Sunday, September 19, 2010

In The Blink Of An Eye

As many of you know, I've been struggling lately, with my situation, and life in general. Living with paralysis (especially a high level, complete spinal cord injury) is an ongoing struggle. Last weekend marked the ninth anniversary of 9/11, and it got me thinking of how fleeting life really is. So much has changed for me, since that fateful day, it's almost unbelievable. I'm certain, if anyone would have told me then, what I know now, about the world and my personal life, I would've have surely thought they were insane. Both 9/11 and my accident, have been hard realities to cope with. Both situations are life lessons, in how little control we have over our own lives, and how quickly life can change, or even end.

Although I thankfully did not lose a loved one that day, I know of people that have, within my community and even had a student, that had lost her father. I'm sure, for those families that did lose a loved one, the harsh reality of life's transient nature is still a raw, painful reality. While I'm sure nine years seems like a short time, to the victims families, I'm guessing most people have put the events of that day in the back of their minds. Yes, everyone else pays their respects, and honors 9/11 as a memorial, but I doubt most people take the time to reflect on the lessons of that day, or give thanks for the fact that they are still healthy, and alive. For most people, the after effects of 9/11 are a distant memory, as is the thought that each day is a gift. People tend to forget life's lessons, unless they have a constant reminder of its consequences. I mention my accident, as an example, because I live with the after effects of that day, every day. I can't put that day in the back of my mind, just as those people who were directly effected, by the 9/11 attacks, will be reminded of that day, every day.

I'm sure everyone old enough to remember the day of September 11, 2001, will never forget the details of that day. Living on the East Coast, New Jersey specifically, had a huge impact on how I was effected personally, by the terror attacks of that day, and how the attacks still effect me to this day. The Twin Towers, and lower Manhattan, had been a familiar sight my entire life. Growing up in Union County, I could often see the NY skyline, on clear days. My family moved a bit further south, when I entered high school, but about half of my neighbors in Old Bridge were all former New Yorkers, and most of them commute to the city every morning, by bus. My senior year, I dated a boy from Queens and went into New York regularly. He taught me how to navigate the subway system, which I love, and miss riding. As a college student, I took the train into the city at least once a month, my entire four years. I always had assignments to complete, by visiting the museums and galleries, plus I loved spending time downtown in Chinatown and Little Italy. Many times, I'd take the train into Manhattan by myself, and spend all day at the M.E.T. working on term papers, or just for fun. One of my favorite things to do was bring my sketchbook with me and just people watch, and wander the Egyptian and Asian sections of the M.E.T. Chinatown was my spot for my anime fix. Back then (1999-2003), anime (Japanese animation) was nowhere near as popular as it is now, and fans had to wait months, or years for current shows to be imported. I had a favorite shop on Lafayette St., where I'd buy ten to twenty VHS tapes at a clip. I was such a good customer that the shop keepers actually recognized me by face. A perfect day would be spent with my best friends, perusing the Chinatown shops, for anime, posters and memorabilia, then hit Little Italy for some coconut gelato, and take the train home, with my arms full of bags stuffed with all of my finds.

It just so happens, that I was taking a black & white photography course, in the fall of 2001. I had gone to lower Manhattan the Sunday before the attacks, to buy all of my photography supplies. That train ride was the last time I saw the towers standing, in person. Looking back, I'd like to kick myself for not photographing them, but who could've imagined they wouldn't always be there? The following day, my brother and ex-boyfriend flew into Newark airport, on a return trip, from FL and I remember my mom (step-mom) mentioning something about a small fire at the airport, which also felt eerie the following day, when we discovered one of the planes used in the attacks, had departed from Newark (the airport I've used most frequently in my life). Tuesday morning, I was on my normal commute to school, stuck in rush hour traffic, when the woman on Hot 97 (local music station) reported a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers. I distinctly remember thinking, "What moron flies that low, near the city?", assuming it was a small personal plane (in all honesty, I pictured an old fashioned bi-plane). Irregardless, I figured my rap station wasn't the best source for news, and decided to switch to a local news station. When I changed the station, an eyewitness was in mid conversation describing the crash, when he suddenly says, "Oh S**t, another plane just hit the buildings!" The announcer immediately cut the man off and started fumbling around, saying how the station couldn't confirm the man's claims. Within seconds however, the announcer says, that in fact, they had confirmed the eyewitness report with the AP. In that instant, everything changed. It was as if everyone around me, including the announcer (by the tone of his voice), had realized that there was no way that these crashes could be mistakes; these were deliberate attacks. People started pulling over and hopping out of their cars and whipping out cell phones, I imagine, in effort to locate family members, or friends. I continued on my way to school, and met up with a professor, that was my partner for a Freshman course, we were assigned to co-teach that morning. The campus was a bizzar mix of silence and chaos. There were some people still in classrooms, completely unaware of what was going on. In contrast, there were other areas where people were buzzing around, frantically trying to call loved ones, or groups of people, huddled around radios. The professor and I decided to head over to the University Center, where there were several tvs. It was already crowded in the lobby as we entered, and everyone was glued to their spot, looking up at the pictures of the black smoke, billowing out the side of the towers. I can remember thinking, "It'll be ok. They'll evacuate the buildings and be able to repair the damage." Only a few moments after that thought, I watched the first tower come tumbling down. The whole crowd gasped, and people started crying (including me), and hugging strangers. Not long after, the second tower collapsed, and we decided to head back to the office, still in shock.

