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9/11, Eighteen Years Later

I have many half written blogs that need revising, a zillion more blog ideas I have yet to begin, and so I never planned on writing about 9/11, but as I looked on Facebook last evening, and I read comments about how 18 years ago, over 3000 people went to bed unprepared for what awaited them, I became reflective.

Eighteen years ago, I was a brand new teacher just starting my career, incapable of being able to imagine 18 years into the future. I had no idea that I would still be teaching middle school English albeit in a different district on Long Island, or that I would even still live on Long Island, or that I would be the proud mother of two children and a reluctant divorcee. Forty seemed ancient. At 24 years of age, even 30 seemed faraway.

Instead I was only concerned with the present. As a first year teacher, I was more nervous about arriving at school than my students. I was struggling to plan and implement instruction on a daily basis. I couldn’t predict the timing of my lessons, never mind foresee that on a gorgeous September morning, life, as Americans knew it, would change forever.

I can still picture the guidance counselor who entered my classroom, took me into the hall, and kindly explained that the Towers had been attacked, that a plane had hit the Pentagon, and another had crashed in Pennsylvania. I sank to the floor. I could not process what this woman said, but I knew it was horrific. I was worried. My father was working in the city; my sister was attending college in Virginia. My mother and brother were back home in Nassau County. I was lucky; no one close to me was lost.

For days afterwards, I, like everyone else, was glued to the television. We were waiting for another attack. When I finally ventured into the city, the landscape had changed. The National Guard became a familiar yet foreboding presence in Penn Station. The ominous threat of another attack hovered overhead for years. Life was forever altered.

I think all adults look back on their childhoods and young adulthoods with nostalgia for their innocence. My recollections of innocence are all set in a pre-9/11 world. After the attack, my life became clearly divided into pre-9/11 and post-9/11. A clear line was drawn; I am not alone. It seems impossible that my seventh grade students as well as my own children have never inhabited a pre-9/11 world when 9/11 has provided such a clear demarcation in my own.

And yet I don’t want to write about 9/11. The unthinkable happened. Lives were shattered. Heroes were made that day. Not a day goes by that I forget. The anniversary evokes vivid memories of that moment. I can reach out and touch it. I can relive every moment of the day as strange as that sounds. The beautiful blue, nearly cloudless sky I viewed overhead as I drove into Queens early that morning. The utilitarian hallway where the guidance counselor delivered the news. Keeping the information, as per the administration’s request, from my students. Trying to utilize a useless cellphone. Driving home fearful. Watching the news around the clock for the next 48 hours; my school was closed for days.

Today should be a tribute to heroes, a day of remembrance for those lost, but it should also be reminder to live. Because we get one life to live, and we deserve to live it well. Because no one knows what life has in store for us. Because every moment with family and friends, doing what we love, or just living is a gift.

And none of us can foresee the circuitous route our lives take. Until I was 13, my father worked on the seventy-ninth floor of the second Tower. Visits to my father’s work involved an exciting and long subway ride to the bustling World Trade Center; the Towers were a part of my childhood just as they were a part of the NYC skyline for decades.

And in a strange twist, my 4 and a half year old son has become obsessed with the story of Philippe Petit, the man who walked on a tightrope between the Towers in 1974. My father frequently reads a picture book, by Mordicai Gerstein, entitled, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, to him.

One day, my son found a Kodak photo my siblings or I had taken of the Towers, and he said, “That belongs here,” as he slipped the photo into the last pages of the book that read, “But in memory, as if imprinted in the sky, the towers are still there. And part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.” Gerstein’s last lines are poignant, and the message is straightforward, we can celebrate life in the face of unspeakable tragedy and loss.

And while I am lucky enough to be here, I will continue to make memories and to live joyfully. Not because I don’t remember but because,

We will never forget.

Letting Go

A pink bike with a pink and white floral print banana seat. I hold a wavery memory of my first bike as if viewed through a hazy flashback scene. Yet I remember with clarity the thrill of independence and pride associated with learning to ride it. A bicycle symbolizes newfound independence for young children, and I loved mine and the sense of adventure and freedom it gave me. Now that I am a parent, my children’s bicycles hold a different significance.

Because as a parent, loss is your biggest fear. My friend recently recounted a situation where her three year old daughter was lost behind the stage during a dance recital. My friend became emotional as she talked about her fear and inability to speak in the moment, and the amount of time it took her to recover, even after finding her daughter. Not being able to locate your child, even for a few seconds, feels like what I imagine drowning does. An immense pressure on your chest, an inability to speak or even breathe. Time slows and your vision narrows. You imagine the worst case scenario; calling for help or even forming a sentence becomes an impossibility. When faced with such loss, as parents, we hold on tightly to our children and resist their demands to let go.

