It’s raining in New York today, September 11, 2018.
If the weather always matched our moods and emotions, like so often happens in books and movies, then it would storm on this day each year for a few lifetimes.
It wasn’t raining in NYC seventeen years ago. Ask anyone there on that day and they’ll tell you how beautiful it was, not too hot, with a perfect sky, unmarred by any clouds to obscure the bright sun.
As sometimes happens in stories and in real life, the weather’s perfection that day acted in counterpoint to the horror that was experienced in the air on four planes and on the ground in NYC, Washington, and throughout America and the rest of the civilized world.
On September 11, 2001, I was living in NYC. I was a young attorney working for a Midtown law firm and miles away from the World Trade Center. I didn’t witness the attack on the Towers nor the immediate consequences suffered by those in the buildings or the area around them. Those things I saw only on TV and the internet, like the rest of the world. I knew no one who worked in the Towers or who was killed.
While I wasn’t a direct observer of the attack, I did experience some of the indirect aftereffects. I was one of the many, fearful of the next attack, who jumped at any sudden noises of planes in the air. I saw streets virtually abandoned save for the vehicles of first responders traveling south to lend aid. Like so many others, I tried in vain to call loved ones to let them know that I was alright, yet was frustrated by messages of overloaded circuits.
I have so many other memories, but yet, some of the most vivid and gut-wrenching ones were from the days afterwards. I was living on the Upper East Side, miles further from Ground Zero. My firm closed its offices for the week, leaving me to spend those days in my apartment or wandering around 86th street, stopping every so often to gaze southwest and wonder whether any survivors would be found there, in the wreckage.
Even miles away, I was witness to devastation. Virtually everywhere I looked, I saw homemade posters with pictures of smiling people and desperate words. “Have you Seen This Man?” “Help Find This Woman.” My heart broke looking at these posters and, even more so, as I witnessed on a couple of occasions, people placing them on poles and subway walls. I sympathized with them but could only guess at what they felt. I had no idea of their pain and despair or the glimmer of hope that they clutched closely within them.
The woman who, two years later, would become my wife, Mary Kay Duffy, was one of those people. On the days following 9/11, she and her family traveled through the City, posting pictures and searching hospitals lists looking for her brother, Michael Joseph Duffy.
On the day of the attack, Michael was a bond salesman for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, an investment banking firm, and worked on the 89th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He had started the job a few weeks earlier and was excited for the new opportunity. Michael was seven days away from his 30th birthday when he was killed.
In the weeks and months after we met, Mary Kay would describe Michael to me. He was charismatic, well-loved by friends and family (often to the point of virtual worship), and, many times, the center of attention. Michael was quick to smile and joke and he was intensely loyal. He was a special person and my wife’s best friend.
Mary Kay also told me about the days after 9/11 and the hopes she held that Michael had been found and was unconscious in a hospital somewhere. She described her family’s efforts to find him and the pictures they posted in the City. She also told me, with words and without, about the pain, desperation, and despair that they felt.
From her words, I understood the emotions that she felt back then and that she feels virtually every day since Michael’s death. Those emotions are especially strong on the anniversaries. I also know that, while the pain is not as sharp or as immediate, the anniversaries have not become any easier. I understand, yet I truly do not comprehend. How can I, when I did not live through it?
In December 2001, I discovered a poem,”The Song of the Lost” by Neil Gaiman that, for me, reflects the feelings that my wife described to me. It was published by Marvel Comics in Heroes: The World’s Greatest Super Hero Creators Honor The World’s Greatest Heroes, 9-11-2001″ with artwork by Jai Lee:
It’s been seventeen years since 9/11, when the man who would have been my brother-in-law was killed with over three thousand other innocents. The World Trade Center has been rebuilt into the Freedom Tower and overlooks beautiful memorials and a museum where Michael’s name is immortalized.
Yet, while the attack’s physical destruction has been repaired, the price from the emotional destruction continues to be paid. Yes, life has moved on for us as well as others. Mary Kay and I have been married for almost fifteen years and have a great life. We have three beautiful children. My wife has an incredible business that she built and that rewards her immensely. I even have a niece who was born on this day, ten years ago. We have happiness and the sun often shines.
Yet, I know my wife, along with so many others, still suffers from that day. Every day, and on this day especially, she still misses her brother and she recalls how he was lost. She cannot, and would not, ever forget him.
Let the rain fall, then, so that we are all reminded, if at least for a day, the hell of the cost that she and all of us have suffered.
For more about Michael and fourteen other 9/11 victims, please check out Finding Fifteen by Timothy P. Oliver.