A Token in the Ash
Joe Woolhead / Silverstein Properties
I learned of what happened that September morning the way most Americans did: by staring in disbelief at a television screen.
That’s my claim to 9/11. That’s it.
I spent the following days looking to the sky wondering what might come next. I wanted to hide under the covers, sequester myself in an invisible fortress. I wanted to run backward to the time when I still felt like nothing could hurt me.
There are so many others who were affected deeply, who suffered unknowable personal losses. But as a country, I believe the greatest loss we suffered on Sept. 11, 2001, was our sense of safety.
I was raw, scared of the dark and the sounds of daylight. I was haunted.
That’s something I know a few things about. I also know a bit about rebuilding that precious, intangible commodity. And on this, the 10-year anniversary of one of the most knee-buckling moments in our nation’s history, I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned.
Seven years after 9/11, I survived an attack against me. I was some magical combination of smart and lucky, and I escaped with my physical safety intact. But what was ripped from me was every shred of protection I’d ever envisioned around myself. I was naked—no, less than naked. It was as though I had no skin, like if someone wanted to pluck out my heart, all they had to do was reach for it. I was raw, scared of the dark and the sounds of daylight. I was haunted.
Shrouded in strings of lights and topped by a crane, it looks especially surreal. But there it sits, a palpable mark of progress, and New York continues to churn around it.
When our country was attacked a decade ago, I believe we all felt a collective heartache and fear. We all shivered for a while, because for many of us, nothing like that had ever happened to this country in our lifetimes. We knew terrorism existed, but we never thought it would be inflicted upon us.
I knew that terrible things happened to other people, but I never really believed I’d have to worry about protecting myself.
Of course, we’re all vulnerable. But we can’t go around waiting for the sky to fall, or for airplanes to come hurtling out of it. We survive emotionally every day under the illusion of invincibility. When something cracks that illusion, the world shatters around us.
That’s how we all get through any loss in our lives—by leaning on the people next to us and borrowing a little bit of whatever feigned invincibility they have left.
Yet, miraculously, we recover. I visited New York City last month and saw a tower being constructed in the former two’s absence. It’s a bit like an echo. And now, shrouded in strings of lights and topped by a crane, it looks especially surreal. But there it sits, a palpable mark of progress, and New York continues to churn around it.
There is, of course, apprehension about the big anniversary—a term that still sounds strange to me since it connotes some sort of celebration. This particular passage of time certainly feels like the opposite.
But maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe we should take this as an opportunity to celebrate and not be afraid. Because in the end, as a country and as a people, we survived. We’re all survivors. We’ve been glued back together. Even though the hairlines between our pieces are still easy to see, we’re solid. Never the same, but maybe we’re a bit stronger now with reinforcements and a little extra wisdom.
Through all loss there’s something that can be gained. It’s never a fair trade, never one we would choose, but it’s a small token left behind in the ashes. Because it’s usually caked in some kind of soot, it can take a while to find and scrape clean.
On and after Sept. 11, the tiniest of tokens we pulled from the rubble was the knowledge that when we’re in crisis, we help each other. That’s how we all get through any loss in our lives—by leaning on the people next to us and borrowing a little bit of whatever feigned invincibility they have left. When we find ourselves on the other side of heartbreak, we’re left with something else, something we couldn’t have predicted: a humbling and comforting assurance that we made it.
The biggest gift of all is the sense that if we survived something so horrible, we can survive anything. That’s how we regain our shields.
I’ve come to terms with my attack, but I’ve done it in stages. It took six months to stop quivering around strangers. A year to grow back my emotional skin, the one that lets me believe I’m safe. Some remnants may never fade, like sleeping with a light on and checking the locks on the doors more times than I should. But now, three years later, I’m at peace. I relied on those around me to prop me up when I couldn’t stand, and I slowly learned how to walk again without being scared of falling.
I used to cower on the anniversary of my attack, dream in sweat and spasms in the days leading up to it. This year was different. I embraced it because I lived. In the struggle for my life and ultimately my dignity, I won. And that is worth celebrating.
This Sept. 11 isn’t just another day, another anniversary. It’s a reminder of what we lost, and what we found within ourselves in the aftermath. It’s a reminder that life is erratic, and utterly unfair, and something to be lived with fullness and all the strength we can muster. And in that oddly twisted way, the reminder is a little bit beautiful.
Christie Chisholm is a freelance writer and the former editor-in-chief of the Alibi . She writes about science, news, art, business, the environment and lots of other stuff.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
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