Zombie by the Cranberries was on the playlist for my Peloton ride earlier today. I was jamming and pedaling and then, quite dramatically, audibly sobbing.
I think it is this day, September 11, which will forever not just be the 11th of September, but will be September 11th. It is also this month, which for me, is a tough one and pock-marked with grief at every turn.
My thoughts on today and September are zombie thoughts rattling around in my head. The memories of that day don't leave or get easier or get less clear, they just get--they get transformed and refocused through the lens of everything that has happened since September 11, 2001.
On September 11, 2001, I was at work, in Burlington, Vermont, at The International Ecotourism Society. I was using the accountant's office--she was not at work on Tuesdays--to interview an ecotourism operator who lived and worked on South Andros Island. The interview had been planned two months in advance--he only went to town once a month and that was his only access to the outside world--the internet and a landline. He had a satellite phone for emergencies only.
I've interviewed probably close to 1,000 people in my writing career and I don't remember where I was for most of them. But, this guy, I remember exactly where I was sitting.
A colleague, Jess, kept coming in the office and interrupting me. She had written strange, nonsensical things on Post-Its. I remember feeling completely irate at the interruption--waving her away and then when I finally finished my interview, stomping into her office to ask her what that was all about.
Then she told me to be quiet and listen. Howard Stern was narrating the entire thing on the radio. The towers, the planes, the Pentagon and all those people.
Moments later the jets took off from the Reserve Base nearby.
The world was changed in an instant. I spent the afternoon watching the coverage with Jess and her roommate Jen, eating gummy bears from a giant Costco bag and trying to get my parents on the phone.
I remember when I finally got through and heard my Dad's voice and then my Mom's. At least that had not changed.
The weeks that followed were bizarre--jets taking off, going to prayer services at a Unitarian Church with my colleagues and tanks driving by my apartment in Fairfax to secure the US-Canadian Border. Then, when we finally decided to drive home, the flags on every single overpass on 87 and 287.
I remember the shock and the confusion and the strange sensation that I should be preparing for the end of the world. It was similar to the start of the pandemic.
But, now, those zombie memories of a horrible day bring up new feelings. Today, I could not stop thinking about the people in those buildings and on those planes--no one could help them. No one could do anything. It brings me to my knees to think about that feeling--a feeling I know too well.
When my brother choked in September 2017, there was nothing I could do to help it. By the time the ER doctor called me, it was already too late.
I was utterly hopeless--watching his body seize through myoclonus in the emergency room, seeing him wheeled out to the helicopter, seeing it lift off with my brother inside and driving, numb and pissed and angry to Jefferson--knowing through all this that my brother was dying.
The day after, I found a spot behind the elevator bank and sat on the floor screaming.
But, then there was a phone call and a prayer with Mike's Aunt Lydia and then there was a door--a way out I could see from this horrible mess and hopelessness. That door was organ donation and even though we spent the week praying and hoping for my brother to live, it was that door I kept focused on. I could not save him, but I could save myself and I could open the door to hope. It is not the hope I picked, but it was the hope available to me.
I think there is always a door.
Twenty years later, I pray that all those beautiful souls in those planes and those buildings and those fire departments and their beautiful families found their doors--that somehow even though they could not leave that tower and those left behind can never leave their grief behind, that maybe, just maybe, they found a door out of the hopelessness.