My topic is “Mindfulness and Grief, Leaning Into the Sharp Points”. I speak on 6 November.
Was it a morning like this? They say it was – A Perfect September Morning, I think the New York City DJs called it. I know it was not a morning like This – because mornings like these come only to the Texas Panhandle in September. Ever-warming sun with a cool breeze that the rest of the world calls wind, and a totally cloudless sky – completely cloudless and clear — yes, for as far as the eye can see.
No, it was not a morning like this – for them or for me.
By this time that morning – 9:00 Eastern – their clear blue was forever gone and mine – well – I have no memory of my sky that morning. I have, in fact, very few memories of that time in my life at all.
I was not me then. I was She.
She lived in Dallas, Texas, and at 40 was busy Climbing the Corporate Ladder, though if you had asked her at the time, she would have denied it, so complete was her blindness. She had a husband and a lover, both conveniently housed in different cities than she, no children and no pets, so there was very little to divert her from her role as National Marketing Director of this latest company.
“Latest” because she was a charter member of an elite team of “Turn-Around Specialists” – a group of sharp-dressed, good-looking, smooth-talking, quick, intelligent and dangerously charming salesmen and marketers who, for a sizeable fee, would come into your down-turned, on-the-verge sales-based business and within 6 to 18 months, transform it into a Profitable 21st Century Employer of Choice. She knew this because she wrote the copy. (There was no copy available to predict what might happen to your re-vamped company in month 7 or 19 when the Elites had taken their charms to the next troubled business and you were left to manage things on your own.)
The morning of September 11, 2001, found her at the big desk in her beautifully accoutred office. Not the Office of Her Dreams – not quite, not yet – but a corner office nonetheless, with a wall of windows and an oh-so-necessary attached conference room that she was loathe to share with anyone but her immediate staff.
Who knows what she was working on that morning. Numbers most likely, for this latest rung up the ladder had taken her even further from Word and deeper into Excel, which she neither understood nor wanted to. Yes, that’s right, I remember now. She had just lost her Excel wizard – a single mother of two troubled children, a young woman whose long French-tipped nails clacked across the keyboard at breakneck speed (Hot Key –v- Mouse) and always turned the hated numbers into beautiful spreadsheets of gold and green with just the right amount of red to get the point across. What was her name? Tracey? Yes, that’s it – Tracey.
But Tracey was gone – re-married and moved away, and the woman was left to plod her way through the numbers, useless with either Hot Key or Mouse. No doubt this was what she was doing that morning when one of her Team Leaders appeared at the door.
The woman always felt people before she saw them. A trait that, after it stopped making his hair stand on end, her boss, Ted, (King of the Elites) had found myriad ways to use to a business advantage. She was especially good at blindly sensing trouble as it approached – an angry client, fighting co-workers, a botched print-job, a delayed delivery. At those times, when trouble hovered in her doorway, she rarely looked up – she simply raised her hand and motioned it in saying calmly, “Tell me”.
This morning was different. She somehow knew but did not want to know that this morning was different. She made no motion. Instead, she looked up.
Melissa, the young woman in the doorway, was pale beyond the natural cream of her skin, so that the mass of her red hair glowed even more nimbus-like around her face and shoulders. She was leaning hard against the door frame, clutching it as though she might fall.
“What is it, Melissa?” the woman asked.
At first, the young woman made no response – at least no discernable response. Her blue lips moved but the only sounds that came from them were small puffs of breath as though she had run the length of the building rather than having just stepped around the corner.
“What IS it??” the woman asked again. (She was not known for her patience.)
Melissa tightened her grasp on the doorway and almost whispered, “They’ve flown a plane into The World Trade Centre”.
There was a beat as the woman waited for more information. As none was forthcoming, she asked,
“Someone has flown a plane into the World Trade Centre!” Melissa blurted out, loudly this time, as though all the lost breath had been returned to her body in one great gush.
Now, as you may or may not know, Dallas also had (has, I suppose) a World Trade Centre. It is in the heart of city’s Market Centre and hosts hundreds of trade and fashion shows each year. An extremely unattractive, squat, brown building, it is also not too far from Love Field, the smaller of Dallas’ two airports. Keeping that in mind, it is, perhaps, understandable, if not forgivable, that the woman’s response was this,
“Well, THAT will snarl up traffic down there all day…”
Melissa’s white face flushed as she stared at the woman, tears standing in her powder blue eyes.
