August 20, 2006

Twin Towers

The movie theatre was crowded, and yet, it was strangely quiet. No shuffling of feet, no whispers, no munching of popcorn. Just the sounds of breathing. In the dim light, I could see faces, most curiously blank, almost as if the members of the audience were wearing masks to protect themselves. This was not a suspenseful movie: we all knew the ending before it even began. And yet, all around me, people were leaning forward, staring intently, their bodies tense.

Nothing exciting had happened on the screen yet, no action to advance the plot, just lovely scenes of the city on a sunny fall day. Ordinary people heading to work on an ordinary September day. And yet, at the sight of the familiar skyline, a scene hauntingly familiar even though it no longer exists, the way that your childhood home will always be accessible to your brain long after your parents have packed up and moved away, the air in the theater stirred softly as women and men began fumbling for tissues, raising their hands to wipe their faces.

I cannot tell you what I thought about the movie or the choices that the director made. I cannot even analyze the dialogue or offer a feminist critique in the way that usually annoys everyone around me. I cannot separate the movie from the memories.

The woman on the screen paced as she waited for a phone call about her husband, a cop trapped in the rubble. My mother called to say that Urban Sophisticate Sister was alive, still uptown because she hadn't gone to work yet -- but that her husband, a stock trader, was missing. A family gathered around a kitchen table, bracing themselves for bad news. An email chimed in to let me know that a friend's daughter, a dark-haired, hot-tempered young woman pregnant with her first child, had been last seen on the 92nd floor -- and was missing.

The energy that filled the room came from the audience and not the screen. For 129 minutes, people around me were breathing through their remembrances of that day: the waiting to hear, the not knowing, the frustration of jammed phone lines, the realizations that came gradually when names stayed on the Missing list. The most dramatic image in the room, the scene of the towers coming down, the one that played over and over all that long day while we here in Snowstorm region waited desperately to hear from family members and friends who may have been inside that building -- that scene never actually appeared on the screen.

My palms tingled.

I thought of Manhattan Man, the student who left my office in September of 2001 to drive to the city, to report for long hours of searching through rubble. Because he is a skinny guy, the rescue team kept sending him to crawl through tight places, desperately hoping to find some survivors. In one crevice, he and a firefighter spent long minutes retrieving what turned out to be a stuffed animal. His team went crazy trying to find the child that might have been with the toy, wiggling their way into every possible crack. A bigger guy held him by the ankles so he could descend into dark openings. But they never heard a voice or found the child. He wrote later in the journal he kept for me that this single realization changed the search profoundly for him: "There were kids in this building."

The movie ended, and groups of people began rising in the darkness to leave, slowly and quietly, as the credits rolled on the screen. There was none of the usual chatter and laughter, no talk of the movie or arguments about where to go to eat. People walked out into the hall, blinking at the bright light, and towards the exit signs without talking, the way people walk away from a gravesite.

30 comments:

Kristen said...

Just reading this brought back memories and feelings. I was sleeping between nursing my three-week-old son. When my husband came in to bring the baby for another feeding, he turned the TV on and told me what was happening (this was before the second tower fell), and I was so sleep-deprived, I just kept looking at him with the most confused expression on my face. I thought I was misunderstanding something, that it was a joke, or a massive prank. For weeks I thought my reaction was completely related to the fact that I was in the exhausted throes of new parenthood; now I realize that was how everyone felt: confused, sure it wasn't real.

I'm not sure I could separate the movie from the memories of all of that either.

Linda (FM) said...

(o)

MindSpin said...

Beautifully rendered, wise, and true - a tribute to what must be remembered. Thank you.

RLT said...

I do not have the emotional strength to sit through that movie or any like it. I'd be crying as soon as the first image came onscreen and would have to leave way before the end because I wouldn't even be able to keep the tears silent. But your post was, indeed, beautiful. Thank you.

Mieke said...

