What I Learned From Sept. 11

When I awoke on September 12, 2001, the first thing I thought about was the jumpers. Trapped on floors at or above the impact zone and with no possibility of rescue or escape, they jumped.

With an inferno licking at their backs, they jumped, alone or in pairs, out of the flaming wreckage. Their silent 90-story falls etched an indelible arc of heartbreaking sorrow in that impossibly blue sky. The images of those final desperate and lonely moments for those total strangers would become for me what psychologists sometimes call intrusive thoughts. They were images that came to me again and again, unbidden and unwelcome.

On the morning of 9-11, I was in New York City and had been on my way to rent an apartment across the street from the twin towers. I never made it. Instead, I spent the day covering the story as a reporter, eventually making my way down to Ground Zero, where I spent the night with a producer and the crew. I shot a stand-up as the sun was coming up over a newly changed and smoking landscape, then went to get a few hours of sleep in a mid-town hotel

When I woke up later on the 12th, and for many mornings that followed, the jumpers were the first fully formed thought I had, the first images that came to my mind. I simply could not get those pictures out of my head. I would find myself wondering about their final moments and their last thoughts as they fell. I tried to imagine the final conversations that took place between those who jumped in pairs. I did not want to do this. I just did. Again and again. It broke my heart every time.

I was working for the TV show EXTRA! at that time, back before the show was all celebrity, all the time. And for the next several months, I covered stories related to 9-11. There were stories of victims, survivors, and heroes that needed to be told. I went to the funerals of firefighters, talked to the parents of the missing and heard harrowing first-person accounts from survivors. I was moved again and again by stories of unspeakable loss, breathtaking courage and overwhelming kindness. I was moved to tears in more ways and more often than I can count. But still, the images that came first in the mornings — were those of the jumpers.

Then one day as I was preparing to go to work, I was listening to an NPR segment on the ways that we tend to process grief. One of the commentators — one of those wonderful NPR hosts, I think — talked about a loss of his own and said, “it is not that you ever really get over it, but it’s just that one day when you wake up, it is not the first thing you think about.” For some reason, this brought me comfort. It resonated as both wise and likely to be true. I held on to it. I felt that somehow, the words of this stranger on the radio would help me.

And sure enough, there came a morning when, not aware of any particular change, I woke up, made coffee, thought through what I needed to do that day, and went about getting ready. And only later did I realize that the jumpers were not the first thing I had thought of that morning. It was not that I cared any less. It was not that it was any less heartbreaking. But it was simply the way grief mercifully heals itself. I realized that my own arc of sorrow was slowly bending back toward the “normal.”

I do not know who it was that made that comment on NPR that morning a decade ago. I wish I did. I would like to thank him. I learned something that was comforting from him. It was like a gift, just as I learned a great deal from the all of the 9-11 people I had the privilege of doing stories about in that singular time. I learned from the firefighters about a courage I hardly understand, and from the ordinary office workers who stayed behind when others fled so they could help a disabled colleague in a wheelchair make it down 60 flights of stairs. I learned from the window washer whose squeegee and whose determination to live made it possible for an elevator full of trapped people to escape.

I learned that the help we might need someday could come from some direction we least imagine. I learned we really do need each other in ways we cannot begin to fathom in the sunny calm of a blue sky.

In January 2002, just after the smoldering fires of the “the pile” were extinguished, I finally moved into that apartment I had been on my way to rent that morning so long ago. It was on Rector Street, just across from Ground Zero. It was a fine place to live and to watch “normal life” slowly rise from the ashes. And to watch the arc, once again, rise unstoppably upward toward an impossibly blue sky.