Before 9/11, there was just a date on the calendar between the 10th and the 12th which never made me shutter. There was 9-1-1, but not 9/11. It’s like B.C. and A.D. There was life before and life afterward and in the middle, for a day, my city stood still, I held my breath and my heart beat double the speed.
I didn’t know when the attack would end and whether my four-mile distance from Ground Zero was far enough to keep me safe; I was only six blocks from the Empire State Building and I worried its iconic stature and visibility made it a vulnerable target. Walking around eight weeks pregnant, I felt the burden of a future generation’s uncertainty pressing against my womb.
The 15-year anniversary feels no different than the 14-year one and I imagine the 16th won’t be drastically dissimilar. As a New Yorker, it feels like a day of remembrance; as an American, it’s a day of memorial. For me, it’s mourning more than thousands of innocent lives, it’s grieving the entire concept of naive bliss. Before 9/11, I existed in a pleasant bubble of safety and ignorance. After 9/11, my future felt like a black hole of doubt.
Suddenly those war-torn countries I watched and pitied on CNN dissolved into images of our mothers, fathers, sisters, neighbors. This time, it was MY city climbing out from a pile of brick, steel, and bodies. The stench in the air, as if produced by an incinerator filled with burning rubber, metal, flesh, hopes, and dreams, and it all formed a cloud of fear-driven above our heads. None of us enlisted, we weren’t drafted; we were victims of an uncharacteristic surprise military attack and it felt as random as an asteroid hitting earth.
It’s hard to find someone who lived in Manhattan during 9/11 who doesn’t have a variation of PTSD. There is not a plane in the sky which escapes my peripheral vision and I’m grateful each and every time it doesn’t crash into the buildings around me. I have a hard enough time talking myself down from hypothetical ‘worst-case scenarios,’ but when I lived through it, it reinforced in my brain that it could happen again. Terrorists: one, Galina, zero.
My husband ran to entertain sick children at St. Vincent’s hospital where the view of the smoke-filled, gaping hole in the downtown sky looked like a kid with its two front teeth knocked out. I sat with my co-workers, secretly pregnant, in a bar near the West Side Highway listening to the sirens wailing over and over, as truck after truck stormed into the wreckage without hesitation. A friend of mine emerged from the subway near The World Trade Center, right after the first tower collapsed. A stranger grabbed her and shoved her into an abandoned building to protect her from a bleeding sky. She became one of those lost, dust-covered souls wandering through the city to get home. She still keeps her white-coated purse and suit in a clear plastic case in her closet. My mother was scheduled for an interview with Cantor Fitzgerald on that fateful afternoon. All of us were connected to each other and to the towers, which defined our skyline and were abruptly obliterated together with our security and sense of well-being.
It felt like our city was held hostage, and the citizens united together and only we uniquely understood what it was like to feel this violated and afraid. Only we remember the eery silence which haunted our normally-lively streets for days. We spoke in whispers and wept daily at every news telecast or pop-up candle vigil on the corner.
The dread I felt on that day hasn’t released its grip on me. I lived down the block from the Park Avenue Armory, which was turned into a hub intended for loved ones to bring in DNA samples (hairbrushes, toothbrushes) of missing people. For the first few weeks after the tragedy, dozens of news trucks parked in front of my building and thousands of Missing Person signs plastering buildings, telephone poles, and trees in my neighborhood. I walked my dog three times a day, with a growing baby inside me, feeling so lucky to have survived. “I didn’t even have the worst-case scenario,” I guiltily told myself over and over again. “I’m still alive.”