I was six months pregnant with my first child in our home in Venice. My almost 48 husband was in NYC after going to the annual reunion with buddies from his sleep-away camp. They rent the camp and play sports as if they were 15 again. I was sleeping, the phone rang. It was my father. "A plane hit one of the twin towers." What? I imagined a Cessa whose pilot had suffered a heart attack as I rolled over grasping for the TV remote, phone pressed to my ear trying to process what my father was saying. I turned on the television one minute before the second plane hit. My husband! I hung up on my father and dialed his cell. He was in midtown in a Starbucks oblivious to what was happening. I was sobbing and screaming as I explained what I was watching on TV. By then the people were jumping. Sometimes one. Sometimes three - holding hands as they fell. There were reports of 25 missing planes. The world is coming to an end. I was watching live coverage at the Pentagon. BOOM! The reporter screamed. Another plane. "Come home. Come to me." I wailed into the phone. "Come home!" I couldn't think. More people jumping. The buildings collapsing. I drove to my best friend's house a mile away and let myself in with the hidden key. She and her husband were sleeping. I climbed into bed and sobbed. We New Yorkers turned the TV on and watched - crying quietly. It took me weeks to recover, months. I read the NY Times obits every day. The couple who met at Cantor Fitzgerald, she was six months pregnant just like me. Gone. Vaporized. The three of them just vanished.

One of my husband's friends at the camp reunion had been so sore from the weekend of intense sports that he had missed the express bus to work. He worked and was related to the partners at Cantor Fitzgerald, a tight family run business. He lost eight members of his family. He was saved by a midnight game of basketball played in the Catskills

My father, a concentration camp survior, worked for the Red Cross six days a week 12 hours a day for over six months working with the victims' families. The day after the attack he took report after report from hopeful family members, sure that their loved one had survived and was in a coma in a hospital. There were thousands of them. Hopeful. Praying.

After working all day he'd walk past the make-shift memorial at Union Square, past all the posters and faces, all the hope. In the end there was none.

My husband was finally able to get a rental car with a friend and a stranger and drive across the country to me. It would take a week before I would see him again.

We lost friends. We lost hope. I think a part of my New York City heart was ripped out. I was numb for months. But then, January 19th our baby was born and hope returned.

And still...I cannot see Twin Towers.

Shelly said...

I don't even think I want to see it.

Linda (FM) said...

Jo(e)- was your sister's husband found?

jo(e) said...

Kristen and Mieke: Thanks for sharing your stories.

Linda: My sister's husband was outside the World Trade Center when the building came down, and although he had some injuries, he did survive, making his way uptown hours later with the help of strangers. His marriage did not survive the trauma -- he and my sister divorced the next year.

My friend's daughter, who was about 28 years old, made it out of the building, but was killed by trauma to her head. Her body was not identified until months after.

I was not sure how I would handle seeing the movie but for some reason, I felt I should make myself see it. I rarely cry in front of anyone, no less cry in public, I am not even the type to cry at funerals, but I cried throughout this movie.

peripateticpolarbear said...

I don't think I could see it. I was thinking of it today, though, when I saw two 9/11 widows that I know at an ordination. This can't be easy for them.

nancy said...

Thank you for sharing all of this. I am speechless, but send blessings.

Linda (FM) said...

The casualties of 9/11 go far beyond the numbers of those dead. I can't imagine the terror of waiting for news of loved ones. I'm sorry.

Marie said...

I have no words, but thank you for the post. It's so raw and beautiful, as is Mieke's story.

zelda1 said...

When the towers went down my heart sank, just like when the federal building in Oklahoma was bombed by McVey. On both acts of extreme terrorism, I watched helplessly as did all of America, as bodies were carried out and will never forget the children being carried out of the Federal building in Oklahoma. My friend was there, by accident, and she helped with the rescue efforts and still tells me the hardest thing was the children and the second hardest thing was watching the parents who were waiting to see if their children were alive. When we watch reenactments or movies about those things we know about, watched on television or were involved in some way or another, it is as if we are living it all over again. I don't know if I could watch the story, or if the pain of that day would still be hard to relive, not that I lost anyone close to me, but we all lost, we all lost our feelings of security and watched as people from our country died in front of our eyes, both in Oklahoma and in New York. What a terrrible thing to do to a country.

ccw said...

A very touching post.

Marni said...

I don't think I am ready for the movie. I didn't know a soul lost that day, but I have a husband whose job would have been to go into that building and I cannot imagine... just cannot imagine...

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

(o)

BeachMama said...

I don't think I will be able to watch these movies that are coming out. I watched a documentary of two French filmakers and have yet to recover from that one. The memories are still too fresh. I don't even live in the States, but watched closely on tv at work, it was a terrible, terrible day.

