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Remembering 9/11

                                Remembering 9/11

If I had to pick just one day that has changed the course of my entire life, I'd have to say that day was 9/11.  Although there are millions of stories of great heroism and self-sacrifice- mine is not one of them. This is just the story of an ordinary person catapulted into some of the most extraordinary circumstances in the history of our country. There are millions of stories just like mine.  Each told from the unique viewpoint of it's narrator.  Each a tiny filament in the fabric of our collective experience.  Each a testament to the old adage that "The sum is always greater than the total of its parts."

I was not in the Towers on 911, but a couple of blocks up from them, working at a 3rd shift management position in Corporate America. 

When the first plane hit, I knew exactly what it was.  It was the soundtrack from every Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis film I had ever seen.  But there was no last minute reprieve.  No Hollywood action hero to save the day.

If my first shift replacement had been on time, I would have been standing under the tower waiting for the bus when the planes hit. Given my level of disability, I never could have outrun it and surely would have perished along with almost 3,000 others on that morning.  Because someone was late I got to live.  It really was that simple.

I did not believe I would make it out of our office building that morning.  But somehow, even with MS and on crutches, I made it down the twelve flights of stairs and walked three miles to get home.

The terrifying sights and sounds of that day will remain with me forever.  It was the saddest and most frightening day of my life.  Even then I knew in the very core of my soul that life as we knew it had changed forever.

The following day, Sept.12th, was my birthday.  It was almost like God personally came down and said "Hey kid, have another year on Me."

Since the attack had destroyed our phone lines and cut our electric power, the company that I worked for needed to find an alternate office space.  They had a branch in Connecticut, so we set up temporary headquarters there and began the lengthy commute to and from NYC each day.

The main atrium of Grand Central Terminal, where I boarded my train to Connecticut, had become a veritable Missing Persons Bureau.  There were literally thousands of photos and posters of those who were unaccounted for in the aftermath of 911.

In the first week or so, I looked at the photos and I touched the faces of those total strangers as if they were the countenances of dear old friends.  Long lost comrades who were likely to reappear at any given moment.  They were incredible pictures of men and women, young and old, of every imaginable race and ethnicity, captured in the finest moments of their lives.  Birthday parties.  Graduations. Weddings.  Christenings.  Faces smiling and eyes shining, totally immersed in the pleasure of the moment. Snapshot moments to be pasted in the personal album of time and memory, not posted in Grand Central Station.

Like every other American, I wept and I prayed for a miracle that was never to be.  Days passed.  Hope vanished.

The massive montage of photos no longer represented the missing.  They became a living tribute to the dead. Many of us began to leave sympathy cards or flowers as we embarked on our daily commute.

I took down one photo each night on my way to work, and that was the person I spent the night with. I prayed not only for them, but for their families.  I asked that life might provide them with some measure of peace and comfort in the face of such sudden and irreparable loss.  In the morning, on the way home, I would return that photo and in the evening I would take another.  And another.  Day after day after day. 

Eventually, electric power and minimal phone service were restored and we moved back into our office space in New York City.  It was a difficult environment with only one working phone line and most of us working off our personal cell phones. 

The daily trek to Connecticut had ended which did make life simpler in some ways, but our return to a now decimated Financial District presented a brand new set of challenges. 

I resumed my job as 3rd shift supervisor which meant that I spent a minimum of eight hours alone each night just blocks away from what had become a crematorium for almost 3,000 people.

Even with that as a given, the thing I found most disturbing was the trip home each day.  As the site was excavated and the windy fall weather of late Sept. set in, I returned home every morning covered not only in building debris but in the ashes of someone who had once been beloved to another human being.  A wife. A father.  A child.  A lover. 

I found the idea of an adhesive clothing roller becoming the final resting place of another human being totally intolerable.  I traveled each day with a change of clothing and stripped down in a public restroom in a park across the street from where I live.  I shook out my clothing and returned their mortal remains back to the earth.  Dust to dust.  Ashes to ashes.  It was the best I could do, and a powerful reminder that even in the face of such brutal choicelessness, there is still choice.  While it may not be the perfect, life affirming choice we might hope for - there is always a choice.  

In the weeks and months that followed the initial shock and horror of 911, the things that touched me most were the stories that our local news stations carried. Some were about those who had perished and others were about folks that had shown astounding courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Stories of ordinary people who had led amazing lives of power and passion.  Working jobs. Raising families.  People like you and I who managed to squeeze 36 hours of living into a 24 hour day.  And in spite of it all, so many of them managed to find time to make a difference.  They raised money for charity.  They volunteered at food banks, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers and kid's programs.  Forever finding ways to improve their communities and ultimately to change the world.

I believe that as a nation we are both diminished by their loss and empowered by the quality of many of their lives.  How can we not be?  They empower us by example to move beyond our own personal limitations of time, money and energy.  To do more, give more, be more and love more.  They pass the torch to us.  Perhaps this is a part of their legacy.

The period following 911 was a time of great personal anguish for me.  For a long time I grappled with why I had survived when so many others had perished.  Was it just the luck of the draw that my shift replacement was late, or was it part of some Great Master Plan for the universe that I obviously did not have access to?  I thought about it and prayed over it for a long time and in the end I realized that I'd never really know for sure. Maybe it was a bit of both.  A sublime combination of dumb luck and Divine Intervention.  And in the end I finally understood that it didn't really matter.  It didn't matter at all.

But the one thing I knew for sure after 911 is that I am truly on Bonus Time.  No doubt about it.  Every morning when I open my eyes, I am given another day to walk my talk and live my mission.  To weave my dreams and spin my plans and to try my best to leave the world a little better at night than I found it in the morning. And for that I am forever grateful.

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