Current affairs

Sliding Doors — 9/11


Today is Alex’s first day of nursery school.  It’s a special day — another first in his young life and one that I know will be filled with our usual ironic lament that “he’s all grows up.”

It’s also Tuesday.

It’s also September 11th.

WTC planeHow could they start school on September 11?  I say that to myself whenever something good (or really anything) is planned for 9-11.  After 11 years, I still don’t think things should be planned on this day.  It feels wrong, like nothing good should happen — our way to honor those that had fallen.  In my mind I know that doesn’t make sense — life goes on — but I can never shake that feeling and I don’t think I want to.

On 9-11, I was in Washington D.C., actually Bethesda, at an FDA Advisory Committee Meeting that I didn’t need to go to. (Didn’t we all just travel back then without giving it a second thought?)

I had flown into Dulles after midnight on the morning of 9-11 and was supposed to fly back to San Francisco either Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, I can’t remember, except that I had packed for a one-day quick turnaround, even though my parents wanted me to jump up to NYC to visit them after the meeting.

I imagine that everyone has their own 9-11 story.  I’m fortunate enough that while mine may be fairly interesting to some, and it’s uniquely mine, it’s also fairly benign compared to so many others.  Some of those stories belong to friends who lost someone close to them — a friend, co-worker, family member, some who worked at the World Trade Center and walked home covered in ash.  They have the real and heartbreaking stories.

World Trade Center rises again

World Trade Center rises again

I tend to remember or think about things from my past in brief glimpses that sometimes seem random or inconsequential. If you asked me about 9-11, I may have trouble recounting major things of the day, but I would remember what I would deem “flashes” that happened that day and the days that followed.  They stick with me and are as vivid now as they were then:

  • I remember a colleague coming into the FDA meeting and whispering to me that a small plane had hit the Twin Towers, and I remember thinking I’ll check the lobby TV at a break (remember – no twitter, no texting, no smart phones).
  • I remember a man in the lobby of the hotel yelling to everyone and no one in particular, “PLEASE! I need to get to New York, my wife works at the World Trade Center, I’ll pay one thousand dollars to anyone who can drive me to New York right now.”  I wish I knew what happened to this man and his wife. I’ve always wondered whether she made it out alive and I know I’ll never know.
  • I remember wanting to get to New York to be with my family.  Maybe I just wanted to be close to them, but I think I just so associate myself with being a New Yorker and it was my responsibility to be in my city.
  • I remember saying “It’s gone” to a financial analyst standing next to me as we both watched one of the towers fall and he said to no one in particular, something like “Oh my god, my office is there.”
  • I remember that so few people left the FDA meeting.  Looking back, I can only think we were in shock.  I left for long periods of time to watch the lobby TV with others, but the meeting went on as if nothing happened.  In fact, I remember some people getting really mad that others (including me) kept their phones on and they would turn to the back of the room and give a dirty look every time our phones rang.  Yes, that seriously happened.
  • I remember an FDA official announcing that the Capitol Building and Camp David had been hit.
  • Most of all, I remember the sound of my dad’s voice when I finally was able to get through to my parents in Staten Island (realizing in an instant that they had mistakenly thought I might be on a plane on Tuesday morning). I don’t think he could ever duplicate the sound of his voice if he tried. Perhaps it was the collision of his voice as it moved up to his mouth with his heart as it raced back down to its normal position. A combination of relief, shock and fear.  As a parent now, I think I may understand that feeling better. It makes me sad to know that so many parents didn’t get that same opportunity.
A memorial in Park Slope Brooklyn honors the fallen firefighters of Squad Company #1 (12 of 27 firefighters died).

A memorial in Park Slope Brooklyn honors the fallen firefighters of Squad Company #1 (12 of 27 firefighters died).

In the months (and years) that followed, I often found myself thinking about all of the un-imaginable situations people found themselves in.  Would I have jumped? Would I have stopped to help someone down the stairs or race down on my own?  Would I have agreed to storm the cockpit or comfort the person next to me (or need comforting)?  Would I be courageous?  Would it matter?

Most of all, when I think of 9-11, I think of “Sliding Doors,” a Gwyneth Paltrow movie where doors to a train close on her and the movie follows her along parallel paths: one in which she gets on the train and one where she misses it.

It’s a code that Amy and I use when fate or destiny seem to have made something wonderful happen in our lives.  How we met…of course, Sliding Doors.  How Alex came to be our son (a blog for another day), of course, Sliding Doors.  It’s shorthand we use for all the things that need to happen in order to make one event go the way it goes, and a reminder of how a simple alteration to the “plan” could have changed everything.

I think about the people who just made their flight, the people who just missed it.  The people who called in sick.  The fireman who covered for a colleague, the cop who was late to work, the flight attendant who took an extra shift, the stock broker who drew the short straw to grab breakfast for colleagues before heading up to the 101th floor.  The deliveryman who raced to make the elevator.  Every single story, a Sliding Door that opened or closed.

And I think about all the parents who told their bosses they would be late to work so they could drop off their kid on the first day of school.

And I think about all the people who didn’t.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Hank Plank
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Rob Gross
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Wallyg

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