Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Falling Man and the Rising Balloon--PTSD in NYC after 9/11

Hi Everyone! I am going to repost a few of my September 11th related essays this week. A lot of people are already getting re-traumatized by the old images that are reappearing everywhere, on this tenth anniversary. So I hope these essays will provide a soothing counterbalance to those horrific memories.

Below is an essay I wrote in the winter of 2002, when I was still numb from all the 9/11 horror. You can tell by the prose alone just how numb I was. I was so numb I didn't realize I was numb, know what I mean?

All Rise
In the first few months following the attacks of September 11th, I refused to leave New York City. Like a child who has lost one parent, I found myself clinging needily to the surviving parent, and in this metaphoric case, that other parent was Rudolph Giuliani. He was the man who guided us New Yorkers through that horrible first week. He was the man who told us to stay strong, to help one another, and even to grieve. He was the one who attended countless funeral services for fallen firemen; he was the one who escorted that now-fatherless bride down the aisle; he was the one who gave daily press briefings, delivering his updates in a composed and eloquent manner. How could I leave a man like that? I felt I owed it to him to stay in New York—to help him hold our city together.

Thus I began canceling plans. First I cancelled a scheduled trip to New Orleans for Halloween (I wanted and needed to see the Village parade, whose theme that year was “Phoenix Rising from the Ashes”). Then I cancelled our Thanksgiving plans—a trip to gorgeous Santa Fe to visit Ed’s parents). Then I cancelled our Christmas trip—to New Hampshire and Massachusetts to visit my family. Honestly, I was too depressed to get off the sofa, and I could not tear myself away from the television set—the thing which bore the news that depressed me. I also did not want to miss anything Giuliani did or said.

He had become my symbol of hope and strength, my higher power, and I probably would have licked the sidewalks in the fish market section of Chinatown if he had asked me. I needed to give back to him—to someone. So much had been lost.

So when Giuliani started urging us New Yorkers—via televised announcements-- to “get on with life” and “spend money” I had no choice but to listen. He started appearing on those tear-jerking, I Love New York tourism commercials encouraging us to fly, get away, participate once again in the world of commerce. The airlines needed the money, he reminded us. Which of course made us all think of the planes that had been hijacked, and the people who had died. How could we let them down?

It was December by then. Perhaps it was time to acknowledge that I no longer had a valid excuse to sit glued to NY1 and the New York Times' "Portraits of Grief” section. These things only made me cry. I had to obey Giuliani.

So at the end of December my husband I booked a last-minute flight to Acapulco, where some friends of ours had rented a bungalow for the week.

Normally when I travel, I make it a point not to pack anything that will peg me as a tourist. Sometimes I even go out of my way to not look like an American (especially when I go to my second home, France). This meant no t-shirts, or Nike Air Max running shoes, no camera-about-neck, no mom-jeans.

But this post-9/11 trip to Mexico was different. The entire world had changed, and I was a refugee from a proud, fallen city.

Thus, I packed a Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt, an NYPD T-shirt, a baby blue, baby tee emblazoned with our famous area code: "212." As I packed these New York items, I was reminded of my summers during college, when I waitressed on Cape Cod. I remembered how my fellow waitresses and I—all Bostonians—recoiled every time we saw a car with the Empire State license plate pulling into our restaurant's parking lot. "Oh no!" we would say, truly aghast. "New Yorkers!" To us on the Cape, New Yorkers meant rude, obstinate, pushy people. Those “New Yorkers” seemed to have a huge and obnoxious sense of entitlement that had no place in our conventional New England world. I remember I used to cringe every time “one of them” was seated at my title.

I also actually used to recoil at the sight—or the mere mention—of Mayor Giuliani. Before September 11th, we loathed him: he was arrogant, intolerant, and bombastic. He hated artists and sidewalk-sellers of books. To us artists, he was the Enemy.
And now, as I zipped up my suitcase to leave New York City and our hero/father/mayor, I found myself getting teary-eyed.

"What's wrong?" my husband said when he came into the room.

"We're going to miss Giuliani at the ball-drop on New Year's Eve next week," I said with a quivering frown. "We're going to miss the ringing of the memorial bells for the 3600 fallen at six o’clock."

"In all the years we've lived here you've never once wanted to go to Times Square on New Years Eve," Ed said.

