The New Normal After 9/11

by Jennifer Meer
Originally Published: 

If September teaches you anything, it is that you’ll wish you spent this moment in time living it, not memorializing it.

It’s a slow Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend. My oldest is cuddled up reading in my bed. My daughter is building with Legos. The baby flips through books next to me while I fold her laundry. My husband is at the gym. I have a steaming cup of coffee and the sun is streaming in through the windows. Some lite favorites play in the background. In that one moment, everyone is happy and accounted for. It feels perfect.

I feel my pulse quicken. I recognize that feeling. It’s too right. The sheer rightness of the situation makes me feel anxious. Maybe I was always wired to think like this, to assume that whenever anything feels really good, it is immediately about to precipitate the drop that inevitably follows. Maybe it was a learned instinct that I developed on the battlefield of my early 20s. In every generation, there are defining moments of sadness that change the young people who come up in it. For our parents, it was JFK and Martin and Bobby. For us, it is 9/11.

That fall, I learned that Manhattan really is an island, and accessing help as an island is both challenging and scary. I learned the relative importance of keeping hope alive in the face of extreme evidence to the contrary, because the process of keeping hope alive matters more than the reality. I learned that bad stuff happens to good people on beautiful days.

If you ask anyone what they remember most about that Tuesday in 2001, they will mention the weather. Still, to this day, a crystal clear September morning–the kind that is perfectly not too hot nor too cold and altogether perfect in every way, with the occasional cloud drifting through a sky that is bluer than blue–will always send shivers down my spine. In this way, I will forever associate perfection with impending doom.

I moved to Manhattan on September 8, 2001. Three days later, the world is upside down and there is a new normal. The thing about the new normal is that the shift happens so fast, you don’t actually remember when it wasn’t normal. At some point, it is normal to go into the subway and see the “missing” signs covering every inch of space. These faces. Do I know these faces? Did I walk past them, yesterday, two days ago? You study the same faces in those photos, and in your heart, you equally accept the idea that there is seemingly almost no way that anyone will ever find them, and that of course, the people who hung those signs must look for them because the idea that they are gone is equally incomprehensible.

I’m single. I’m alone. I’ve got some friends and an illegal sublet, and I’m living a life like most New Yorkers. Whatever normal is after 9/11, it’s really the only one I’ll ever learn. The thin, perverse line that decides where the chips fall among the shards of random chance trails me, haunts me. I learn quickly that almost all of life is past tense. That in the brutal war of time and the course of history, there are literally no survivors.

As a person and as a parent, 9/11 taught me many things. It reminded me of our shared mortality and the terrifying randomness of life. On any given day, if I think about any of those things, it paralyzes me. I look into the faces of my three eager little ones who are so full of needs and opportunities. How can I love them without being haunted by what’s already gone, by what could come next?

But it also taught me not to overthink any one moment too much, to embrace each moment for just that—not the first or last of anything. The only thing I can ever really seem to count on is that there will always be another new normal, waiting, hovering just around the corner. The tide comes in swiftly, leaving little time and space for sentimentality. At some point, where you’ve traveled almost becomes irrelevant, as does where you’re heading. All that really matters are the truths and people you hold on to today.

I see my husband’s car pull into the driveway, and we have one of those conversations that spouses learn to have with each other without words, the kind that involves him reading the anxiety that is radiating off of me, that comes with me needing to breathe fresh air and to get off my island, to move on to the next thing before I overthink myself into a full-blown panic attack about the goodness of the current moment I’m in. Sometimes, we need others to pull us through, to remind us that it matters less about the relative good or bad of whatever moment we’re in and more about having someone who loves us enough to push us forward to the next one.

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