The following are various things I wrote about 9/11 in the years after. To be updated.

It's been four years. Some of my ideals, politics and views on things have changed since that day. Some have not.

---- This is part 5, which is a collection essays from the years after

wake up, the world is ending My cousin Stan's tattoo. Stan is a Lt. with the NYFD in the hazmat unit. He spent several weeks at the cleanup site, coming home only to shower and sleep for an hour or so. He is retiring from the FD next monthThe thing I remember most about the early part of that day is the weather. It was a perfect day; the sky was a deep, cloudless blue and the air was filled with the comforting warmth that comes when summer starts slinking into autumn.

What I remember most about the moments after the news broke was my drive home from work. I fled my federal office building in a panic that day, still not sure if more attacks were coming, if they were happening elsewhere, if the world was ending. I drove east, towards my home, but kept looking back in my rear view mirror at the brown, smoky haze filling the sky. My hands were shaking and tears were streaming down my face and I was frightened, so frightened, because we didn't know. We did not know what would come next, or if that was the end. I looked at every car that drove next to me, at every other driver at the stop lights. They were all crying or wide-eyed or clutching their steering wheel so hard I could see their knuckles turning white.

When I got home, I woke Justin, who was still sleeping after spending all night working on a project. In my fear and disbelief, I blurted out something like, wake up the world is ending, and we turned on the television and stared for hours and I just remember this numbness going through me, the goosebumps of fear and horror that rose on my arms. Justin's mother called from Pennsylvania. It was her birthday. We talked to her for a while, assured her we were ok and then she told us to stock up on toilet paper. There was no point in wishing her a happy birthday.

What I remember most about the subsequent days is the sky and the silence. The roar of planes is a constant soundtrack when you live so close to an airport. But for those days, four of them I believe, there was not a sound coming from the skies. The silence was so huge, so cavernous, and the only thing you could see when you looked up to the sky was thin wisps of smoke rising from the west. Those days seemed like they were lived out in a dream world.

What I remember most about the nights are the candles. On the sidewalks and curbs, on stoops and porches and stairs and driveways, lined up like soldiers of flame. It was beautiful and sad, so very sad and I wondered how far a line of candles would stretch if we lit one for every victim, and the family members of every victim.

I remember these things because I never forget anything. I have never forgotten the night when my family stood out on the porch, flipping the porch light on and off in some odd celebration when the Vietnam War ended. I can remember what Natalie was wearing the day the Gulf War started - the day she took her first steps. I remember air raid drills in grammar school, questioning the futility of holding your head between your legs as bombs were going off and thinking that if it ever did come down to that, I was just going to run for it, out the front door of the school, up the slope, across the street and down the block all the way home where I would hold my mother tight and she wouldn't make me spend my last moments crouched in a hallway.

I keep every memory locked away, not just the big parts of the memories, but the little things too; the way the air felt, the way the sky looked, the smells and sounds that shared the moment with me. I write it all down, every last detail and I never forget anything.

What I remember about the first few nights after that day was hugging my children a little too tight, a little too often. I remember clinging to Justin and walking across the street to my parents' house every few minutes and just sitting there with them, not saying anything, just staring at the tv and crying. I remember feeling like one big walking cliche when I told everyone how thankful I was to have them in my life.

What I remember most about the next month is thinking how much this space meant to me at that time. How the people who read this weblog embraced me in my sadness and fear, how my words came to mean something to various people, how I had a place to get it all down, every last detail, every last sigh and tear, and how important it became to share. One year later, I still have that need, it is still important to me, and I will still continue to record every memory so that some day, I will remember everything; not just the funerals and memorial services and falling bodies and crumbling cement and steel, but the candles and the voices lifted in song and any glimpses of hope and love that lay among the rubble of the day.

three years later

I made a vow to myself to remain positive as the third anniversary of 9/11 approached.

Three years. In some ways, I've lived a lifetime since then. And sometimes, it feels like just yesterday I was standing in the parking lot at work, my eyes fixed on the ugly, brown haze of smoke and debris that enveloped the sky to the west.

