An American in Italy on September 11th

I haven’t written for such a long time and I’ve had a few ideas about what I wanted to write about here in Italy, but just haven’t sat down to actually formulate the words.  I feel somewhat strange writing about something as sad as what I have chosen to write about after having not written for quite a few months.  That being said, I knew that using writing in a therapeutic way was going to aide in easing some of the pain and getting my feelings out about the day that has haunted not only Americans, but people all over the world for 12 years.

On the eve of September 11th, I thought I would take time to reflect on that day and it’s 12th anniversary tomorrow.  Every year I hear someone on the news or someone in passing say, “Can you believe it has been (insert number of years) since it happened?” and every time I feel the exact same sentiments.  I remember that day as if it had happened last week.  Maybe that is why my memories are so frightening: because that day was incredibly vivid down to every last detail.  I’ve never put into the written word the story of my day-and everyone has a story from that day- but rather recounted it solemnly whenever someone asked or just as a healing process to tell every year with my family and friends.

I was 11, in my first year of middle school: grade 6.  This was when my family still lived in Connecticut, a short way from New York City where my father worked for over 20 years.  Everyday he would take the train to Manhattan around the same time I would be leaving for school.  This was the happy time for my mother before I stopped taking the bus and begging her to drive me every morning just so I could sleep in an extra 15 minutes.  She should really get the mother of the lifetime award for doing that for years.  I remember walking down our long driveway enveloped by trees that made it difficult to see the sky.  But when I did see it…I will never forget this: it was perfect.  It was crystal clear, completely blue, not a cloud in the sky, no humidity, just stunningly perfect.  I kept staring up at it, waiting for the bus at the top of our road and feeling this sense of something.  I am in no way, shape, or form saying, “I KNEW”.  I didn’t.  No one did.  But I just had this indescribable feeling.  Maybe I was so touched by the perfectness of nature in the sky or still feeling nervous being only a week or so into a new school district where I didn’t know many kids.  In that moment I’m sure it was the dreadful feeling of knowing we had gym first period.  I mean, who does that?  Really…

And thus began gym class, but that day, being under that intoxicatingly blue sky, it wasn’t so bad.  Of course when we were called into the locker rooms halfway through class, I’m not going to lie: I was pretty excited.  When we got inside we were met with our usual peppy gym teacher asking us to change quickly and report to our homerooms.  When someone asked why, she somberly told us that we needed to be fast and quiet and that there was going to be an announcement.  Being 11 year olds, this of course spiked excitement like electricity running through everyone and rumors started in an instant.  Someone famous was visiting, someone had died, we were having another fire drill routine, or a pizza party!

I went upstairs and passed the classrooms leading to mine, took a seat near the front of the room and watched our science teacher roll our room’s TV set in front of us.  Every morning in homeroom we had CTV.  I will be so happy if anyone reads this that went to middle school with me and remembers that.  CTV was our morning show and I really did not appreciate how lucky I was to be in such an amazing school system.  We had a TV studio that produced a really wonderful “news show” every single morning.  Our principal was such a character and would be on it everyday with a lucky co-host student and they would have these hysterical pre-recorded segments intertwined with the live feed of what was going on that day at school.  Remember these moments is s beautiful and I just think I never really understood how fortunate I was to live in the town that I did, but I was young and didn’t know that other school systems weren’t like this.

Our principal, as I mentioned, was always in a contagiously good mood often walking down the halls whistling or singing, one time grabbing me during passing time and danced with me!  He was “famous” in town for making guest appearances (more times than not in drag) in our school’s theatre productions.  Because of this, none of us were expecting what happened when our teacher turned on the television.  Our principal was sitting in front of the cameras with a tear-stained face, visibly shaken, and taking a very long time to start talking.  I can still feel my heart dropping knowing something truly horrible must have happened for him to look this way.

