This Year Feels Different

For the longest time, I was affected by 9/11 the way every New Yorker was affected — feeling devastated that this had happened to our state, our country. Feeling intense fear about heading to New York ever again. Feeling sadness, of course, for the victims, for people who did what so many of us do every day — head out to work without a second thought. Nobody expected that day to end the way it did.

Before the attacks, I spent a lot of time at the World Trade Center. It sounds frivolous to say now, but it was a place where I saw free oldies concerts. I remember getting a donut from Krispy Kreme, going to claim my seat, enjoying some music. I remember staring at this imposing building, almost not believing how tall it was. I remember feeling jealous of the people who would go back to work after the concert was over while I was unemployed.

The day it happened I remember being awakened by a word. Fire. My cousin, now long gone, had called our house to tell us what happened. At first, I thought it was a fire in our house, but then I realized it was not. Bit by bit, the awfulness of what had happened began to sink in. I took two internships after 9/11, one in downtown, and I remember walking the streets looking for nuclear shelters I could hide in should a dirty bomb go off.

I worried about one person after 9/11. A girl I had worked with. I’d had this terrible job right out of school, one of the most toxic offices I’d ever worked in, but this one girl was so lovely to me. She hugged me the day I left and sided with me against someone who was being tremendously cruel and unfair. I thought she worked at WTC and I was happy to discover her name was not on “the list” of those who had died.

For a long time I would believe I did not know anyone who died from the attack.

A family friend died last week. He and his family lived two floors above ours. I was very close with the little girl when we were younger. I always felt like her older sister. We lost touch as the years go on, in the way you do.

Her father was, in some ways, like an uncle to me, when we were younger. He was a jovial figure. He wasn’t perfect — none of us are — and sometimes he got under my skin, in the way people do, but overall, in retrospect, he was a good guy. He loved his family very much. He would always try to be helpful, in any way he could. He was very good at fixing things. He loved his wife so much he converted to Judaism for her. He loved his daughter like you can’t imagine. He loved nature. He loved technology.

He worked for the MTA. He was doing his job, like the people in the buildings on 9/11 were doing theirs. He thought he would be fine. The tragedy was over. He was perfectly safe doing his job. He thought.

About a decade ago, he came down with cancer. I was shocked and upset when I heard. At first, I was worried, but he seemed to be treating it, doing well. Awhile back, my mother told me they thought he’d gotten it from 9/11. But he was getting treatment, doing well.

I didn’t talk to him much, if at all. It would have been awkward. I was not friends with his daughter anymore. We had no reason to speak with or see each other. But I thought about him constantly over the years.

I ran into him about a year ago. By accident. He did not look like he was doing well. He was thinner. I think I remember him saying he was winded just from walking around the drugstore. And I’ll never forget his last words to me. “I have one foot in the grave.”

What do you say to something like that? I didn’t know what to say. I don’t remember what, if anything, I said.

He died last week, right on the cusp of the 15th anniversary of 9/11. His type of cancer is considered a 9/11 cancer. He lived longer than most do with it, but not long enough for those who love him, or even knew him a bit. Without the cancer, he might have lived another decade or more. Without the cancer, he certainly wouldn’t have suffered so much in his last years here on earth. Neither would his family.

Losing someone you expect to lose and losing someone you don’t expect to lose are two very different things. When my cousin, who I was very close to, died suddenly of a heart attack I was gutted for years. I felt like one huge blob of grief. This is a different kind of death. I feel a quieter sense of sadness. It is unfair. He did not deserve to go this way. His wife did not deserve to become a widow. His daughter did not deserve to lose her father. I recently read in the paper that Christie Whitman apologizes for not telling people that the air was dangerous after 9/11. Well, that doesn’t do anybody much good now.

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