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9/11: Experiences, Reflections, Changes

I spent the summer of 2001 writing my book Understanding Your Grieving Heart After a Loved One’s Death. The evening before 9/11 I was developing the press plan and rejoicing because the printer had called that Monday to say the galleys had been shipped via UPS and I should expect them in a few days. Those books didn’t arrive for over four weeks.

Since I worked through the night, it was my former husband who woke me to the words, “Mar, I think you better get up…a plane has hit the World Trade Center.”

Stunned and still trying to wake up and comprehend what he said, something inside knew this was intensely serious and I jumped from bed and ran to the living room in our Central Florida home.

I remember standing there in the middle of the room with my mouth open and my hands covering it. I never sat down. We just stood there, almost at attention, in reverence of all that was happening to my beloved city where I lived most of my life.

I thought of all the people who worked in those towers and we estimated there would be nearly 25,000 people in each of them. Just the thought of losing 50,000 people was incomprehensible.

Being the video queen that I was back then, and to some degree still am, I immediately searched for VCR tapes (back then) and popped one in. I asked my husband to continue taping and we did just that, taping all the events for nearly a week.

There were times over the last ten years when I wanted to watch that footage again, but it was just too sad. Perhaps one day I will move it to DVD and have it available for a long lost weekend.

I started to think of all the people who might be there whom I knew. There were many.

First my cousin, Peter. He had been a FDNY firefighter for many years, like his father, my Uncle Pete before him, and had taken the Lieutenant’s test. It took a while to find out he was safe, but had lost so many of his friends that day.

He would spend weeks down at the Trade Center in the recovery effort and on the next Sunday was promoted to Lieutenant since so many had perished. It was a bittersweet moment and one our family will never forget. We still have the picture of him in his dress blues with his devoted and wonderfully supportive wife, Maureen by his side as he held his first daughter, Kaitlin, only a few years old then.

Later we would talk via instant messenger usually after midnight when he couldn’t sleep and I remember how difficult it was for him. And why wouldn’t it be. He had been to dozens of funerals and being such an amazing man, his heart was always so giving and loving toward everyone he knew and even those he didn’t.

To this day, I have such great respect for him and such deep appreciation for all he’s been through during the past ten years.

As the days passed, we heard about my cousin Sharon’s husband, Mike who lost his cousin. His aunt was devastated and although I never met her, I remember sending a bunch of my books for a fundraiser they did on Staten Island. I was glad to do that.

We also heard about my cousin’s husband, Brian, who works for Port Authority and lost many friends but also almost lost his life trying to get out of the towers, walking dozens of flights to safety.

Years later, I would hear his story in person when we had a chance to reflect, ironically when I was recovering from a life-threatening accident and he graciously would pick me up and bring me to church.

Both Brian and Peter were so steadfast in their willingness to help me when I was recovering from all those broken bones, and I will never forget their love and care for me.

Then there was my brother’s former girlfriend, Nina, who lost her brother Andrew in the towers. I stayed with her a few years after the tower fell when I moved back to NYC and I remember the two of us reminiscing about Andrew and his life and work and loves. She loved and missed him so much.

I also remember meeting and exchanging books with Julia Rathey, whose husband, David was killed in the towers that day. She had written a book entitled What Children Need When They Grieve which I thoroughly enjoyed and felt was so wonderfully written, not to mention all the help it brought to suffering families in the years following 9/11.

I was so happy when she shared, years later, that she would remarry a great guy named Gregg. She deserved to be happy again.

As I stood in the living room not moving, not speaking, in total shock, one of the things I started to remember was my pictures. I frantically started to search for them in my boxes.

I knew they were there…but where were they. You see I have celebrated three milestone in my life in the towers.

The night I finished my MBA from Fordham, my parents picked me up after the last exam and we enjoyed dinner together at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top with the most magnificent view of the entire city.

I remember taking home the empty bottle of champagne and writing on it the date and place. That bottle was kept on the top shelf of my living room hutch for many years. I often wonder if I’ll find it one day among all my memorabilia in deep storage. That would be amazing.

Another memory was when I got engaged on the Observation Deck of the Twin Towers. While we had decided many months before to get married, it was on the 4th of July that he actually presented the ring and formally asked for my hand. We went to the restaurant afterwards and had champagne.

When my 40th Birthday rolled around, there was no other place I wanted to celebrate. Funny thing…I remember being in the elevator with Michael Bloomberg that night going up to Windows on the World. I knew immediately who he was, long before he entered politics.

It was those pictures especially I wanted to find. I dug and dug. I couldn’t find them fast enough. My husband kept asking me what I was looking for and I remember just flipping through hundreds of pictures until they finally appeared.

It was then I wept.

I handed them to him. The best two pictures we had inside the trade center. He took one of me and I one of him across the table celebrating my 40th Birthday. The lambchops arranged so perfectly on the plate…my favorite.

I looked at the booths we had been sitting in. I remembered the look of the restaurant, so open and elegant. I thought about how all those booths were now disintegrated. All that steel, and all those people who probably were serving breakfast that morning.

I have been back to the World Trade Center or as it was known “Ground Zero” a few times since 9/11/2001. The first time was on the 2005 anniversary when I was then living there again.

It was a most profound experience. One I will always remember.

It took nearly four weeks for the galleys to arrive for Understanding Your Grieving Heart which were originally shipped on 9/10, the day before our nation’s tragedy.

While waiting, I informed the printer to update the dedication. It now reads:

For those who love them so deeply
Miss them so desperately
Grieve for them so despondently
The tears of a nation join you.

Remembering those who perished on
Tuesday, September 11th, 2001

We pray blessings over the survivors of these attacks,
the rescue workers for their brave service to our people,
the canine rescuers for their devotion to help, protect and love us,
and the countless volunteers who heard the call and answered it

We will not back down
We will never forget

God Bless Our Great Land
and its people

Mary M. McCambridge (Ask Mary Mac) is the Founder and President of the Foundation for Grieving Children, Inc., a Grief Coach and author of several award winning books and CD programs on bereavement. She resides in Central Florida.