"I know," I said, holding back more tears. "But it’s Giuliani’s last public appearance as the mayor and I'm not going to get to see it."

"It's twenty-five degrees out there on New Year’s Eve in Times Square,” Ed reminded me.

"I know, but, it’s just cold. People died on September 11th. People burned to death. Surely we can take a few hours of being cold."

"We're going to have a great time on this trip” Ed said. “We're going to have sunshine and beaches--"

"I know, but—"

"We're going to have a great time,” Ed said again. “And we haven't left the city since August. It will be good for us to get away."

I turned and looked at him. Ed was a television news producer at one of the major networks. He had witnessed gruesome things in the weeks after September 11th, and had witnessed them first hand. I at least had had the buffer (the slightly unreal buffer) of witnessing the horrors via the television set. Ed was the type of me who held his emotions in check, but I realized he was probably completely traumatized.

"You're right," I finally said. "We've been needing a vacation for a long time." I hugged him and tried not to cry. I pulled an “I LOVE NY” ski cap over my head, put on my coat, and said I was ready to go.

And soon, we found ourselves having been transported to Acapulco; indeed, to another world: one of aquamarine water and sand the texture of talcum powder, one of freshly caught fish and creamy piña coladas and non-traumatized friends. (Meaning, people who were not in NYC on the day the towers well.)

As soon as we landed we drove to a beach-front café. And as we sat there, enjoying our drinks and the sunshine, and the naked, foreign feeling of wearing tank tops and shorts, I realized that here was a place I could actually not think about the World Trade Center. I felt hopeful and almost ready to start life anew.

Winter, in the Northeast at least, makes you close in on yourself, seek refuge inside small apartments and sterile office buildings, and encase yourself constantly in a giant tortoise shell of North Face down. Here in Mexico, though, I felt myself opening up again like a blossoming flower. Sunlight warmed our skin; a breeze tossed the palm fronds of the thatched roof above; and rum, glorious rum, ebbed and flowed through our veins like the tide a few yards away from us, rum that loosed our muscles and unclenched our city jaws.

"Isn't this heavenly?" I said to our friends. They are a fun-loving, easy-going couple who live in California and travel like pros. They agreed that it was heavenly, and we ordered another round of drinks. Feeling relaxed, I leaned back into my chair and gazed at the bluer-than-blue sky.

It was then that I saw a parasailer, gliding noiselessly above the bay.
I flinched and gasped.

The sight horrified me. Even though he was attached to a rainbow colored parachute, he looked like a person falling from the sky. Suspended in the air like that, he had the same rag-doll, caught-in-a-moment look as the people who jumped from the towers—the ones we had seen in countless horrible photographs.

"Are you alright?" my friends asked. I tried to explain my reaction—how I had momentarily believed that the parasailer was falling, just like the Falling Man—and I got teary-eyed as I spoke. My friends remained silent. I don’t think they knew what to say. I don’t think they could relate to my distorted thinking.

And what could they say to a comment like that? Equating a parasailer with a burning mid-air body is not an association most people would make. Unless one is exceptionally morbid. Or a New Yorker. Suffering, I realized years later, from PTSD.

In the ensuing silence—and to hide my tears—I turned my gaze away from the parasailer. I looked instead at the shoreline and the sea, where hundreds of people swam in the water. Then I looked up at the rows of high rise hotels behind us, which lined the entire Acapulco Bay. Each high-rise was painted a beautiful bold color—such as chili pepper red or guacamole green, and each had mirrored windows that reflected the sky. There were rows and rows of balconies lining each side of each building, and then I saw that there were people on many of these balconies, leaning against their railings, admiring the view.

I gasped in horror again. In my traumatized mind I saw that photograph from the Times of all those people hanging from the windows above the burning floors. All those people screaming in terror, waiting to be rescued. And then dying. I got teary eyed again, and I hastily put on a pair of sunglasses so that no one could tell.

Now, I was not in or near the World Trade Center on September 11. In fact, I am so afraid of heights I have not been inside either tower since 1987—the one and only time I could be coaxed onto the observation deck. So what is it that held me there now, while I was thousands of miles away in Mexico? What was it that held me in the past, inside top floors of the North Tower, standing at the windows alongside the 700 doomed Cantor Fitzgerald employees? Why did I feel as if I too were caught in a moment of indecision between burning alive or jumping to the most frightening of deaths?

