Thursday, September 11, 2008

Many Levels of Heartbreak

The events of September 11, 2001, as they occurred, were an example of heartbreak writ large. It's not every day that terrorists attack Americans on our own soil, killing and injuring large numbers of us and destroying important symbols of our society in the process. Some day I will write a blog post about how I spent that day, but for now let's just suffice it to say that, as someone who lived in Washington, D.C., I will never forget the sheer terror that I felt when I asked myself where I reasonably could go that was safe and found the honest answer to be, "nowhere." September 11, 2001, was the first, and thusfar only, time that I have felt panic and resignation simultaneously, and it was a heartbreaking combination. Even greater heartbreak ensued as I learned about people who I knew whose lives had been taken or who had lost loved ones.

Although September 11, 2001, came and went like all days do and took its immediate pain with it, it left more subtle levels of heartbreak in its aftermath, some of which continue even to this day. I think that life changed for all Americans on that ill-fated day, but those of us who were in DC and most especially NYC at the time of the attacks bear a special burden. When I hear my former colleagues at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York describe their experiences being at the Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and the days immediately following, and when I think about how many of those people lost numerous family members and friends, I begin to appreciate just how lucky I was. Nevertheless, I know that September 11, 2001, still did affect me profoundly, albeit in much less apparent ways.

In the period immediately following September 11, 2001, I would sit in the living room of my Capitol Hill row house, my thoughts consumed with the awareness that my home was vulnerable to attack and the angst of not knowing when or in what form the next attack might be. Whenever I heard a fighter jet or more often a helicopter fly over my house or office, I would wonder if DC were under attack and my heart would race. My fear, insecurity, and anxiety were ever-present, and there were some times when I thought that my body might collapse under their weight. I chronically felt like this, although to a steadily lessening degree, for at least two years. I am not a mental health professional, but I wonder if perhaps this was some kind of post-traumatic stress reaction. Thankfully, that impending sense of doom that followed me so closely for so long is now gone, or at least mostly gone. There still is a moment every once in a great while when I get a flash of that old visceral, heart-sickening feeling, but I now thankfully am able immediately to restore a sense of balance to my heart and mind.

There is one sense, though, in which September 11, 2001, will always be with me. This probably will sound weird, but to me one of the most disconcerting things about September 11, 2001, was that it was, at least from a weather perspective, a day of surpassing beauty. Cloudless blue sky; clear, dry air; temperature in the 70s; gentle breeze rustling the leaves; that especially beautiful quality of light that occurs only in September. I couldn't have produced a more beautiful day if I'd had the power. That the world as I knew it fell apart and changed forever in the face of such natural beauty was at the time, and remains, nothing short of incomprehensible to me. Whenever the world now produces what I consider to be perfect weather, I enjoy it to a point, but then I find myself haunted by the specter of how such awful things once occurred against a similarly lovely backdrop. "September 11, 2001, was a lot like this," I find myself saying on all the loveliest days of the year. Each "perfect day" candidate becomes it own kind of anniversary of September 11, 2001, even more so than the actual anniversary in many cases. For me there are no more truly "perfect days," because any day that might otherwise qualify brings with it the difficult memories of September 11, 2001. This is a dull and subtle kind of heartbreak, but sometimes I think it is the most painful of all because I know that I will have it for as long as I have a memory.

For all that I experienced on September 11, 2001, and for all the emotions that the memory of that day brings up, I know that I am profoundly lucky. I know that my version of 9/11 heartbreak pales in comparison to that of countless others. To all who suffered and who continue to suffer the effects of September 11, 2001, you have my deepest sympathy. I share in your heartbreak on this, the 7th anniversary of the event, and I will continue to share in your heartbreak for all time.


Merle Sneed said...

Best wishes, my friend.

Adrianne said...

Many thanks, Merle.

Reya Mellicker said...

I forgot it was a beautiful day. Gosh. Thank you so much for reminding me!