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Towers as they were being built, © melabee m miller

Eight years ago in Florence, Italy, it was 3 pm when it was 9 am in New York City. I was running a fire drill in a dormitory and the students trailed out slowly. I told them they could have died if there had been a real fire. They were unfazed.

One of the staff members ran into the office to tell us that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. What could that mean? I let someone else answer her. 

The professor living upstairs from the office, who had joked earlier on the phone, called and told me to listen. He told me the story of the first plane. He was stern and I thought it was another joke. I might have hung up on him.

Nothing made sense.

My boyfriend texted me, “Piccola, are you listening to the radio or watching the television?” I probably didn’t answer until later.

The New York school where I worked had been recently hit by lightning and had lost not only its alarm system, but also the cable television. After the Towers fell, we lost our connection to American internet, like Gmail and Yahoo. We became more and more isolated. 

A kind Italian, who was dating one of the staff members, stood in the television room and translated for the students. I worked with my colleagues to help find and alert the students. My mouth didn’t want to repeat the story.

When no one was looking, I ran out of the office and into the olive grove to call my family. My mother didn’t answer. I called my father. He didn’t answer; I left a message. I yelled and cursed at him. I wanted him to call me back and explain what the f*ck was going in the United States. In New York. Across the river from my home. Surely, he would be the one who could explain it. 

Someone had to be in charge. My legs started to fail me as I walked back to the office.

The students gathered by the dormitories, crying and trying to make phone calls. We let them use the office phones to call family members in New York, DC and in consulates throughout the world. We all needed to connect. 

That evening, my boyfriend brought me copies of the special editions of the local papers. We watched the BBC. The professor upstairs from the office came over. We sat close and tried to make sense of it through the repeating images. We mostly repeated ourselves. My boyfriend, who was Albanian, assured me that he had lived through war and this was not war. At least not in Florence.

I was able to get in touch with everyone I could think of. They were safe. My family called my great aunt and left messages for each other, knowing that she would be home. I was relieved, but remained shocked. It took a few days for me to agree to leave campus and the many phones we had there. 

I had to fly to the United States a few weeks later for consular reasons. My employer, in a meeting with a lawyer, made me sign a contract that I was choosing to fly to New York. If anything happened to me, they couldn’t be held responsible. To avoid agreeing to working illegally, I signed it.

In the plane, I fell asleep and dreamed of a crash. I woke with a stewardess throwing herself on me, begging me to stop screaming. 

Approaching land, I looked down at the gap in the skyline. The enormous space left behind.

As soon as I could, I went to Ground Zero. I walked by the memorials that began in Journal Square, Jersey City and ended downtown. I looked through the fence and watched what had been a recovery effort. 

This was where my mother had taken me and my childhood friend to see Santa Claus. Where the enormous puppet show took place. Where one of my best friends had her sweet sixteen. Where so many people died. I couldn’t focus my eyes.

On either continent, I felt both far away and close to what had happened.

 

***

 

Grief can be public, private and physical. The following is a poem I wrote a few years ago as I continue to try to comprehend not only what happened, but my own shock and fear. 

We have to remember and continue to connect with our loved ones.

 

The first

 

Her husband was not her first

love. Her first slept like a starfish,

limbs pointing off the twin bed.

She sketched his profile,

tried to contain him on one sheet

with black charcoal.

She was no one’s first love.

 

Freehand, she drew the parallel

lines. Steel, glass, concrete –

she couldn’t identify their joints,

only the boxes deleting air. Her skyline

shifted buildings, rearranged height.

She interpreted space, distance.

 

Some things are never

only ours. When they fell,

one after another, that grief

wasn’t hers to claim,

even if it was her first.

 

 

I invite you to use the Comments section to share your own story, poem, etc.

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My childhood friend passed when she was twelve. To comfort me, my father often pointed to his heart, or mine, and said that my friend continues through us, the living. Young and grieving, I didn’t always agree. 