I don't know. And I guess I will never know because anyone who does know what it was like has disappeared.

But let's get back to the sunshine of Mexico: That evening—which was New Year's Eve—the four of us dined at Las Brisas, a five-star restaurant on the edge of Acapulco Bay. We had to drive through seven gates manned by armed guards to get there, and thus were giddy with expectation and irony by the time we reached the restaurant, and a team of valets swarmed around us to tend to our car. We were led to a beautifully laid table that was positioned between a sea wall and a tidal pool. The pink uniforms of the waitstaff matched the pink tablecloths and the giant bouquets of fragrant pink flowers. They brought us pink lemonade margaritas that matched the pink, sun-setting sky. A few margaritas later, we were greeted by a moon so huge and white it looked like something from a children's book.

"It must be because we're so close to the Equator," my husband explained. But I preferred to think we were in the presence of something magical, a sort of Never-Never land untouched by the rest of the world.

The hours passed pleasantly. We were brought course after course of delicious food and the waiters would never let our wine glasses get below half-full. All that wine, and the food, and the soft air and that huge benevolent moon, seemed to lift us a finger's breath above the table, so that we were suspended in a place of holiday happiness—a realm in which there was no World Trade Center, no trace of disharmony with my husband, and no ill in the world at all.

Just before midnight, the traditional countdown began. There was a cacophony of fireworks and noisemakers and the band played Auld Lang Syne. My husband and friends and I got out of our seats to hug and kiss and dance, and at the stroke of midnight, they released an enormous batch of silver balloons. They were just balloons, yes, but to me—in that magical place—they seemed otherworldly. As they rose, they seemed to move in tandem. And the way their metallic surfaces caught the moonlight as they twisted and turned reminded me of a giant school of fish.

Suddenly I was teary eyed again. "What's the matter?" my husband whispered. He put his arms around me as we both watched the balloons float away.

"Those balloons must be for the World Trade Center," I said. "Don't you think?"

"I don't think so, honey," my husband said. "They're just balloons. I think they do this every year."

"But there are thousands of them," I said. "There must be three thousand one hundred and sixteen. For all the missing. Don’t you think?"

My husband must have sensed my desperation, because he kissed the top of my head and said, "I think you're right. I think there are three thousand balloons."

And so, while the rest of the crowd danced, we watched the balloons rising, and prayed three thousand times for the three thousand souls. I wondered, as one always does, where those balloons would end up. Do they pop? Do they disintegrate? Or would some child in New Zealand find them, washed up like anemones on the shore? We watched them soar past that impossible moon.

Six days later, when we returned to New York, I found a slightly different city. Giuliani was gone, the daily "Portraits of Grief" of the New York Times had been discontinued, and the sports section of the Times was no longer upside down. They had also opened up a viewing platform right at Ground Zero and I decided to go there with a balloon. I thought it would be uplifting to see it soar above that charred spot. The line to get to the platform was four blocks long and it took hours to reach the platform. By that point, my Mylar balloon (which said, I'm ashamed to say, said HAPPY BIRTHDAY on it,) had lost quite a bit of its air and its metallic zest.

Thus, when I released the balloon at the platform's railing, it barely took flight. It merely hung in the air in front of me for a few moments and then sunk rather anticlimactically to the ground. People around me were crestfallen, I could tell—I realized we all needed this little symbolic lift.

"Was it someone's birthday?" a woman finally asked. Everyone was listening.

I shook my head and said “not really.” I didn’t know how to explain my need to bring this balloon to this place.

But in those days, in New York after September 11th, people no longer needed explanations. The world no longer made that much sense. But at the same time, we all seemed to understand one another a little better. Without having to say a thing.

So there we all were, looking at that balloon on the ground, bereft. I felt like such a jerk. Maybe death wasn’t like soaring at all, I told myself. Maybe death was just--death.

Then one of the rescue workers came over and picked the balloon up. You could tell by the tired look on his face that he had seen three weeks of non-stop horror; but behind his eyes I saw pure kindness. “Whose birthday is it?” he said to all of us, in a fatherly way. He was just like Giuliani.

A little girl said, “Mine” so he gave her the balloon. Everyone broke into applause. Some broke into tears. But the applause—it was thundering. The sound—and the heart behind it—soared.

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