“What?” the woman asked again. “Oh… oh – I’m sorry, Melissa – did you know them? Did you know the pilot or someone?”
Slowly, Melissa shook her head, stepping cautiously further into the room as though being nearer might break the woman’s denseness.
“Stephanie,” she said – softly again, now clutching the corner of the woman’s mahogany desk as she had clung to the door jamb, “Someone has flown a plane into the World Trade Centre.”
She spoke these last words slowly and firmly, as though to a lip-reader.
“It’s a terrible thing, I’m sure,” the woman said, shaking her head in what she meant to be commiseration. Already her mind had moved back to the troublesome numbers on the screen behind her. She wanted Melissa to go away so that she could go back to work – there was so much to do. But she knew this wouldn’t happen until she had given the young woman more attention.
“Were many hurt?” she asked, hoping that would be enough.
Melissa’s watery eyes widened in disbelief, and, no longer caring that the woman was her boss, fairly screamed, “Who knows? Hundreds? Thousands? My God!” And crying out, she dropped to her knees beside the desk.
The woman, who had never seen anyone drop to their knees In Real Life, began to think that perhaps she had made a wrong assumption.
“The World Trade Centre…” she said. “The ugly World Trade Centre on Stemmons, right?”
Melissa’s sobs grew louder. “No, no, no!” she cried. “The World Trade Centre in New York City – you know, The Twin Towers? – those two huge buildings in New York!”
The woman finally got it. Only she didn’t. The image of a small private plane, piloted by and filled with drunken oilmen slamming into the Dallas WTC was plausible. It was an image that, while unfortunate, at least came readily to the woman’s mind as a possible reality. But New York’s WTC? Weren’t they the tallest buildings in the world or something? A private plane would be nothing more than a dust mote against those giants. The towers would take no more notice of a small plane than an elephant does a fly.
“Melissa…” the woman finally said. “What kind of plane?”
“I don’t know for sure. A big one. A 747, I think maybe.”
And now it was the woman who stared in disbelief.
Melissa, relieved at finally breaking through the wall of ignorance, and even more relieved at having passed on the awful burden of the information to a superior, stood up slowly.
“What should we do?” she asked, wiping her nose on the back of her sleeve.
Do?, the woman thought. “Do?, “ she asked when Melissa did not step away.
“Yes – what do you want us to do? Everyone’s crying – most people want to go home – What should I tell them?”
Instinctively, the woman reached for the phone. Her first thought was, as always, to ask Ted. But Ted was in Ohio, making the deal for their next project. She was all there was.
“Tell them to stay put and I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said, hand still on the phone.
Melissa nodded and left the room.
In truth, the woman had no idea what to do. What did this mean? How does a 747 crash into a building in New York? Was the pilot drunk? Had he had a heart attack? How could something like this happen?
Remembering the television in her conference room, the woman hurried in there and closed the door. She found CNN and was just sitting down as American Flight 175 flew into the second building. Of course, she didn’t know then that it was American Flight 175 – only that a jet, a huge airplane usually dwarfed by the immensity of the skyscrapers, had cut straight through the South Tower of the World Trade Centre like papier-mâché.
The conference room walls began to shrink around her. Through them bled the muffled cries of other witnesses at computers or in front of break room televisions. No one had remembered hers, or perhaps they had remembered how little she liked to share her conference room. Regardless, the woman sat alone, watching the unimaginable replay over and over and over again.
The news reporters were as stunned as everyone else, no one seemed to know for sure what had happened, no one wanted to believe that a second plane was involved in the second explosion. Reporters fumbled over words, over each other, over terrified New York citizens calling from their cell phones with updates.
The woman stared. She knew she had to do something, that there were many people waiting for her to do something – anything – waiting for her to help them make sense of this or at least to make them safe. But she could not move. This, like seeing Melissa drop to her knees, was something the woman had never experienced before – being literally frozen in place. She could hear herself, whether it was her actual voice or only the one in her head, she did not know, but she could hear herself saying, demanding, “Stephanie, GET UP!” But she could not move. She wasn’t sure she was even breathing until she felt a cry escape her throat.
