On September 11, 2001, I was 27 years old. I was working at my alma mater, a small, liberal arts college in northern New Jersey, 30 miles west of Manhattan. I had only been in my job for eight months or so. I had been in my apartment, over the garage of a faculty member’s home just across the street from campus, less than that. I had been with my boyfriend, who I thought would eventually be my husband, for about two years.
It was, as has often been written, a brilliantly blue, cloudless day, a mix of late summer and early fall with just the faintest hints of rotting leaves on the gentle breezes that swept across campus. Early in the day, I was on the phone with former colleagues in the New Jersey governor’s office, trying to schedule a visit of the then-acting governor, for whom my boyfriend worked, to our campus to speak in the class my boss, a former governor, taught each fall. My boss was still at home, waiting to hear from his dentist about a dental procedure gone slightly awry. A bus full of our students was on its way into Manhattan for the university’s annual Wall Street Semester program.
After the planes hit the towers, and the Pentagon, and the grassy field in Pennsylvania, after my white and shaken boss who lost several friends that day got to the office, after we learned our bus of students had been turned back at the Lincoln Tunnel, after we realized that we were going to need clergy and counselors and big screen televisions so our students, many of whom had parents, siblings, friends working in the city, wouldn’t get horrible news while alone in their rooms, the day gets blurry for me.
I know, from reading things, that we sent runners through classroom buildings, that we advised our students not to try to get home because the roads were closed, that we held hands and sang “Amazing Grace,” which seemed sheer lunacy in the face of such graceless horror. I know our kids lined up to give blood, even though so very little would be needed.
I do remember, that night, going back to my little apartment and trying to eat. I must have been irrational, because I was convinced someone would come for me that night, that the horror wasn’t over. I threw a change of clothes into my car and headed to Trenton, where Conor, the boyfriend, lived.
The New Jersey Turnpike was eerily empty on my way, with the exception of a string of 30 or so rescue vehicles headed north, their lights like a glittering necklace of rubies as they moved silently up the left-most lane toward the city. I made it to Chambersburg, flew up the narrow stairs into Conor’s apartment, rested my head on his chest and, for the first time that day, cried.
On the way back to work the next morning, Route 78 was closed because it ran too close to the airport. Smoke continued to rise from the site and drift out over New Jersey, over cars left in commuter rail parking lots. I stood behind the main administrative building with a cigarette and marveled at the silent skies above.
I was sure, in those early days, that everything had changed. Nine years later, I worry that things haven’t changed enough. I worry that I don’t remember enough, that I wasn’t affected enough. I was lucky not to lose anyone that day, not to even really come close.
But later, I saw up close the faces of those who did and I know saying everything changed for them falls outrageously short of expressing anything about their lives. I worry that they were left to bear too much of this tragedy alone. Why don’t I still feel more? I think that’s why I watch the replay of that morning’s news coverage every year — to keep the wound just the slightest bit open, to make sure it hasn’t scabbed over entirely.