I overslept on this fateful morning twenty years ago. What an infinitesimal minor inconvenience to start this catastrophic day. I was a medical student living in New York at the time. Because of the terrorist attack, there was a brief power outage in our dormitory buildings. My alarm clock did not go off as programmed; instead it went off an hour later to a pre-set blaring noise that came with the manufacturer’s setting. That was odd. I got out of bed, and walked over to my window.
From my 23rd floor bedroom window, I routinely looked for the twin towers before I dressed. It was guaranteed a clear and sunny day if I could see all the way to the twin towers. On Tuesday September 11th 2001, what I saw instead was black smoke. I rubbed my eyes and thought that perhaps I had left my contact lenses on the night before. Black smoke kept bellowing up from the towers. In disbelief, I turned on the television, hoping to get an explanation for what I was seeing. The smoking twin towers were glaring back at me from the screen, duplicating the view from my window. Hijacked planes. Our country was under attack.
The ensuing hours were spent trying to locate my family members especially my mother, who had planned on taking an out-of-town relative to the city that morning. I had just celebrated a milestone birthday at the famed Windows on the World. Located on the top floor of the North Tower, “The Window”, as it was nicknamed, offered us the magnificent view of the sprawling New York City. I had suggested a nice breakfast up there. All the phone lines were busy. It was impossible to actually talk to anybody. Back then, my mother did not own a cell phone. All my Tuesday classes were cancelled until further notice. Everyone was confused and in shock. My fingers shook trying to dial the phone for the n-th time. It wasn’t until many heart wrenching hours that I was finally able to get through and speak with all of my family members in various boroughs of New York that day. Everyone was accounted for and safe. Mom was stuck in the subway in Queens, and never made it to the North Tower that morning. For many, that tremendous sense of relief – where your quick intake of breath was so violent that it came out animalistic, like a noise between a sob and a scream, but you did not care who could hear you – never came that day. For many New Yorkers, the twin void remained.
Until this day, I can not bring myself to visit Ground Zero. I had attended to many patients while working as a medical intern at a hospital on the Lower East Side a couple of years later. We never traded stories. We never talked about that day. It was a wound so deep that you just did not want to scrape the scab. We held a memorial in our school auditorium for our lost faculties and loved ones. I was engaged to a wonderful boy at the time. A boy whom I did not love enough. I ended the engagement soon after, because he deserved more, and so did I. I realized that life was too short to allow for certain compromises. New Yorkers came together to mourn for the lives lost; to help our neighbors in meaningful ways; to connect by opening our doors and sharing our meals.
Fast forward twenty years later, our whole world is under attack. This time multiple variants of SARS-CoV2. This time more than 3000 people. Way, way more, in fact. I am again reminded that life is too short. This time, I have a boy I love so deeply that I want my vision to be filled with him and our daughter when I take my last breath. The twin void remained to teach us, but have we learned our lesson?