September 10, 2010

Our Time in NYC-- September 11th

It is cool here today in the Appalachian Foothills. I wore a sweater this morning, but now in the afternoon the sun is bright and the sky is blue and clear. There is something about the blue sky this time of year that I associate with the events of September 11, 2001, because the sky was so blue that day above the skyscrapers.

My sister Joan E. Phelps, my son Bryce Merlin, and I were in the city, having arrived by car from Ohio Sunday night, Sept. 9th. On Monday we visited Central Park (see photo with Joan and Bryce below) and went shopping. That evening we saw Michael Jackson's 30th anniversary concert.

We were exhausted and excited afterward and I was afraid I wouldn't sleep, so I took a Tylenol PM. The last thought I had before closing my eyes was that we'd catch the subway and go down to the World Trade Center first thing in the morning, around 8. We'd go up to the observation deck and show Bryce the Statue of Liberty. His father and I had been there before he was born, and I remembered the fantastic views. Bryce called the statue "the most beautiful woman in America" and I knew he would love the sights from the WTC.

That afternoon, Joan and I had an appointment at Publisher's Weekly. This was a big deal for Lucky Press, the publishing company I'd founded and Joan helped me to launch. We were from Ohio and this was only the second time I'd been in NYC.

(Photo: Bryce Merlin on the steps of the Parks building in Central Park)

Usually, Bryce and I wake up at 6:30 or 7:00. Invariably. But not this Tuesday morning. Bryce walked from his small adjoining room to my bedside. "Aren't you going to wake up, Mom?" he asked. I looked at the clock: 8:52 a.m. I couldn't believe it. The times I've slept past 8:30 a.m. I could count on one hand.

Joan woke up too and while I was in the bathroom she clicked on the TV. And then, well, you know... When the second plane hit, I sat on the bed stunned. How far away were we from the site? Should we close the windows we'd opened to let in the fresh air? What was happening?

We explained to Bryce, who has mental and physical challenges, that we would not be able to go to the World Trade Center, but that we would eat breakfast near the hotel. I didn't want to frighten him, but wanted him to know something sad and serious had happened ... was happening.

I took Bryce across the street for bagels and juice. Upon our return, Joan told us about the Pentagon. We took a walk after breakfast; the streets were so quiet. I will never forget the sound, the light, the sky, and the bus that drove up from the site, filled with people who looked dazed and dusty.

We stayed one more night and left in the morning. I'll never forget the site from the bridge, of the smoke and of the endless stream of traffic waiting for permission to enter the city. I'll never forget any of it; but someday I will be old, I will be dead, and 9/11 will be a story that people tell their grandchildren. There will be a monument, but no one will be alive who was there on that day. We will all join those who died. Life will go on without us. Will the buildings, the trees, the sky hold the memory of us at all?

There is nothing unusual in my story. I know that. There is nothing unique in my feelings or thoughts. I am part of a whole and yet alone too. When I returned home, I didn't want to sit at my desk in my home office and work ten hours a day, six days a week, any longer. I was more aware of what doesn't last.

I bought the book of all the obituaries of those who died: Portraits 9/11/01 (New York Times). I still have it, and for me it was very healing to read about these people. Their lives, their wonderful lives, lost. I mourned for them and realized my own story is pretty small, and my own life still needs a lot of work; but there is no guarantee I will have time to do the work that needs to be done within my mind and heart; the creation that is my life.

n the first few days back home as I watched TV obsessively I kept imagining being on a staircase with Bryce urging him to go faster, run! Run! I'm overweight and he is ungainly and his hearing aides would have clogged up... how frightening it would have been. Eventually I stopped worrying about something that never happened.

(Photo of Joan E. Phelps in front of "Lucky" sign, taken 9/9/10)

I don't believe "God spared me," for that means he didn't spare someone else. I believe in luck and in lack of luck, in coincidence, in being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then what we do with all that, and all that happens in the spaces of narrowly missing death or tragedy, that is where we find important lessons, if we can calm our pounding hearts long enough to pay attention.

A few years after 9/11, on Dec. 31, 2006, I had a much closer call with death. It wasn't a few miles away then, it was right there when I experienced a severe allergic reaction to CT dye in a hospital ER. I was more prepared for the sense of mortality this time.

Three months later, I met a wonderful man. We were married, moved to a great town, bought a house. Since 2001, I've written 2 books, published the work of other authors, and Mark has written 3 books as well. Joan has retired to Florida. Bryce has started working in a sheltered workshop and has had a girlfriend for 6 years now. My son Jesse has graduated from college, started a promising career and met a wonderful girl. My mother is a lovely healthy senior citizen; I've met so many wonderful writers in my work, illustrated two kids books, and gone on two cruises. I've done so much since 2001. I've returned to NYC twice: once with Jesse and once with Mark.

I feel so sad for those families who are missing their loved ones today, and every day since then. May God bless you with comfort, love and peace.


ausurfer said...

WOW. My wife and I were there the week before. I lost a friend in the WTC, and have not forgotten anything about where I was and what I was doing on that fateful day. Doubt I ever will.
I hope the families can continue to heal, though I have no idea how that might happen.

Susie Lindau said...

Beautiful post. I can understand why you changed your perspective and fine tuned your goals as a lot of us did. This story is a great reminder to make the most of each day!!

Anonymous said...

As I said on FB, I'm so glad you slept in! What a harrowing experience. xo Angie

Janice Phelps Williams said...

Thank you, Angie! Thanks, too, for visiting Appalachian Morning blog.

Dorothy said...

Hi Janice,
I came over from P.O.D. to read this blog post. You are a very interesting writer. I've read so many stories about people who narrowly missed being in that disaster. You described your story well.
I invite you to visit my blog Counting My Blessings

Janice Phelps Williams said...

Thank you, Dorothy, for stopping by and commenting on my 9/11 post. Yes, I will visit your blog too. Thank you!

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