[I post this every year on September 11. Since 2004. I guess you could call it a tradition.]
Sean does not like it when I call him a 9/11 Victim. He tells me he’s not a victim. His coworkers who died were victims. His wife of ten years was a victim. He was just there when it happened.
When we are together, I ask him questions about her. He is patient with me, explaining their relationship, not diminishing it just because she is no longer here, which I appreciate. I listen, trying to understand how it must feel to be in his skin and to live through that day and the thousand days that have passed. A few weeks ago, while in New York, I sat on the counter of his modern kitchen while he poured glasses of red wine. On the fridge was a snapshot of his wife and their son taken in Central Park that September. She’s tiny, with a brown ponytail, bright brown eyes, and a natural, genuinely happy grin. Had things been different, she is the kind of woman who might be one of my best friends.
Instead, I’m dating her husband.
I knew I had fallen in love with him and his life – his beautiful son, his beautiful apartment with the astonishing views, his thoughts and mind and heart, all of it, everything – when I woke up one Saturday morning to a knock on the door. I grabbed a sweater to throw over my pajamas and went to the door, and there he was, like the continuation of a very nice dream. Unexpectedly, he had flown down on the breakfast flight from New York. I threw my arms around him, and told him I was exhausted and to come nap with me. After that, we’ve known that this was not a trivial thing.
I realize that I am getting into something that is both wonderful and daunting. Every time 9/11 is mentioned, I see the crinkles around his eyes tighten up, just for a second. It’s personal to him, and by extension, it’s personal to me. The other night he called me at three in the morning. I stay up late, so I didn’t mind, but I knew he had to be at work early the next morning. As soon as I saw his name on my caller ID I answered, “Hey, is everything okay?”
He said yes. I guess I already know him well enough to not press him. I said okay and asked what he was doing. He deflected the question, and asked what I was doing. I told him I was writing and watching television and doing yoga and thinking about baking some butterscotch cookies for him when I go up to New York on Saturday. He was very quiet. I said, “Are you okay?”
And then he said, “I had a nightmare.”
I shut off the television with the remote.
He started to tell me that he had a nightmare that she had jumped. She was standing in the window, in her little pantsuit and pumps, looking down. It was flames or freefall. Then he was there, beside her, and he was asking her to try and get out, then she fell suddenly, into the vast blue nothingness. When he woke up he was sick. He hadn’t had a nightmare in a long time, nearly a year. I told him it was okay. He said that he was afraid that she was in pain when she died. That she was burned or crushed or …. jumped. I told him that she wasn’t in pain. It was fast, it was very fast, I say – because what else can I say? I start to cry. I don’t know that his wife didn’t die a horrible painful death – and neither does he. He doesn’t know how she died because they did not find enough of her to determine that. We talk for a long time. He tells me he feels guilty and that he should have gone inside and gotten her out of there. I remind him, gently, that he was lucky to get out of his own building alive. He didn’t know that the building would topple. He didn’t know that she wasn’t on her way out. There was nothing he could have done. He is quiet, so I keep saying it. “There is nothing you could have done. It’s not your fault.”
After half an hour, he is calm. He tells me that he loves me. I say, “I know you do. I love you too.” Sean is quiet. I can imagine him perfectly. He’s in bed, the crimson coverlet kicked to the foot of the bed while the cream colored comforter is up to his waist. He’s kept the lights off, the phone is against his ear. The sheers are down over the windows, though the curtains are pulled back. Through the gauze, the lights of the city filter in. He is thinking about his wife, and me, and this new life. Finally I can hear him shift in bed, rolling over to his left side, probably. He says, “Thank you for listening to me.”
I wipe a few tears out of my eyes. “It’s my pleasure. I love listening to you.”
“It’s us now,” he says in a rush, like he has to get this overwith quickly. “Isn’t it?”
The breath is knocked out of me. I say “Yes.”
We say goodnight and hang up. I pace around my house, thinking about the conversation. I feel suddenly very angry and very sad. It’s overwhelming, like I can’t get on top of it. I am sad for Sean, but also for all of us. The West: UK, the USA… just all of us who have to live with the damage, and who have to find a way to stop this so it doesn’t happen again.
The fight against terrorism isn’t just happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world. It’s still happening here at home, in places like Virginia and New York City. It’s being waged in the 3,000 families who aren’t finished grieving over their loved ones and who will never be finished grieving. It’s being waged every time a wife wakes up to the crying baby who will never know his father, and every time a man wakes up in a cold sweat dreaming that his wife jumped to avoid being burned alive. That is why I can’t believe that the war on terror is some make believe idea, an inconvenience that has no relevance to our daily lives. I say this as someone who has experienced firsthand the sorrow and ache and the misery of war, but who nevertheless believes, with beaten resolve, that it is simply the only proper way to address the current state of the world.