This essay is reposted from my Substack newsletter, Action Potential, where it originally appeared on September 11, 2021. Since then, the second cousin I mention has passed away from liver cirrhosis. I find it interesting that both of my family members who were directly involved in 9/11 passed away shortly after the 10-year and 20-year anniversaries of the event. Both died in their 50s.
Following World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, I think it’s important to recognize the magnitude of 9/11’s impact on those who experienced it. We’re still losing people decades later due to the physical and mental health ramifications of September 11.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, my college roommate shook me awake, urging me to look out the window. “That’s the Twin Towers!” she shouted frantically, pointing to the heavy brown cloud of smoke I was able to see even before I had the chance to grab my glasses.
Our dorm room in Wayne, New Jersey, faced east, providing a clear view of the New York City skyline less than 20 miles away.
Like nearly everyone else in NYC and the surrounding area, I’ll never forget that day.
I’ll never forget gathering in the adjacent dorm room with my roommate and our two suitemates. Four freshman girls cuddled together on one bed, holding one another as we watched the news coverage showing various angles of the same smoke cloud we could see right out the window.
My father was supposed to fly home from Chicago that day and I had no way of knowing whether he was on one of those planes because phones weren’t working for some time. When I finally spoke to my mom, I learned that he was safe and getting ready to drive to New Jersey in a rental car.
Later, I learned that one of my second cousins, who worked in one of the towers, had made it out without physical injuries and was able to walk back to his home in Brooklyn. Another second cousin (I’m blessed with many) who worked in one of the towers was fortunately out of the office that day.
The only loved one I lost to 9/11 left this world a decade later, after a year-long battle with lung cancer. (note: since originally writing this, my other cousin, Douglas, who was working in the South Tower, has passed on.) Ginny Ann was one of FDNY’s firs
t female firefighters and, you guessed it, another second cousin of mine. Ginny Ann worked at ground zero for more than a month, a factor that most likely contributed to her cancer diagnosis.
Ginny Ann was a precious gem for so many reasons. She taught me the meaning of badass at a very young age. Before I could even comprehend what it must’ve taken for her, a petite but lively firecracker, to join the first class of firefighters that allowed women, I knew there was something special about her. For one thing, she turned her entire backyard into a turtle sanctuary, rescuing more than 20 turtles.
My earliest memory of Ginny Ann was at a family reunion in Montauk when I was probably 7 or 8. My little brother was teasing me, and I started running after him on the beach when I heard someone yell, “GET HIM, LAUREN! KICK HIS ASS!”
I turned to see Ginny Ann standing atop the porch railing, pumping her fist in the air as she repeated these simple instructions. Hearing an adult tell me to kick my brother’s ass — not out of malice, but to show him that I won’t take any shit — opened my mind up to a whole new world.
This, too, is something I’ll never forget.
In 2018, the town of Point Lookout, Long Island, named a street after Ginny Anne. She’s missed by many, and I think of her often.
Aside from remembering Ginny Ann, I can honestly say I’m surprised by how little else I have to say about 9/11.
I thought that after 20 years, I might have found the words, but they’re not there.
What I can do is describe the way I feel when I think about that day: fear, grief, tears welling up in my eyes, wanting to punch something but also wanting to curl up in a ball and hide. It’s pretty amazing how quickly these feels spring up, even after all that time.
Sometimes, I even get a little defensive when people who were much farther from NYC on that day talk about 9/11 lightly or, at least, not with what I deem to be an appropriate level of intense darkness.
I remember marking the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 while I was teaching English in Arequipa, Perú. I spent the day talking to my students about what happened and exchanging long hugs with my dear friend Matt, another teacher there who was also a New Yorker and a writer.
Eve Peyser — another writer whose work I absolutely adore — describes the “visceral surge of grief” she feels every time she talks about that day in this Vice article about her trip to Bar9Eleven in Texas. This article speaks of the commodification of 9/11 in general. It’s a great read that gets a solid A+ from me.
Take care of each other, friends.
Image via Pexels.