I went to bed on the early side last night, so I did not hear the news of Osama Bin Laden's death until this morning, when I went downstairs to the kitchen and flipped on the television news in the hopes of getting a weather report. The news showed pictures of great crowds of people rejoicing, primarily in New York City. Throngs had been out all night in Times Square and at the World Trade Center, waving flags and singing patriotic songs.
At the end of the summer in 2001, my husband and I were on a little bit of a fitness kick. We had developed a habit of getting up early and driving to the local community center for a swim before work. My husband is a very good swimmer; he competed in high school and then taught swimming in college. I, on the other hand, am a terrible swimmer. I paddle slowly in the grandma lane while my husband cuts smooth laps at the athletic end of the pool. One of these days I am going to take some swimming lessons so that I can actually swim a recognizable stroke. I enjoy it, so it would be nice to be competent at it.
But, as usual, I digress. On Tuesday, September 11, we were running a little late after our morning swim, and we did not get to the George Washington Bridge until around 8:30 AM, or possibly a few minutes later. It was a beautiful morning, and the sun dazzled and danced off the Hudson River. Just as we approached the bridge, something happened. Far down across the river, we could see smoke. Traffic came to a sudden and instantaneous halt. We flipped on the radio. The traffic reporter said that there had been an accident; a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.
"That's not an accident," my husband said. "You don't accidentally fly a commercial jetliner that low to the ground."
I pulled out my Blackberry and e-mailed Patrick, the partner at my law firm with whom I had been working. "I'm going to be delayed," I told him. "Something has happened that has caused some significant traffic at the bridge."
He e-mailed back almost immediately: "Go home and stay there. Be safe."
Traffic on the highway was reversed, and all the cars on the bridge turned around and headed slowly back to New Jersey. After a few minutes, we knew more about what had happened. I e-mailed my dad to tell him I was safe. He responded that the Pentagon was also under attack and, like Patrick, instructed me to go home. We stopped at the bank and took out some money; we did not yet know the scope of the attacks, and my husband feared that we might have to flee the metropolitan area. We picked up the children from school and sent the nanny home. We watched television. We saw the towers fall. Fighter jets scrambled overhead and drowned out my sister's voice when she called to see whether we were okay.
We sat in silence for a long time, and then I said, "I'm going to go donate blood."
I drove to the blood bank and waited in an extremely long line. Tents had been pitched in the parking lot to accommodate the large numbers of volunteer donors. I was fast-tracked because I have the type of blood they anticipated needing the most, and I ended up donating on a bus parked outside the blood center. As I was filling out the paperwork, I asked the man sitting next to me, "What's today's date?"
He looked at me wide-eyed, as though that were an unbelievable question. "September 11, 2001," he said slowly.
I don't think they used my blood that day. There were very few injuries requiring it, actually; people either lived or died. If they lived, their illnesses were not immediately apparent and were not of the type that required blood transfusions. If they died, they died almost instantly.
It was probably about a week before we were able to get back to work. I spent my lunch hours wandering Grand Central Station, reading the missing-person posters pasted up by the bereaved and desperate. There were photographs of lost loved ones everywhere. My office conducted a disaster drill once or twice, and once we were evacuated for a bomb scare that turned out to be just that - a scare, nothing more.
I was lucky, but my life was not unaffected by the events of that day. That winter, I quit my job to stay home with my children. I did not want to end up on a poster. I wanted to see my children grow up. No job in a prestigious law firm was more important to me than that. I had never before experienced visceral fear. The fear was not of death, but of loss of the future. Of not seeing my son shave. Of not seeing my daughter in a bridal gown. Of not holding a grandchild in my arms. I could not live with that kind of fear.
So this morning, when I saw the news on the TV while I was unloading the dishwasher, I paused, dishes in hand. I looked at the people in Times Square. I remembered the old Jewish tradition that when the waters of the Red Sea drowned the Egyptian army, the angels in heaven were forbidden to rejoice, for the Egyptians too were children of God, and the death of any of His children, no matter how evil, causes Him pain. I reflected on that for a moment - how difficult it is to live up to such a standard, given the pain and suffering caused to so many people by the man who died last night.
Then, I collected myself and went upstairs to wake the children.