, Mommy,” Joy hummed in her kitten purr. “You’ll be fine. Jenny’s still at home with you and I’ll call every day, I promise.”  I burrowed my head into the pillow and tried to sleep, but there was none of that as night dragged into morning.

Both early risers, we were up at five. Spent and tearless, I gathered my scattered belongings for the flight home. The aroma from a coffee shop next to the hotel lured us and we grabbed one last cup together. The crush and din, even at this early hour, dirty fog, and a city crowded with too much humanity overwhelmed me. But the feverish excitement that radiated from Joy left no mistake. New York was right for her. I had to let go.

It was time. We summoned a cab and I wrapped my spunky angel in a final, mighty hug. “Call when you get home,” Joy said. I nodded, mute, through a fresh onslaught of tears, and ducked into the back seat of a cab. As the taxi pulled away, Joy’s face grew tiny, then evaporated in the teeming throng.

Chapter 56

True to her promise, Joy did call every day. It was Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001. She’d been in New York for two weeks. As I drove Jenny to school on my way to work, an announcement interrupted the song on her favorite radio station. An aircraft had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. My first thought was that an air traffic controller had made a terrible miscalculation. As we waited for more information the sounds coming from the radio escalated into mass hysteria. The announcer gasped. There was another plane. The second tower had been hit.

At the school entrance I jerked to a stop. Jenny and I stared at each other, horrified, as the radio continued to blast chaos.

“Call Joy,” Jenny’s voice squeaked, thready and tight. I punched speed dial and held my breath: Your call cannot be completed as dialed. I tried again, then abandoned the speed key and entered Joy’s number by hand.

“It’s not going through.” I tried to keep the fear out of my voice. “I’ll keep trying. Are you okay to go to school?”

“I think so.”

“If you need me to pick you up early, just call, okay?”

“Okay, Mom. Do you think Joy’s all right?”

I summoned a confidence I didn’t feel. “The campus is at least a mile from the towers. I’m sure she’s fine.” I desperately wanted to believe it, but my hands shook as I pulled away from the curb and tried the phone again. Why wouldn’t the call go through? The radio spewed frenzied madness as my mind created nightmare scenes in the city I’d visited less than two weeks before. When my phone beeped, I jumped, praying it was Joy.

“Sherry, where are you? Did you hear?” Hope sank. It was the voice of my business partner.

“Mae! Yes! I’m trying to call Joy.”

“I’m watching the news. Communications in New York are down. You probably won’t be able to get through.”

“Oh no!” The panic I’d been fighting to control edged in.

“I brought the portable TV. It’s hooked up here in the office.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

All morning we sat in darkness glued to the impossibility of the tragedy in New York, window shades pulled against the sun’s glare. The flicker of the screen stuttered on our faces as devastation played over and over again. I kept punching the #3 key, desperate to hear Joy’s voice.

Weeks ago I’d scheduled an appointment with a new client for two o’clock on September eleventh. The woman hadn’t called to cancel. It was in an old-money neighborhood minutes away. The TV droned on. The two explosions at the World Trade Center were followed by a plane that plowed into the Pentagon, and a fourth that crashed in Pennsylvania. The country was paralyzed. Where would terror strike next? President Bush issued an order that all aircraft were grounded. No one was to take off or land on U.S. soil.

At 1:30 I grabbed my briefcase and left the misery of the news behind long enough to walk to the car and turn on the radio. I approached the client’s address, parked, got out, and hit #3 one more time. Joy answered. My knees buckled. I grabbed the door and sagged against the side of the car.

“Joy! Oh my God, Joy!” The slam of relief was almost too much to bear.

“I’m in line waiting to give blood. I’m okay, but it’s awful Mom. You can’t imagine.” I leaned against the cold metal, tears of relief streaming, and listened. Crisp leaves from ancient oaks swirled in the wind that eddied around my feet. Joy sounded strong but would it last? How long before the trauma sank in? She said she’d felt the vibrations from the crashes in her dorm. Her eighteenth birthday was two weeks away. Can a seventeen-year-old legally give blood? The thought flitted and was lost.

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m okay,” she reassured me again. “I’ll call you tonight.” The phone went dead. In front of me, the house with Corinthian porch columns waited. Joy was okay. My happy-go-lucky, sun’s-always-shining daughter was okay. I wanted to bask in the huge blessing of that forever. Instead, forcing one foot in front of the other, I climbed the steps to the massive double front door. A woman about my age, pixie-like with cropped Mia Farrow hair, invited me in. I could hear the drone of a TV in the background.

“Have you heard?” the woman asked.

“I was just on the phone with my daughter in Manhattan.”