Jody said...

I've read that this movie is doing well in the Northeast but not elsewhere, just as was true with Flight 83. I wonder how much of that comes from regional memories. I still remember very clearly that whole day, glued to the TV, and the sudden silence over the skies as the NY regional airports (and then all the airports) shut down. We lived on the far fringe of the commuter zone but friends lost friends.

I don't think it's a story I can bring myself to see on screen.

Psycho Kitty said...

xo

Piece of Work said...

I can't see it, either. I'm crying right now, just reading your post, and the comments. Although it is comforting a little--somehow-just reading this.

Rana said...

I'm also not going to see it, not given that I couldn't make it through even part of the comments thread here.

It's too soon.

Kate said...

I was a junior in college waiting for my morning class to start when a classmate came in and, with a completely blank look, told the few of us already waiting in class that he'd watched planes crash into the WTC. Our professor arrived and after a short prayer we went on with class, discussing the Old Testament. Most surreal morning of my life.

molly said...

I'm not ready to see it either. I live outside of NYC, and don't want to see the site, though I drive to places where I can see the skyline, and those two missing buildings are always a shock. 9/11 was a beautiful, clear, hot day here, the kind of day when nothing should go wrong.

In my town, one firefighter was lost, and a bridge was dedicated to him as a memorial. People began leaving items there for remembrance, venting their anger in black spray painted letters spelling out his name on the bridge's guard rails. His name was Jonathan Ielpi. I didn't know him, but I will always remember his name, and I hope you don't mind that I share it with you here. It seems somehow important to call him by name. It's so easy to lose sight of the individuals because of the enormity of the loss. I don't know how better to explain it. Thank you for the posting and for allowing me to share.

KLee said...

I don't know if I can see any of the movies about 9/11, either. I didn't lose anyone on 9/11, but I did have a few New York friends that I was greatly worried about. I just remember being glued to the TV during my lunch hour at school, and praying that this was some sort of horrible accident. It was so much more ominous if it was done on purpose. And then to find out that those flights were full? And watch as the towers collapsed? It was almost too painful to bear. I would have fractured into a thousand pieces if I was waiting for word of a loved one.

kathy a said...

i'm not ready, either. the shock is still too raw -- my kids were 12 and 14 then, and it blew my mind apart trying to process the events.

and my family, we have lost too much since then, all too recently. my nephew. my dad. friends. we nearly lost my son to substances and a lot on his mind --although he's ok now, for now. too much, too fast. way too much.

chichimama said...

I applaud you for seeing it. I can't. the only reason I am alive is because I thought I was miscarrying my son and was in my OB's office instead of at work. My life path was so changed because of 9/11. And I still can't think about all of the lives and friends lost.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Oh my god, chichimama.

That last detail about your friend's daughter is almost unbearable, jo(e).

henna said...

I am with most folks, just can't bring myself to see it in a theatre.

My brother and sister in law lived and worked in NYC. He managed to call early in the day so we didn't worry about them for long. But he once said that he had an aweful lot of funerals to go to that fall. I have always felt that I should have said something to him, comforting I guess, acknowledging at least, but we're not close so I never did. I am still so thankful that they were not hurt. I still wish I could just tell him that.

My husband should have been across the water that day in one of our offices, and I am thankful he was safe here instead.

To me it is all a reminder of how tenuous life can be. Thanks jo(e) for going for us...

jo(e) said...

I'm thankful to everyone who left comments or sent emails in response to this post, sharing their own 9/11 stories. Somehow talking about it all again seems important to me. I guess it's better to share the pain.

Penny said...

Reading through your comments and post's i thought to myself. I am sitting here in my home and now typing this message. I knew no-one that died in 9/11 but it don't stop me thinking. I watched what happened that day and for many days after. I cryed many tears for the familys and friends of the vitims of 9/11. I know when i watch the film it will make me cry and i would expect anything less. I am a person with feelings and fears and on that day i was a helpless person. Most of us were. I am 24 years old and i have the rest of my life to live. I think about 9/11 most days and will for the rest of my life. I live in england and although i am so far away i still could not imagine what is was like for America and Americans on that day.

But what i do know is that every tear i cry is real. Every feeling i have about 9/11 is real.

I will never forget those who had their live's taken away.

God bless you America xxxxxx