In other situations, most people do the same, steeling ourselves against loss. Clutching our purse, locking our car and house, guarding ourselves, our family, and our possessions. Cruelly, sometimes, the people guilty of stealing the most from us are the ones closest to us, betraying our trust, our love, our friendship.

Throughout my divorce, acquaintances would talk about how divorce was so traumatic because it signified “the loss of hopes and dreams” and that captures the essence of divorce; my grief was not a result of saying goodbye to an imperfect partner, but the collapse of all I had built, the dissolution of all I had accumulated, and, far worse, the destruction of all my future plans for my family and me. Loss during divorce is inescapable, overarching, and momentous.

At every stage, as I continued to part ways with pieces of my life, I underwent the same heartbreaking process of grief and loss. My house, my furniture, my dog, and most recently, a 15 year friendship. At first, I railed against the loss, then I grieved it usually with lots of hot, sad tears, and, ultimately, I shed that old form of me, which had held the item close, like a second skin. Each time, faced with the threat of loss, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, I wouldn’t recover, and, inevitably, I did. I emerged, often scarred, sometimes lighter. Always altered.

With the implosion of a roadmap for my life, there were certain ideas that troubled me more than others. One was that my children would not be with me when they experienced milestones. Ironically, my ex-husband had missed multiple milestones for our children when we were together; as the only constant in my children’s lives, I vow to always be there for them, and so my fears are unfounded. While I realize I have the annoying habit of worrying irrationally at times, an unusual source of recent distress became who would teach my children to ride their bikes without training wheels.

It was more than fortuitous then that in the midst of a particularly troubling month when my ex was threatening to take me to court regarding his misunderstanding of his visitation schedule, my daughter turned six and requested I remove her training wheels from her bicycle. My mother and I both took her out several times to practice with little success.

Two weeks later, as my ex’s threats increased, I took my daughter out again, and she practiced balancing and gliding on the bicycle. Then I held on and balanced the bike as she pedaled. Holding a child up is difficult work, both in that moment and all others. Every once in a while, she would tell me to let go and proceed to fall into a bush or onto a front lawn. She grew frustrated and cranky as we all do when our expectations of ourselves exceed our abilities. I tried to express how difficult and time consuming acquiring a new skill is. She did not care. She was determined.

That afternoon, after multiple attempts, when she finally instructed me to let go again, and I hesitantly did, my beautiful, tenacious daughter took off. Her long red hair streamed out from under her pink helmet as she rode away. I could see the pride she felt in her accomplishment in the set of her back, the way she sat upright in her seat and continued to ride away from me.

My heart was being squeezed. I felt simultaneously proud and nostalgic. As a mother, I cannot measure the pride I feel at my children’s accomplishments. At every one of my children’s milestones, I have cried with the weight and significance of the moment. This one was no different. I started to cry. I ran to catch up. When she finally came to a stop, I enthusiastically praised her, but she questioned my tears. I explained they were tears of joy.

The next day, my daughter came home with an even more valuable gift, a story she had written about learning to ride her bike. She is in kindergarten and an emergent writer, yet the story was very perspicuous. “I told my mom to let go. I told her to let go again. She let go, I could feel the fresh air and it was fun and my mom was crying joy.”

And so the student inevitably becomes the teacher. I had taught my daughter to ride a bike, and in turn, she gifted me a treasure. Sometimes, in life, we must let go. Letting go is scary and intimidating, but, often, it is necessary. In the process, we might be knocked around; we might fail at first. We definitely will fall. But it is in the act of letting go, difficult though it may be, that we find our way. Letting go is a freeing choice. We gain freedom and independence. We begin to fly. And we learn to write our own stories.

Darkest Before the Dawn

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Several weeks ago, in mid April, I went for a run. It was the first genuinely spring day of the season. The bleakness of the winter landscape had been replaced by a scene awash in color: delicate cherry blossoms stood out against a cerulean sky, grass was lushly green, and yellow daffodils and brightly colored tulips bloomed. Easter would arrive in two weeks. The day held the essence of rebirth.

The weather was perfect for a run. I shed my winter layers, and a light sheen of sweat formed early in my jog. I felt the calories and toxins being expelled.