“Our son works at the Pentagon in the wing that was hit. He had a meeting out of the office this morning…” She stopped, clutched her throat and reached for my hand. Minutes ticked past, measured by the beats of two mothers’ hearts fused in gratitude and grief.

“He’s okay then?” 

“Yes.” She whispered it so low I almost didn’t hear. We sat together that afternoon drinking tea and sharing stories of our children, the design proposal forgotten. When it was time to pick up Jenny from school, I asked my new friend if she wanted to reschedule.

“You know,” she said, her brow forming V-shaped ripples that met above her nose, “it doesn’t matter now.”

“Doesn’t matter?”

“The changes I thought were so necessary. Hundreds of people are dead but my son was spared.”

“I understand.” The knot in my throat tightened and tears threatened again. “I’m glad your son is okay.”

“And your daughter.”

 We hugged as she let me out. I crossed the street to the car, turned the switch for the radio off, and started the engine.

Joy called that night, still brave, but the next day, shock hit. “I need to come home Mom, just for a few days. It’s crazy here! There are bomb threats at the Armory just a few blocks from the dorm. We had to evacuate our rooms three times last night.”

“Oh, no! Okay, honey, but airports are closed.”

“I don’t care. I’ll take the train, or a bus.”

“Let me check Amtrak, I’ll call you back.”

“I’m packed. I’m going to start walking to the bus station at Port Authority.”

“Joy, wait. It’ll only take a minute…”

“No, Mom! I can’t! I’ll hitchhike if I have to, but I need to get out of here.”

“Don’t hitchhike!”

“You don’t understand…”

“No, no, I don’t, but…”

“Okay, call me. I’m heading out now.” The phone went dead. I rifled through the phonebook for Amtrak’s number. Their terminals were closed. Greyhound was running but I was told the Port Authority in New York might not be open. Nobody seemed to know. I called Joy.

“There are no trains and Port Authority might be closed.”

“No, it’s open. I’m in line right now. I’ll stay here all night if I have – hang on Mom!”

“What? Joy?” Again, silence. Frantic, I punched her number. No answer. Again. No answer. I wore out the button and still no answer.

There was no comfort this time. I’d heard the alarm in her voice. Something had happened right where she was. Sick with dread I turned on the news as I tried to reach her. But there was no mention of Port Authority, only macabre reruns of crashing planes and people jumping to their death from burning towers. An hour later my phone rang.

“Mom, I’m on the bus!”

 I burst into sobs.

 “I’m sorry, Mom. There was a bomb threat at Port Authority. Everyone ran. The lines got scrambled. When they let us back in, I was in front. Remember Mr. Grolick from our old neighborhood? He’s my seatmate. I’ll be home in twenty-one hours.”

Twenty-one hours later I waited at the Greyhound bus depot. One after another, the silver monsters groaned to a stop in their numbered stalls and leaked their human contents. Travel-weary sojourners staggered bleary-eyed to collect their luggage from the bowels of the beasts. I was glued to stall number seventeen. Within minutes of the scheduled time, hissing brakes brought the bus from New York to a shuddering stop. Before the door opened, a current of emotion ripped through me. The trauma of the past few days hit full on, constricting my chest. Joy was the third one off the bus. She spread her arms and ran. “Mama!” Her body slammed into mine.

“My baby, my baby, my baby…” was all I could manage through my sobs.

“Mama. Mommy…”

Joy stayed for a week. We celebrated her eighteenth birthday. Then she flew back to an uncertain future amidst the char and rubble and the lingering stench of smoke.

We all have memories of that time. Lives were lost. Images of horror burned into our retinae that will never be erased – not in twenty years, not ever. My child was spared. My client’s son was spared and today I’m feeling immense gratitude for that.

Kitchen Ballet

It started early this morning. Joy posted the schedule for Thanksgiving preparations on the refrigerator and we went to work. There would be four of us for dinner, and the plan was to have the first course, French onion soup, at 1:00. Joy was poetry in motion, chopping, basting, sauteing and maintaining a steady stream of conversation all the while keeping one eye on her spreadsheets and the other on the clock.

The kitchen is not large and counter space is limited. I was assigned the task of chief dish and bottle washer throughout the morning, keeping the counters clear while Joy did what appeared to be kitchen ballet. Gracefully pivoting and pirouetting from oven to stove top to cutting board, she worked her magic. The mouth-watering aromas must have driven the other residents on the 21st floor crazy!

When Kellen came in from his morning run I was re-assigned. I happily moved on to table decor. He joined Joy in the kitchen and the two of them functioned together like a well-oiled machine. It was as though he read her mind, anticipating her next move then supplying what she needed before she asked.

