Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11: My Story Eleven Years Later (by: 9/11 Survivor Artie Van Why)

On this day of remembrance, I am honored to welcome back a friend, Artie Van Why, who witnessed 9/11 from his office across the street from the World Trade Center. Artie began writing about his experience on 9/11 and the weeks that followed, and authored an amazing book That Day in September. Today he reflects back on that day, he remembers the day Bin Laden was killed, and dwells in the grief he still feels. You can also read Artie's last article on this site about why he is leaving the United Methodist Church. 

I’ve been watching an HBO series called “The Newsroom”; a show centered on a fictional cable network and its flagship news show.  Each episode’s fictitious storylines revolve around a factual, significant news story of a specific day in the past few years.

On a recent episode, entitled “5/1”, the show’s continuous plotlines revolved around the major news story of May 1, 2011; the death of Osama bin Laden.

From the prospective of just a TV-viewer, it was riveting to watch what it must have been like in newsrooms across the country that day as the story we had all been waiting for had finally become a reality. But as someone who had witnessed, and survived, the 9/11 attack in New York City, it was difficult to watch.

The night bin Laden’s death was announced I was alone in my apartment in Lancaster, PA; far from the city that had been my home for 26 years. I can still remember feeling so isolated in the moments that followed the President’s address confirming bin Laden’s death. Watching the aerial shots on TV of people in New York gathering at Ground Zero made me long to be there with them. I had mourned with my fellow New Yorkers in the weeks and months following 9/11; experiencing a sense of connection unlike ever before. I imagined that the people of the city assembling where the twin towers had once stood were sensing a connection once again; hopefully of solace perhaps and a semblance of comfort.

I had nowhere to go in this city of Lancaster that was now my new home. People wouldn’t be gathering anywhere. And if I were to leave my apartment and walk the streets I would pass very few people; Lancaster not being an active city at night. And the people I would walk by would have no idea of just how significant this night was for me; as a 9/11 survivor. And though I had family and friends I could have phoned, I didn’t because I was unable to put together words that could remotely describe the emptiness of not knowing what I should be feeling.

But now it was 2012 and as I watched “The Newsroom” episode my thoughts quickly went from the night of 5/1/2011 to the morning of 9/11/2001. The images, memories, helplessness, pain and sorrow of that day when everything changed are always with me. Most of the time they are just in the recesses of my thoughts; no longer inhibiting me from my daily routines. Yet there is always an underlying anticipation that all those things can rush to the forefront of my thoughts as I relive that day. Sometimes they are triggered by something specific; other times by nothing at all. This time it was a television show.

And it’s not just the images I recall. It is also the emotions still so closely associated with those images; the terror and fear; the feeling of utter helplessness; the anguish; the sorrow.

I became aware that I was biting down on my knuckle while watching the TV; hoping that would prevent the tears falling down my face breaking into outright sobs. My partner was sitting in another chair, watching with me. If he was aware of what was going on with me he didn’t say anything. That’s not to fault him. He has held me many other times as I’ve cried over 9/11. But I’ve become all too aware of the awkwardness of others when I begin to talk of 9/11. I can sense a person’s unease of not knowing what to say or how to respond. Most people, I’ve found, are uncomfortable with someone else’s expressed grief. I understand that. So at times I’m more concerned about others’ than I am about myself. I say nothing.

Every 9/11 survivor I’ve communicated with shares the fact that there are people who think we should be “over it” by now; unable to understand why we haven’t “moved on.” I think I can say on behalf of many survivors that we will never be “over” it.  The memories of 9/11 are with us daily; some days just unobtrusively in the background, some days occupying every conscious thought.

And even though it has been eleven years now, as each anniversary approaches I am acutely aware of it. I feel on edge, easily irritated by the smallest insignificant things. The memories seem fresher; as if 9/11 had happened only yesterday. I cry more than usual. As if the anniversary of a family member’s death was near, the grief over the lost lives of people I didn’t even know is no less.

I have made progress in this mourning process. I may not have “moved on” but I am moving forward. I’ve only recently allowed myself to reenter living my life; accepting happiness when it comes my way. I’ve learned how to once again laugh. I’m able to feel hopeful about my life.

But I will never forget that day in September, back in 2001. And I will do what small part I can in assuring the generations to come will learn to always remember.

Reflection video recorded a year ago.

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