It had been three months since I had signed my divorce settlement.

For years, leaving my marriage had been an insurmountable obstacle. Making the decision to end it was so harrowing that I wrongfully assumed the divorce process would be easier. I was poorly prepared for the laborious paperwork, the mudslinging, and the convoluted legal process. A bad marriage seemed simple and sane by comparison.

Throughout the darkest days of my divorce, people gave me advice. Mainly, they spoke in cliches. As a writer, I had always been warned to avoid cliches at any cost. As a drowning person, I embraced cliches as a lifeline.

You can do it.

You got this.

You will survive.

You have been through the worst of it.

Pace yourself. Divorce is a marathon not a sprint. You are closer rather than further.

(However, the finish line for my divorce kept moving farther away.)

Just breathe.

It is always darkest before the dawn, my hairdresser, of 18 years, told me. This should become your mantra, she advised.

And it did. There were moments so dark, I was rendered blind and paralyzed. I couldn’t see an inch in front of me. Or, separate reality from my worst fears, namely, that my estranged husband would get custody of my two small children. There were moments where I tripped and the earth opened up and promised to swallow me whole in a bottomless abyss. I continued to stumble along.

There were moments laughable now, but not when I was in the midst of a personal hell I didn’t think would end. One day, my estranged husband almost drove me off the sidewalk, screaming at me to get home because he had called the police. My infraction: I had put a post-it over the Ring doorbell and interrupted his surveillance of me.

I stood there, frightened. As he continued to berate me, I finally asked when the police would be arriving. I didn’t call the police was the response; I wanted to scare you. And that became a running theme over the next year as he made threats, filed motions, and blindsided me with his rage and vengeance. The children became pawns in his twisted game.

Then there were the moments that shocked me. Friends and acquaintances reached out to me to share my estranged husband’s profile on dating apps. Often, he didn’t admit he had children, but he did wish to have them in the future. He would tell his children, the ones who actually did exist, he was going to work as he packed overnight bags for his dates. They inquired why he needed underwear and a toothbrush.

There were moments that broke my heart. I spent Christmas Eve in court as he fought me for overnight visitation despite his continued abuse of alcohol and his inability to put the needs of our children above his own or his parents’.

I had lived in such a heightened state of chaos and strife for so many years, it was hard to foresee worse moments, but divorce exacerbated an already tense and stressful situation.

My friend who had survived a starter marriage told me an allegory about being in a boat in the middle of a squall. Ultimately, she said, you will row to the other side. Throughout my divorce, I felt as if my boat had capsized, and I was going down for the last time. Even though I always managed to pull my head above water to gasp for a breath and find the strength to keep treading water, I feared I would drowned.

My children love to gather pebbles and place them in a glass vase. They take the pebbles out frequently, stack and examine them and discuss their favorites. In the midst of my storm, I collected people’s divorce stories and treated them like my children do their pebbles. The stories became my worry stones. I examined them closely for a sign of guidance or hope. If this person had emerged intact, I could, too.

And then one day, I did, with no fanfare at all. The lawyers called a meeting, suddenly. It was their last ditch attempt to resolve our issues before we began the trial process. Five tense hours later, I emerged divorced. It had all happened so quickly that when I texted my friends, they couldn’t piece the puzzle together. Either could I. After a contentious 11 months, my ex and I were able to agree enough on a final settlement.

The biggest obstacle still to be overcome was the new visitation schedule. My children would now have overnights with my ex, a man who was irresponsible, disorganized, and self-aggrandizing on his best day.

There are still dark moments, but on this perfect early spring day, I chose to embrace the light. My hairdresser was right. Darkest before the dawn was the perfect mantra. I had walked straight through the most excruciating moments of my life. I faltered many times, but I never gave into the dark. And here I was on the other side. Dawn beckons welcomingly.

A couple of weeks later, on the eve of my daughter’s sixth birthday, I went for another run on an atypically pleasant spring day in a rainy and cool season; signs are everywhere if we look. Again, I reflected on how far I had come. My daughter wasn’t even five years old when I began divorce proceedings. So much had improved since then. I prayed that both my daughter and my son were too young to remember my darkness.

And if they do remember the darkness or ever face their own terrible moments, I want them to realize darkness is ultimately extinguished by light. Winter cycles into spring. And storms give way to calm. The strength of the human spirit cannot wholly be captured by cliches, but it is in the dark that our essence truly starts to shine. And it is in the winter when the seeds of rebirth are sown. And after the darkness always comes the dawn.