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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.

Traversing an Unexpected Path

“Children always choose their mothers,” a psychic once told me. She believed that from the spirit world, unborn children made this decision which would then impact the rest of their lives. I forgot about the reading until I had my own children. Then I adopted her belief and often say to my children, “Thank you for choosing me.”

Because becoming a mother is indefinable. It is an honor, a challenge, and a paramount responsibility. It is amazing, frightening, difficult, rewarding, and emotional. The highs are highs and the lows are lows, and the emotions I feel as a mother can change instantaneously. And nothing can adequately prepare a woman for the experience of motherhood.

However unprepared for motherhood I may have been, my plan was never to be a single mother. I married and waited several years before I became pregnant. During my pregnancies, the images I played in my head always included my husband and me as parents and partners. When my daughter was born, I was excited about embarking upon life as a family.

Becoming a mother made me vulnerable in a way I had never been. I felt as if my heart was now carried by another being, and her well being was inextricably tied to me. Eighteen months later, my son was born. I had been so frightened I would never love anyone the way I loved my daughter, but hearts are expansive and much to my surprise, mine doubled in order to include my son. I was more vulnerable than before as my heart was now shared by two little people.

Motherhood suited me. Instinctually, I knew what to do to care for my babies. And if I didn’t, I turned to my mother, my sister, and my friends for advice and support. The one person who could never be relied upon was my husband. He, physically and emotionally, began to abandon the marriage as soon as we had a child. When my son was born, he disappeared. One friend best described his abandonment when she said, “You are growing up; your husband has grown down.”

Most of the time, we have choices. I chose to embrace parenthood. My husband did not make the same choice. I love the imagery from the Robert Frost poem, “The Path Not Taken.” It is empowering to imagine oneself standing at a fork in the road and making a difficult choice. But sometimes one does not get to make a choice. A path has already been predetermined. That is how I feel about the path of single motherhood. It is not one I chose, but one upon which I was forced.

The path of single motherhood can be lonely, especially because my idea of a family always included a mother, a father and children. I actually had never considered any other version. However, that was not to be. And so I walk a path, I never imagined. And there is always beauty in the unexpected. The view from this vantage point, no less stunning than from the one I had originally pictured.

Most days, I have confidence in my role as a single mother. There are days I feel lonely and scared but never for very long. I am not perfect, but my children will have to the opportunity to witness my strength and courage in the face of the unexpected.

And so, I don’t need to be a psychic to realize I have made many good choices. Over the summer, my daughter threw a penny into a fountain and made a wish. She came running back and said, “Mama, I wished for a mom like you.”

Shattered

My marriage fell apart piece by piece. It was singularly the saddest experience of my life and left me feeling broken in a way that is indescribable.  Shattered. 

I had walked down the aisle blissfully naive. Hopeful. Whole. Perfect. Full of expectations and dreams for the future: a long happy life ahead filled with babies, a beautiful home, and treasured memories. 

Often, life does not play out as we imagine.  I ignorantly believed at 32 that marriage meant happily ever after. And so I was woefully unprepared for the destruction that lay ahead. 

Every late night arrival home, every unanswered phone call, every ignored text, every found receipt, every lie just broke another piece of my heart and chipped away at my marriage and my being. 

Eight years and two beautiful babies later, my marriage was ruined, the life I wanted destroyed, and my heart in splinters. 

I cried…a lot, and I was so fearful that I would never stop.  That I would never recover. That I had been irrevocably altered. That I would never feel hopeful, whole, or perfect again. I cried for what I had lost. I cried for who I had become. And I cried for the me I once was. 

In the middle of my worst days, I read a Facebook post about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing shattered porcelain with liquid gold. In some cases, repairs take months, but the scars ultimately give the repaired object a higher value.

And I have come to see the wisdom in this Japanese art. Yes, I was shattered and defeated for a very long time. I am not the naive 32 year old I once was who believed a life of perfect bliss lay ahead. 

Now, I picture my splintered heart held together by hundreds of threads of gold. I am imperfect, but I am not broken anymore. And beauty lies in both my fragility and my strength as I begin to repair my heart and rebuild a new, different life.