There are people who have chastised my obsession with that day; they say I act as if it belongs to me, only. We all own a piece of 9/11, of course. The shape and form of that owned piece is different for everyone. It may look and feel like blame or remorse or a million other things, depending on your view.

The view from here is not as dark and murky as it was when I gripped the door handle of my car, practically paralyzed with fear and horror. That was three years ago this Saturday, when I wanted nothing more but to get home to my family yet could do nothing more than stare and cry.

A year passed. It was a long, hard year filled with questions, doubts, lingering fear and a subtle sense of panic that layered every move I made, every thought I had. We were shell shocked and our response to the world around us reflected that. I cried at random times. I had trouble sleeping. I paced and panicked and popped pills to stop it all. And between all my angst and anxiety, the sun rose and set, the flowers bloomed, my children played and the world, damaged and shaken as it was, went on.

Another year came and went. My kids grew an inch or two, I got married, relatives died, had babies and moved away. Life had a way of making me forget every once in a while. Anniversaries make you remember.

Two years ago, September 11, 2002, the view from here was much the same as it was the year before. I clung to my sadness and anger, wrapped those emotions around me like blankets. I wallowed not only in my own dark vision of the day, but in the darkness and despair of others, as well. It was needed, then. The shared experiences, the sympathetic tears, the virtual hand holding - they were needed. How else could we possibly get through the grief but to do it together?

Those feelings of darkness lingered long after the anniversary. Fall came and went, quickly fading into winter. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's. Would the new year be any different? Would 2003 look much the same as 2002 and the end months of 2001? Would the fear and anger ever dissipate? Those are the questions I asked myself as we rang in the new year. I wondered how others around me could be so joyous, so wrapped up in their celebrating when all around us, the world was in shambles.

And so 2003 marched on, bringing more changes, more births and deaths and sunrises, war was declared, the battle come down. We cooked dinners, shopped, drank, went to amusement parks and lived. We lived. And as September approached, so did my now annual anxiety and sadness. And once again, I asked everyone to wallow with me.

The Voices Project was therapeutic in many ways. For myself, for the people who contributed, for the people who read, it was a way to join hands again and share the bleak emotions that still welled up inside our hearts and souls. That is my piece of 9/11, the part I own. A little black lump of nothingness that sits sometimes on top of my heart and sometimes lodges itself in the pit of my stomach. I thought by engaging in a sort of group therapy through the project, I could dislodge that nothingness.

But it wasn't reliving my pain and agony of September 11, 2001 that did it for me. No, it was life. And I didn't even realize it at that the time, that the black lump of nothingness was shrinking.

I wrote on September 12, 2003:

I watched my son playing hockey with his friends in the driveway last night and my daughter chasing her little cousins around on the lawn and it felt so damn good. The air was cool, the sun was throwing off colors into the early evening sky and the jingle of the ice cream truck could be heard from blocks away. It was just one of those moments that you want to hold onto forever; you want time to stand still so we are always this happy and this joyous and this free.

Of course, it doesn't work that way, which is why we have cameras and camcorders and halfway decent memories. There are going to be days when the kids are screaming at each other instead of playing harmoniously together, where the neighbor's dog is taking a crap on your lawn and it's raining so hard your gutters are overflowing and someone is calling you with bad news.

No one remembers the exact moments of being ecstatically happy. No one says, oh on July 16, 2002 at 7:08 p.m., I felt a surge of happiness in my heart. But we all remember times and dates and intimate details of our moments of despair. Just as no one takes pictures or movies of their family members sobbing over the coffin of Grandma. Well maybe they do, but I don't.


2003 came to an end and I welcomed 2004 with a small ray of hope that it would bring better things. When I said that out loud to my husband, he asked what I meant by better things. Had the last years been so personally horrible or had I just internalized 9/11 to the point that my entire being was marked by the sights and sounds of that day?

I went back and read those paragraphs I wrote in September and I promised myself live 2004 in a different way.