Choking out the words, he managed to tell us that there was an attack in New York City.  What did this mean?  Being 11 years old, the word “attack” immediately conjured up images of Godzilla or super hero fights.  He said that two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers.  Because the planes hit each tower in just over 8 minutes, it was clear this wasn’t a coincidence and was in fact an attack.  He stayed on the television with us for a little bit, but didn’t give us any more information other than what he had already said.  This was disconcerting.  We were told there was an attack, but that was it.  What were we supposed to do with that?  There was a school filled with kids whose parents, aunts, uncles, friends and so on worked in New York City and yet that was the only information we were given.  I found out later that both of his children worked very close to the World Trade Center and he hadn’t heard from them.

I didn’t know what to think.  I couldn’t tell if I was angry or scared, I just knew that my dad and mom were in the city.  I didn’t have a cellphone.  No one really did at that time (can you imagine it?).  So I sat there like everyone else and waited while some of the other students speculated again on what it could be.  The most popular belief was that it was China.  Why?  I’m not sure.  Well…of course I’m sure, but now’s not the time.

The time I spent at school that day, I remember feeling very strange.  I didn’t say much, which for those of you who know me is shocking, I’m sure.  I think I was just in shock.  Nothing new was being reported and we could see the teachers whispering amongst themselves and knew they weren’t telling us everything.  And then one of the kids from another class who actually did have a cellphone started running from classroom to classroom shouting what had happened.  He had gone to the bathroom to secretly call his parents and the recounted the entire situation.  By this point, the first tower had fallen and the moment that this kid yelled that into our classroom, we all turned on the teachers and started demanding answers.  Looking back now, I understand why they did not tell us everything as it was happening because they didn’t want to cause panic, but that point was so far gone by this moment that it was inhumane to keep us all tightly locked in those classrooms with no communication to the outside.

One of the girls in my class had slipped out and called her family to find out that a relative had been in the tower when it fell.  She came back in inconsolable and it was at this point they started allowing us to call our parents to come pick us up.  And I didn’t want to.  I waited until almost everyone else had used the phone and prolonged that moment where I didn’t know if someone was going to pick up or worse, they were going to pick up and have bad news.  The thought of my parents being in the city had completely numbed me and I could not handle getting an answer.  When I picked up and dialed my mom’s cellphone, she didn’t pick up.  No surprise there, she never does.  I tired my dad and his phone was dead.  Then for some reason I tried the home phone and after a few rings I heard my mom’s voice.  The relief I felt in that moment is insurmountable to any relief I have felt since.  Her words, her voice, everything filled me with this warmth I could feel in my veins.  Before I could even ask she said, “Daddy is here, he’s fine” and I was in heaven.  I momentarily, maybe selfishly forgot about everyone else who was getting good or bad news from their families when they called.

My mom came right away to get me.  My little brother who was 7 or 8 at the time was there too.  All of us climbed into my parents’ bed and held each other as we watched the news.  This was the first video footage I had seen all day and the horror was paralyzing.  It looked surreal, as if someone had planned for it to be so beautiful outside.  The flames paired against the blue sky were strangely picturesque and otherworldly.  The news channels were flipping back and forth, all showing the same thing: the planes, the towers collapsing, the FDNY, NYPD, and emergency workers, our heroes, all scrambling through debris.  It felt like I was having a seizure watching all of the images being flipped between over and over.  The reactions of the New Yorkers was devastating.  The people jumping from windows to escape the flames was the worst.  I can still see them stepping up on the windowsills and my dad telling us not to watch, weeping all the time.  I had never seen him like this.  He was gripping the remote control and shaking his head, leaving tears streaming down his cheeks.  He was in shock, more so than any of us of course because he had spent everyday working there.  This was his 2nd home.