Naturally, the University announced it would be canceling classes, so the professor and I went to our classroom to inform any students that might show up unaware. The eight o'clock classes were all letting out, and most of those people were learning about the attacks for the first time. Some of our students showed up, and I remember one girl in particular, that was in total distress, because they had closed off the city, and she had no way home and had not been able to reach her family by phone. I offered for her to come stay with me, if she needed too, but she declined. Thankfully, her family was fine, in the end. Back at the office, a good friend of mine, was also in a panic, over his dad, who was also eventually found. I called my boyfriend (at the time), to see if he had heard all that was going on. He worked for the phone company, so I was unsure if he'd had a chance to hear the news (because he was constantly in and out of his van, and various buildings). He was working in Newark at the time, and turns out that he was actually able to witnessed the buildings fall firsthand. It all seemed so surreal. With classes canceled, and work closing (I worked on campus), I decided to track down my best friend. It happened to be her twentieth birthday that day. Once I found her, and her boyfriend, we headed to her house and spent the rest of the day, glued to CNN. I'm sure it's one birthday she'll never forget.

In the weeks that followed, I stopped watching the news. I had begun having nightmares, of the poor people jumping from the burning buildings. I couldn't stomach seeing the images after a few days. Instead, I decided to go around New Jersey, and photograph all the makeshift memorials, that had popped up everywhere. The NJ Historical Society had asked my professor if he would help them document the memorials. Both my professor and I were interviewed byNJN, which is a a local tv station, about our roles in the project. A few of my classmates and I had our photographs displayed at the NJ Historical Society, in Newark, as part of a tribute exhibition. Ironically, the thing I remember most about the exhibit, was not so much the art, as book they had, listing all the victims from New Jersey and their respective towns. I can remember flipping through the pages and thinking about all the families that had been impacted, and how many lived in town I knew. It was a very moving experience.

About a week after the attacks, my stepmother began working with FEMA, as a crisis counselor. She worked under a special grant, named Project Phoenix, that provided free counseling services for victims' families, survivors and all the first responders. They were set up in Jersey City, and would ferry the people back and forth, to allow people to place mementos at the sight, and grieve. My mom can't talk about it much (for confidentiality reasons), but I remember some of the horrific descriptions of the site itself and can only imagine the terribly sad things she witnessed. I was (still am) very proud of her, for the work she did under that grant, which lasted at least a year (I'm a bit fuzzy on details). I'm sure she feels that way too. So many people (myself included) want to help, in a time of crisis, but don't know how, or can't. It's horrible, feeling helpless. The only downside (if you consider it that way), to my mom working at ground zero, is that she is now one of thousands, that has to be concerned (and has been examined for) with health related issues, due to all the toxins that were in the air. I'm sure all the first responders, survivors, and people like my mom, have long lasting emotional, and/or physical reminders of that day.

When I think about 9/11, or my accident, I can't help but still be in shock at how fast life can change. My whole life I've heard people say stuff, like "You never know, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow." However, when you're young and healthy, it's so easy to take life for granted. The unfortunate truth of the matter is, life can change in the blink of an eye; it doesn't matter how young, or healthy you are. Both September 11, 2001 and my accident are proof of that fact. The people that died in those towers were minding their own business, working. I'm sure the great majority woke up that morning, and started the day like any other day, and naturally, had no clue that they would never return home again. Just as, a split second mistake changed my life forever. One minute, I was healthy, happy, on my feet, and the next I was paralyzed, forever dependent on others, and all of my dreams were shattered. Although I didn't die, there is a great part of me that feels missing, and I do mourn over the person I was. In many ways, my life ended the moment I broke my neck; the life I had built, and the plans I had made. In retrospect, I wish I would have savored every moment on my feet. Knowing what I know now, magnifies all of my regrets. Every mistake, moment, or opportunity I didn't take, or missed out, seems intensified, because I know I'll never be able to have a second chance at experiencing them. Once time has passed, you can never get it back.

Some people try to protect themselves from disaster by avoiding life all together. I can remember my parents being wary of me going back into the city, after 9/11, and didn't agree with me traveling overseas in 2003. They were certainly not alone in their fears. Many people to this day, avoid big cities and/or flying, for fear of attack. I don't agree with that mentality, because I think it plays into what terrorists want; for us to stop living. I think living in fear, is the exact opposite of the lessons we should learn from catastrophic, life changing events. That is, that life is temporary, and that no one knows what tomorrow will bring. As cliche as that might sound, it is the truth and there are a million ways that life can change, and catch you completely off guard. Of course, it is important to be cautious, and mindful of the decisions you make, but it is equally important to recognize that there are always going to be factors outside of your control. For those people that are fortunate enough to be healthy and be able to care for themselves, the message, is to really enjoy life, and recognize how lucky you truly are. Once your health is gone, all the "problems" you think you have become secondary. Once you're gone, you're gone, so embrace your health and life, while you have it. Take the time to reflect and be grateful for what matters most, your health and the people you love.

1 comment:

  1. It's crazy how quickly everything can change, isn't it? And yes, that was one birthday I don't think I'll ever forget.