No, I would never, ever forget. It's always there, it's an awareness that will never fully end. It's there when I see the cars with their 9/11 bumper stickers, honoring the dead. It's there when I watch the news, it's there on a day like this when the sky is blue and the air is crisp and it's....just like then. It's there, believe it or not, every time the digital clock shows the time 9:11. At all those times, it's like a small, cold hand touches me on the back. I shiver and remember. It's a surge of memories that come out me at once, not one particular picture or sound or memory; it's just a feeling. It's that small, black lump showing itself again. It may have shrunk but it will never, ever disappear.

It's September 2004. The third anniversary is in less than a week, which means this is the fourth year in a row I am spending at least one perfect weather day regurgitating every minute feeling of sorrow, despair, anger and disbelief.

I was all set to do the Voices Project again. I was ready to share stories, to remember, to ask how you feel three years on.

No.

That's what I told myself this morning. No.

I refuse to start myself down that long, rocky slope of depression again. I refuse to take this perfect, blue-sky day and spend it reliving days of darkness. I can't.

Tomorrow, my son starts his middle school career. My daughter starts high school. Time has a way of smacking you in the face when you need it most. I can't once again entrench myself in some virtual dark, dank basement where I'm huddled over the keyboard, weeping.

I have moved on. There, I said it.

Not moved on in the sense that I've forgotten or I don't think it's important. 9/11 will always be a defining moment in my life. It has shaped and colored my world like no other event. It has essentially changed who I am and who I'll always be. But all my writing and gathering of stories and wallowing will not bring Pete Ganci back. It will not bring back any of my father's friends, or any of your friends or relatives. It will only make my hurt feel fresh and it is not healthy to walk around with open wounds. Oh, I still have the anger and pain but, instead of trying to will them out of me by throwing myself into a mental re-enactment of that day, I've decided to let them be. I've learned to live with the little, black lump of nothingness and now I have learned how to not make that bigger than it should be. Nor smaller. It's the piece of 9/11 I own and I'd no sooner give that up than give up a limb.

Why? Because I've learned so much from carrying that around with me. I've learned a lot about myself and the people around me. I've learned much about the world. In a way, that black lump soaks up any new despair like a sponge. It's a place where I store things and I'm able to call up that anger or sadness when I need to.

But I don't need to now. What I need to do is enjoy the life I am grateful to have. I need to breathe the sweet, fall-like air and think not of death but of living. I have mums to plant, a new house to renovate, children who are growing up too fast for me to not enjoy every moment I have with them.

I am moving forward, I guess, not really moving on. I'm leaving behind the Voices Project and leaving behind my annual conscious decision to wallow. I am not leaving behind my despair and anger because to do that would be to forget, which I will never do.

I just want to live again, in a way where I won't react viscerally to every mention of 9/11. I think the only way to do that is to approach this anniversary in a completely different way than I have in the past. I approach it with hope and optimism and an eye towards the future. I think it's in my best interest to honor the dead by living. I can think of no other way to explain it and it might sound contradictory to you. I've wanted revenge on the terrorists for so long. Someone once said the best revenge is living well. So, perhaps, not cowering in fear or lashing out in anger as a result of 9/11 is the best revenge I can hope for right now.

And before you say I'm contradicting everything I stood for in the past three years, this "moving on" I'm talking about has nothing to do with forgetting who our enemies are and what they have done to us. It's moving on from a striclty emotional standpoint because one can only live inside an emotional train wreck for so long.

I think, above all, reacting to this anniversary with reverence rather than rhetoric, with hope rather than hate, with dared optimism rather than depression, is the best we can do for those who died.

This is the first and last thing I will write about the third anniversary of 9/11. I will attend a sunrise memorial on the beach this Saturday and I will whisper thanks to the heros and feel sorrow for all who died. And as the sun rises, I will greet the new day as another one in which to appreciate that I still can have absolute moments of happiness while still holding onto my piece of 9/11.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

michele.catalano@gmail.com

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