After watching the news for hours on end like zombies, my dad and I decided to get in the car and go for a ride trying to forget, but also keeping the radio on.  A strange dichotomy…Our normal route was automatic at this point: the beach.  Our default, really everyone in Westport’s default was to go to the beach if you didn’t have anything else to do or just wanted to go for a ride.  When we turned the corner to the entrance we saw it: The billowing black smoke starting to drift across the Long Island Sound that lay before us.  Silently, we drove to the edge of the shore, parked and watched it like it was some kind of strange dream.  The sky that day, I still cannot get over it.  It was just cloudless- the first clouds I was seeing all day were the ones that were carried from the burning buildings.

We watched for a bit and my dad’s shock, turned to sadness had now turned to anger.  He just kept asking “why?” over and over.  He was so angry at the people who had done this just like the rest of America.  Later that night, he and my mom told me what I had been wondering earlier but had forgotten in my relief of seeing them.  My mother was supposed to go into the city that day to get beads and at the last minute decided not too.  That was another phrase we heard a lot of for the years to come, “at the last minute I decided not to”.  Many people had those moments that day for some reason or another…

My dad was on his normal train route and in a time before iPhones, he didn’t have access to the Internet.  My mom had HAPPENED to turn on the radio in her car 30 seconds before the first plane hit.  She said she was listening to Howard Stern when suddenly he said, “I hate to interrupt this banter, but this is breaking news: a plane just hit the World Trade Center”.  All of us being avid Howard Stern listeners, hearing his change of tone was a dead give away something was wrong even as Robin and the guest carried on laughing and making jokes, he just kept bringing it back to the plane.  She knew immediately something wasn’t right and called my dad.  He assured her it was nothing but an accident and not ten minutes later she called back and said, “Clark, get off the train.  Now.”  The second plane had hit and now she knew for sure.  My dad told a conductor who made an announcement to the train that there would be an emergency stop for those who wanted to get off.  Of course everyone found out later that day that the trains from Grand Central were completely shut down leaving everyone stranded in the city.  People walked miles upon miles as if refugees to cross over the bridges leading out of the city just to get away from the debris and dust.

My dad, got off the train at the emergency stop close to my Grandparents’ house.  They came to get him, completely distraught.  My late granddad also worked in the city for a huge part of his life and was just astounded by what was going on.  He and my dad drove to the beach closest to their house where you can see New York City from the shore.  They both stood there and watched the second tower fall.  From such a considerable distance it still was too close.  I cannot begin to fathom how frightening that must have been to see.  Not on a television screen, but almost from another world.  So far away, but right in front of your face.

I don’t remember going to sleep that night, but hearing the television from my parent’s room upstairs and the faint voices repeating the same thing over and over.  I didn’t cry all day.  I thought something was wrong with me.  I didn’t cry all week either.  I was just in pain.  I remember that day perfectly, but the days that followed were a blur.  I was so overcome with relief that no one from my family went into the city and that some of my closest friends who had parents that worked in the towers themselves hadn’t gone in or had gotten there late.  How does that happen?  Why on that day?  I was also in pain for the devastating amount of people we lost from our area.  Schoolmates’ family members and of course the people of New York.  My heart broke over and over for them and never seemed to completely mend.  This was New York.  No one fucks with New York.  But someone did.  And I think that was one of the hardest things to comprehend.  But being addicted to the news for the weeks following and watching the rescue workers, New York Police Department, New York Fire Department and countless volunteers begin to clean the mess was a beacon of hope.

The next few days and weeks were impromptu memorial services for those we lost from our own town.  We all gathered as a community and held hands with strangers trying to understand.  I still hadn’t cried.  Even when we had to sing “Amazing Grace” 20 times at the different services, I just was so hurt and so numb.  But when it all settled one evening, I went up to my bedroom, put a pillow over my stuffed animals so they wouldn’t see me, and I completely crumbled.  I fell onto my knees and cried into my bed. I cried for hours until I felt that relief that slowly rocks you to sleep.

