On a perfect and perfectly ordinary September morning, bright with promise, a clerk runs down the aisle of the supermarket yelling, “The World Trade Center has been hit by a plane!” I’m in the middle of Pathmark, holding a carton of eggs. I remember thinking that dropping the carton would be too, I don’t know, melodramatic, so I walk slowly and deliberately to the checkout counter to pay for my items. Breathe, Nikki, breathe, I keep whispering to myself. He’s okay. This is not about us. Bad things happen to other people, I think. That mantra has worked before, but it doesn’t feel as if it’s working now.
Please let it be working.
I drive home like a maniac: no seatbelt, screaming at the traffic, speed-changing stations on the radio. My cellphone is not in my purse, damn it! I ram the car into the garage, rush into the house, check for messages. There’s a garbled one I can’t understand; in a panic, I accidentally erase it. Sh-t! My sister calls; she is leaving work. Alone in the house, I turn on the TV and see the first tower on fire, a gaping black maw carved out of the upper part of the building. Is that Jim’s building? Where did he sit? I kneel before the screen and try to count the floors. A piece of my mind has already broken off to watch this crazy woman on the floor before the television set. I wonder: Is this an accident? An attack? Peter Jennings is saying now a second airplane has hit the second tower. Jesus!
The calls are coming in: friends from Washington (another plane hit the Pentagon!), my cousin Judy on the west coast (“Is it true? Where are you? Where is Jim?”), my co-workers, who are watching from the roof of the building. They’re telling me I’m lucky I didn’t come in; the city is shutting itself down. Should I thank God I didn’t go in today? Is there any reason to thank God at this moment? Is there a God? My sister arrives, glances at the television and turns it off.
My sister and I work the phone, using a hastily assembled list of area hospitals, calling to see if anyone matching Jim’s description has been brought in. We regularly phone his place of employment; they have begun a running list of employees they’ve located. The list grows smaller but Jim’s name remains absent.
F-ck, I keep repeating. I’m the star of a bad David Mamet play but I can’t stop. There are no other words. And so: f-ck, f-ck, f-ck me, I’m f-cked, we’re all f-cked; this is so f-cked up!
His mom calls, holding out for a miracle. How can God be doing this to us, she asks me? What am I supposed to say? God’s busy with bigger things? He’s got a ton of evil to fight? I want to offer her hope, but how can I?
Somewhere between the second and third days, it hits me. He isn’t in the hospitals, nor the morgue; not among the living, nor confirmed dead, but gone: irreversibly, irretrievably gone. And something else is gone—I get that, too. He is one of thousands, a victim of mass murder, and now a small part of history. Our country has been attacked; many have died. There will be consequences.
About Nikki Stern
Nikki Stern worked as a public relations executive before the death of her husband in the World Trade Center on 9/11. She then became the first executive director for Families of September 11 (FOS11), a national organization for families affected by the terrorist attacks. In 2005, she and the organization were co-recipients of an award from Search for Common Ground.
Nikki retains an interest in global diplomacy and public policy. She is on the advisory boards of Project Rebirth, Americans for Informed Democracy, and the Public Diplomacy Collaborative at Harvard University’s Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
Nikki’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, and USA Today. She also blogs regularly about politics, culture, entertainment, and other issues of both greater and lesser importance at 1 Woman’s Vu and Open Salon.
Her first book is out: “Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority,” available at www.nikkistern.com, at Amazon and at many bookstores.
You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.