The Sweet Hereafter
This post was originally posted on Sept. 10, 2003. Hopefully you will not be offended by my reference to Pompeii, which was not about what would happen at Ground Zero, but rather a reference to how about my future, which at the time was bleak.

It seems to me that people who weren't here or weren't personally touched by the event that they have moved on, that they wonder what the big deal is. I was reading this post on metafilter which was written only two years after the event and already it was being suggested that those who still thought about Sept 11th were not "moving on" and healing. No one would suggest such a thing to those who witnessed Pearl Harbor or the Holocaust. It reminds me of my mother's mentality that I need to "just get over" having cancer.

This may be an unpopular belief, but there are some things you do not recover from. Not to say that it kills us, but some events leave scars. Some events change us irrevocably. And we may not think about what it is that we lost every day, but the loss is felt unconsciously. Whether it's remembering when Union Square was papered with the faces of the missing or getting used to a different skyline when getting off at Astor Place or even the fact that now we have to take off our shoes to get on a plane at JFK or the fact that anthrax went from being an obscure disease that was rarely thought to becoming a major concern.

The Jews do not believe in forgetting. It is an insult to the past and allows horrible events to be repeated. So for those of us who were here and remember, for those of us who saw people covered in ashes, like living ghosts, walking uptown. For those of us who sat in our apartments waiting for phone calls from friends and family. For those of us who say the faces of those lost, the faces of so much desperate hope on fliers with phone numbers and pleas, on the way to and from work every day. For those of us who never did get those phone calls. We know why the names are still read. We will never forget not just what we lost, but we will also remember the incredibly bravery and selflessness that some amazing people demonstrated that day. And we also will not forget that we did survive, not just as individuals, but as a city. But we will not forget that it happened. And we will hope that it will never happen again. Not just here, but anywhere.

On Passover, the Jews ask, "Why is this day different from all other days?" For me, it was not just because my life changed-my relationship disintegrated, my friends fled the city, my hope that NY could be a safe haven for me was lost-but because the whole world changed. In the movie the Sweet Hereafter (based on the stunning novel by Russel Banks), the narrator, a young girl who survived a deadly school bus crash, talks about how all of them-both the survivors of the crash and the children who died, the parents of the children, everyone who was touched by the tragedy- live in a different town now. We are all living in the Sweet Hereafter.

It was my second day teaching a "serious" course at NYU so I decided to leave early. Back then I typed up my class plans. I wanted to get in early to photo copy the readings and arrange my classroom. Eric and I ran slept in as long as we could. We had enough time to get dressed and have tea and Eggo waffles. I didn't have a tv and we didn't listen to the radio in the morning.

It wasn't until we got up the stairs of the 6 train that we knew anything was wrong. Eric noticed the smoke. We couldn't see anything, and I just figured a building was on fire. He wanted to check it out. I just wanted to print things up. I kept thinking that the students would be all distracted and jittery by the fire so I would have to be firm with them about staying focused.

It wasn't until we got onto Waverly that we saw people standing and staring. We looked in the same direction and saw both towers on fire. That's what was inconceivable to me. How could both towers be on fire? How could it spread? We stood and watched for a bit.

After a few minutes, I said I had to go into the office anyway. I knew NYU wouldn't cancel classes even if the towers were on fire.

And that's when the first tower fell, and that's when I knew I wasn't going to teach anything that day no matter what NYU said.

In that moment when the tower fell, I was surprised that tower in its collapse looked like nothing more than flaking paper. It fluttered slowly. In that moment, all I could think of was my seventh grade latin teacher, Mrs. Hightower.

Mrs. Hightower often gave us historic documents to translate. One document she gave us was on the destruction of Pompeii, a town buried slowly in ash when Mt Vesuvius exploded. That day what struck me wasn't anything in the reading, but her lecture about the destruction of Pompeii.

She told us people drowned by tidal waves caused by the explosion ( they were trying to get out of the city by boat). She talked of people trying to flee before the sun was obscured by the clouds of ash. But what stayed with me was what she said, "But some people stayed thinking it would be alright."

That was it. Some people stayed waiting for the danger to vanish as quickly as it appeared. Some people waited. Some people were slowly covered in ash waiting to see the sun again thinking "Man I am going to be pissed tomorrow when I have to clean this up." Wondering what kinds of games the Emperor would hold to celebrate the survival of the city. Wondering when it was going to stop because it was going to stop.

And for those who waited they saw light again. They saw light in the darkness, but it wasn't the sun. It was flames rising from the city. It was Pompeii burning.

What shocked me was not that people tried to escape danger, that I understood, but that people stayed-chose to stay-that surprised me, but then, I thought, it's always so hard to know the right thing to do. Will running down the stairs save my life or should I take the elevator or should I just stay where I am? Should I wait for people to come find me? And while I make this decision, time is running out.

Eric stood beside me. "I'm sure everyone got out ok" he said. I thought to myself "Some of them stayed." I knew even then, but I didn't say anything.

I thought "You never know when history is going to happen. When the paradigm is going to shift irrevocably."

We went to my office then. They had a tv on. When I walked in the receptionist said classes were still on. "Like hell" I thought.

And the second tower fell.

I emailed my mother to tell her I was alright. I was worried about getting to my apartment on the upper east side. I knew I couldn't walk that far. I was worried about the hysteria, the riots, the tramplings that could occur.

The department asked me to stay, to help comfort students. Eric left. He said he wanted to call his mom, tell her he was alright. I should have known then. I wanted him to stay, but I didn't want to say it, I didn't want to be selfish.

Eventually I made it up town. People up here were having lunch in outdoor cafes like nothing was happening. I got inside and turned on my radio. I got online. I emailed my mother. Eric emailed me to see if I made it back to my apartment. He couldn't get through to his mom, so he had gone to give blood. The blood drive workers had sent people home, there were too many donors. He had gone back to my office but I wasn't there. He went back to his dorm and I wasn't there either ( how could I be, I had to be signed in by a resident).

Two years before 9-11 I attended a party sponsored by Bombay Sapphire gin. They had given out several of those little airplane/hotel mini bar bottles. I had three in my apartment. I stayed up allnight reading and posting on metafilter, listening to the radio, and drinking gin.

Here's the email I got that night. I haven't read it in two years:

dont you
know that no
matter what you
do, where i am,
where you are,
you are never
alone!!!! why,
because i love
you and im
always there in
spirit. i just
talked to my
mom and cant
get through to
you ...again. ill
try later, ill be
around. dont
worry if we cant
talk for a while,
just remember
all the nice
things ive said
i love you so

There never was another Pompeii. No town was ever built on top of the ashes of those lost.

About 2000 years after its destruction by Mt Vesuvius only 2/3 of the city is uncovered. There are still excavations at Pompeii, still discoveries made. The excavations exist for the tourists and scholars, who may now wander through a city where time stopped in 79 AD, but no one lives there.

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