Karen  arrived and the soup was ready. A gastronomical journey of impressive proportions began!

Oh that soup…!

I’ve eaten a lot of French onion soups in my time, but Joy’s was far and away the most delicious concoction I’ve yet encountered. The delicate rich flavor of the broth was complemented by a thick slice of sourdough bread topped with the creamy gruyere. Oh bliss! The soup alone should have been enough, would have been if this were not Thanksgiving. But as soon as our bowls were empty, out came the rest of the feast.

We had the ubiquitous turkey, a 20# bird that Joy soaked in a spicy brine for 16 hours prior to roasting. She crafted her dressing from French bread that she cubed, toasted, and lovingly seasoned to perfection. The Brussels sprouts were tossed with olive oil, lemon zest and black pepper. She did a side dish of made-from-scratch macaroni and cheese with sharp cheddar and cream. Her cranberry sauce started with real cranberries and an unexpected addition of jalepeno peppers. The garlic mashed potatoes and giblet gravy were just as mouth-watering as everything else on her amazing menu.

I haven’t eaten that much at one sitting for many, many years. But I couldn’t resist the flavors of that beautiful meal prepared with such skill and love. And then…dessert. Karen brought apple pie and cheesecake that she had also made from scratch. Of course there was no way to choose one or the other. So slowly, very slowly, I ate apple pie and vanilla bean ice cream. Then even more slowly, I ate New York cheesecake with strawberries and chocolate sauce.

Some things are just worth it.

Now the day is done. The house is quiet. Neighbors in the condos across the street, those who don’t pull the draperies, are one by one turning off their TV’s and going to bed. I’m wide awake and still far too full to fall asleep. But it isn’t just my over-stuffed stomach, my heart is overflowing as well. The blessings of family, of friends, of love and acceptance, of a life filled to capacity with immeasurable goodness scroll through my consciousness like scenes in a movie. Thanksgiving. Giving thanks.

May I never grow so accustomed to plenty that I forget what a gift it is.

Solving the World’s Problems at Murni’s Warung

MY LOVES

Leaving beauty, warmth, friends.

Returning to beauty, warmth, friends.

My heart has two homes,

both equally dear.

It is an emotional day. My last day here in Bali where I have been so utterly happy, is a tough one. Half of my heart breaks while half eagerly anticipates reuniting with family and friends. I had to write the little poem, above, to remind myself that here is not so different from anywhere else, and it is okay for a piece of my heart to reside on an island half way round the world no matter where the rest of it chooses to be.

This will be my last blog from Bali. Blogging has become a lovely piece of my life and I am not sure what kind of a metamorphosis it will make to continue once I return home. But I’m not going to dwell on that just now because the end of my amazing day yesterday was worth some photos and a blog post as well.

After the sacred cleansing pools, the batik factory, the fishing village with the mouth-watering shore lunch, Karin, Halle, and I decided that you can’t have too many farewell dinners. Our destination last night was Murni’s Warung. Murni’s was the first real restaurant in Bali. It has been in operation since 1974 and is a must-see landmark in Ubud. Murni’s occupies four levels on the cliff overlooking the Campuan River.

We were on the very lowest level with the most spectacular views.

Whereas our table at Indus had us perched at the top of a plunging river gorge, at Murni’s we were deep in the valley with the rushing sound of beautiful water music just below.

We again had our table at the edge. Often the first to arrive for dinner, we have the undivided attention of the staff who are always eager to please.

There are statues everywhere, some are old and some just look old which everything does in Bali after a short time because the humidity creates ideal conditions for moss to grow! The Warung houses many antiques from Java and Bali.

I love the flowers in this bowl in front of the giant Ganesha statue. Ganesha, the elephant, is called The Remover of Obstacles and is a beloved Hindu deity. How appropriate, don’t you think? If anything can remove obstacles blocking your path certainly an elephant can!

Here is another one of the cozy rooms for dining at Murni’s.

The three of us had such a wonderful time talking that I completely forgot to take food photos. You’ll just have to forgive me!  Halle and I had the vegetable curry with red rice and a rum soaked chocolate cake with coconut ice cream for dessert. Karin had the traditional Balinese duck and banana fritters. I will admit that the food played second to the fun of being with friends and enjoying lively conversation. Eating was a bit of an afterthought, although the three of us walked out stuffed to the gills and chose Murni’s complimentary driver over any thought of getting home on our own feet!

You will be relieved to know that between an Icelander, a New Yorker, and a liberal Minnesotan, we have solved the world’s problems. It only took three hours.

Goodbye, Bali. I’m shedding a few tears for the precious people and the beautiful memories here.

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