At that moment, the conference room door opened and Barbara, her other Team Leader, stood in its frame. A tiny woman, the true definition of “petite”, Barbara was about 20 years older than the woman, intelligent, funny, and a consistent source of strength. Instinctively, Barbara seemed to know what had happened, seemed to realize and understand that the woman, her boss, was unable to move from her chair.
Quietly closing the door behind her, she walked into the room.
“Stephanie?” she said as she neared the woman.
Getting no response, Barbara squatted down in between the woman and the television set which was still blaring fear and assumption in the measured tones of zombie-voiced newscasters.
“Sweetie?” she said, softer this time.
The woman could smell the combination of cigarette smoke, Tic-Tacs and the Coco perfume she had given Barbara as a birthday gift just last month. She breathed deeply.
Taking her hands, Barbara squeezed them. “Sweetie, do you have someone in New York City?” Her East Texas twang was thick with emotion and her own suppressed fear.
The woman looked at her, registered the scent, registered the voice, registered the question. After a moment, she shook her head. “No,” she mouthed.
Barbara smiled up at her. “Ok, then, sugar, we need to get you outta here.” She rose to her feet, pulling the woman up with her. “We need you to make some decisions right quick, ok?”
The woman nodded.
From that point on, She – the woman — was what She always was (at least at work) – She was Responsible. She comforted her staff, sent home the ones who wanted to go, stayed with the ones who preferred to remain and, for a little while at least, go ahead with their work as though nothing had changed, as though the entire world as they knew it had not just literally gone up in smoke.
The telephones rang incessantly. Everyone checking in, needing to touch, unable to touch, settling for the sound of far off voices. Her husband said he was leaving Houston and would be in town by dinner time. She almost asked, Why? then she remembered that he loved her and wanted to be with her – such a strange concept. Her lover telephoned from his home in Pennsylvania, 40 miles from where the passengers took down United Flight 93. He said he felt he should “stay close to home” and so would not be flying to Dallas for the weekend as planned, neither of them realizing that no one would be flying anywhere for a long while. She spoke with her mother, sisters, friends, everyone always saying the same thing, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it.”
Somewhere near the end of the eternal day, watching yet another replay of the South Tower collapse, she remembered that she did, indeed, “have someone” in New York, and the realization of it sent her reeling. His name was David, the first and, until then, the greatest love of her life. How could she have forgotten that David was in NYC? They had not seen each other in years, but would telephone every few months or so. Or did they? Now she found that she couldn’t remember the last time she had spoken with him. Finding that his number was no longer in her cell phone, she began a frantic search for it. He was a lawyer in the City, but she could not remember ever knowing where he kept his offices. Panicked, she tore through her desk, her planner, her purse, her briefcase. She tried calling information for New York City, but the lines were impossibly blocked by millions of people trying desperately to reach the unreachable.
By the time she gave up, the sun had gone down. She was the only one left in the building, the television from the conference room, the only sound. She stood up and somehow made her way out the door.
I have never before written about September 11th – my other memories of that day, that night, and the days and nights that followed, are blurred, as though seen through perpetual tears – which, I suppose, they are. I do know that the events of that day changed the path of my life forever.
I think, perhaps, that is something I am realizing only right now – today – as I write this, nine years later.
September 11, 2001, reminded me what mattered. More importantly, it reminded me what didn’t. And my life on that day was full of what didn’t. It was so full of what didn’t that it took a tragedy of unimaginable proportions for me to recognize what did.
That tragedy was the first tear in my veil of rationalizations – a veil I had woven carefully for many years and through which I viewed myself, my world and everything in it. The veil made everything Alright. But everything wasn’t Alright. Almost nothing was Alright. I, certainly, was not Alright. And though it would take another two years for me to even begin to make the changes necessary to put myself on the road to Alright, I know now that I would not be Me if not for that day.
So, in a very real way, I owe my life — my Self — to those who died that day.
To the men and women who started their morning as I had, staring at computer screens, drinking coffee, struggling with numbers, and ended it falling with frightening grace from the skyward windows of those Towers. To those who boarded airplanes with briefcases and babies and turned to ash. To the heroes — two-legged and four — who struggled, some to their own deaths, to resuce the living and then to find the dead.
To all of them, I owe Me.
May I never forget that.
May I someday be worthy.
May we all.
©s rogers 11 september 2010