I dreaded every morning that my dad went to work and years later he told me that he too would hold his breath on the subway silently praying a bomb wouldn’t go off as speculations were coming in all the time of when and where another attack would be.  Living in that kind of fear is exhausting.  I would tearfully beg him not to go every single September 11th that followed, thinking that there would be another attack because of the anniversary.  Waiting until he got home was horrible.

We had to talk about it in all of our classes and see our school guidance counselors.  I know that is was good for all of us to express our feelings, but it was also like re-opening a wound every single time.

It was a terrible thing.  It still is.  The weeks following though brought with them stories of tragedy but also really beautiful and inspiring moments.  Our principal who I mentioned with the two children that worked near the towers, they had been missing.  They had no cellphones and worked blocks away from each other.  This story is truly a miracle: somehow through all of the mayhem, smoke, and thousands of people, they found each other.  They found each other in the middle of the street.  I’m weeping as a write this because I still to this day cannot believe how amazing this is.  They found each other without cellphones and were able to escape completely safe.

Another amazing moment was helping out a friend with a lemonade stand.  We were 11, ok?  Her Aunt had been on United 93, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.  We had a lemonade stand near the beach to raise money for the victims.  A little gesture that turned out to be an amazing triumph.  People bought the lemonade because it was fantastic obviously, but then everyone that passed by gave something, whether it was the change in their pocket or the mysterious man who drove up, handed us a 100 dollar bill and drove away without another word.  By the end of the day we had raised $2049.  I won’t ever forget that number.  We were so excited and ended up being in the newspaper!

Those little moments started to pierce holes in the darkness and soon our town and New York started to get back into their rhythms.  We will never forget of course and every time I am in the city near that area my heart hurts a little and every year on this day that I really dread, I just try to focus on the positives and how bravely New York pulled itself out and went on with its business.  No one can break that city.

Last year was my first year outside of America for that day.  All the other times I was either in Connecticut or at school in New York and could be or feel close to my family.  Being in a foreign country essentially alone with no other Americans was hard.  I wanted to express the grief and as supportive as all of my Italian friends are and as sad as they were for our country that day, they do not understand what it was like to be right there.  I spent some time meditating and praying for everyone in a church (no, I did not burst into flames surprisingly).  I am not a religious person so it felt odd being in a church praying, but it was a quiet place where I could just think of everyone from back home and it was very calming.

Tomorrow I will be here in Lucca again.  Last week was one year since I moved to Italy and that is something to celebrate.  But I will also be spending my time tomorrow thinking of everyone back home.  My family, some of my best friends who live in the city, and everyone affected.  Two of my American friends here I am glad to say will be with me tomorrow.  We will go light a few candles in a church and be together.  I used to spend this day trying to just get through it.  On the 10th anniversary when I was in college I slept until 5 pm because I just didn’t want to be awake for it.  This year I will see my friends and then I have a voice lesson and German lessons immediately after.  I thought the other day that I would call and cancel those so that I could be sad in my room.  And then I realized that I was given the opportunity to do the thing I love the most: sing.  And I thought it could be my way of being grateful, sharing good energy, and continuing to live.  I could write a whole other post on how important music is for healing, but I can only imagine people stopped reading this like 20 paragraphs ago.  So now I can say anything I want, right and now one will ever know?  I watched the whole first season of “Long Island Princesses” in 2 days…THE SHAME!!  haha…

If anyone is still reading this, thank you.  I know I would not have made it through.  I know this was an epically long post, but it’s the first time I have ever written down about my experience with that day and getting it out on “paper” has been very healing.

I usually post pictures of my life in relation to the post I write, but we have all seen the pictures and they aren’t something I can bring myself to look at.  Instead I will leave this video of Renee Fleming speaking about her experience of singing “Amazing Grace” after the attack.  Her voice and the music bring relief even just for a few minutes and this is the reason music is such a potent and powerful thing.

September 11th, 2013.  We will never ever forget.  All of my love and strength tomorrow with be with the people in New York, the families of United 93, and those from the Pentagon.