Now that I am getting married in about a month, I think of her more often. I start to focus on her absences: she won’t be at the wedding ceremony or the reception. She wasn’t at my makeup trial when I wore foundation and bought my first tube of it at thirty-three. She missed the romantic proposal story in Italy, a country she never traveled to. She isn’t here. 

If she were, she would have giggled about a few of my wedding plans and kept things light. I bet she would have thought using dried fruit and vegetables in the centerpieces as absurd. When I panicked about various choices – is the musician for the ceremony the right kind? – She would have turned hear head a little, squinted with mischievousness and told a joke to make me laugh.

In seventh grade, I sat on the classroom counter, next to the art sink, when she told me that she was dying. She paced a little and looked down at the floor. Her extremities were swollen from her disease or medication; I didn’t understand. It was as if she had a speech prepared and she managed to get through every word. I wanted to jump off the counter and throw myself at her feet. Instead, I sat still on the counter, maybe swinging my feet a little, trying to understand her words. I couldn’t comprehend life without her. How could someone who was standing in front of me during recess, die and leave me? I felt selfish, even then. 

My memories are vivid. I went to sleep with a wet face, thinking that if I was really good, I’d get to see her again. I told the boys at my birthday party a few months later that I couldn’t answer their questions and reveal which one she’d liked. I’d promised her and I kept my promise. I liked a boy who listened to heavy metal and I pretended I liked it. I told my friend how much I liked it and later felt embarrassed when she laughed at the lyrics. After all, we were still middle school girls.

She remains present. I still have part of her phone number memorized. I wear a bracelet like the one she used to wear; her mother had it made for me and another friend after the funeral. I toast her birthday and think about her on the January anniversary of her death. It seems to always snow that day, like it did in 1989. 

Looking through my pink fabric scrapbook with pictures, letters she wrote and decorated with silver stamps, I am shocked by how young we were. In one letter, she describes how nice the nurses are at the Mayo Clinic. I probably wrote back about my summer at camp sleeping in a bunk bed under a girl from N.Y. As a girl, worried about when I’d get to shave my legs for the first time, I never could have imagined my future living in Michigan with my fiancé, let alone what hers would have been.

I want to honor her at the wedding. I’ve thought about various options: wearing her picture in a locket, putting something on my bouquet, displaying a picture of us, including her in a toast, or mentioning her in a reading. 

I will honor her by focusing on living the life she influenced. I will love my fiancé, bridesmaids, family members and friends who will celebrate us, including her mother. I will love her.

She will be at the wedding, in our hearts and actions. How could she not be?

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Modern LoveSunday’s Modern Love article, Once Political, Now Just Practical, by Sara Sarasohn, went beyond the gay marriage debate and dove into the role of a wife (in the context of feminism and gay marriage.) I enjoyed reading her contemporary and personal response to the 1971, Ms. Magazine essay by Judy Syfers, “Why I Want a Wife.”

If you are married or considering getting married, how do you define your roles?

I sometimes lament the fact my actions and interests are more “feminine” than I expect. (I cook, write poetry and teach. I tend to do many of the chores around the house.) I do not consider myself to be a “traditional” woman, yet, I might be more traditional that I would label myself.  

This morning over breakfast, my fiance’ and I discussed what untraditional things I do or could do if I wanted to. I couldn’t think of something that would fit in that category that I would aspire to doing.

Are we lucky enough to live in an era when everything is open to women? Perhaps everything is an option for women who are lucky enough to have certain educational opportunities, but there are many fields that remain difficult for a woman. I have experienced sexism throughout my career and outside of the home (that’s for another post.) At home, however, I don’t feel pressured into doing anything in particular. I truly enjoy many of the “traditional” things that I do (ok, maybe not dusting.)

Maybe the question is: how does the world see me? I would hate to have my actions suggest to a younger woman that she is required to do the things that I choose to do.

I hope that our post-feminist world, as it is called at times, allows us to make the choices we want to, including those within the more traditional realm.

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