I used to walk along the East River each morning,
ten blocks north to 37th Street,
then cross west to the old office on Third Avenue.
I remember the morning of September 11 like yesterday,
air warm & crisp . . .
my husband, a first lieutenant in the army & now in the reserves,
always headed south—
he was a trader on the American Stock Exchange.
The planes hit and the towers came down and the air over New York changed.
When the AMEX re-opened, my husband stood at his post
as a ninety-year-old broker rang the bell.
The ninety-year-old’s son, a broker too,
was having breakfast at Windows on the World
thirteen days earlier.
Ding ding ding BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG!
Each day from there,
my husband passed the vacant lot,
where the towers once stood—
there was tons of debris to be removed,
within it the people who didn’t make it out,
another pile / and another / and another . . .
Loaded onto trucks, which drove past the exchange.
The traders had been assured the putrid air was safe to breathe.
I remember my own way home that day . . .
I hadn’t lost a good friend
or a child
or a parent
when the towers fell . . .
yet I, like every other New Yorker,
grieved for those who did
and for the city
and the world
we’d known before that day . . .
It would never come back.
I was afraid, too—
for myself and my husband,
for our baby girl 2 years old,
for the people left behind—
for the world.
I wasn’t alone—
everyone was on alert,
nobody felt safe anymore.
A package came
addressed to me, from overseas.
A very small painting,
sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard
in a manila envelope.
It was a painting from a friend
who lived in Brussels, a friend I loved very much.
In the painting there was a man,
a frightened grieving man,
planting a flagpole at the World Trade Center site,
its flag bearing a big beautiful red heart, blowing in the breeze.
The painting made me feel connected
to my friend
and to the world.
It became a symbol for me—
a symbol of courage, bravery,
and of people holding each other,
in the face of tragedy and fear.
This tiny gesture
from one friend to another,
and from one man to the world,
gave me courage to go on.
I started carrying a bottle of water, in my purse, wherever I went.
And I bought a miner’s headlight, to keep in there too.
I was ready to do my part, small as it was, if something happened again.
Fifteen years hence, I sat with my three children,
in Maplewood, New Jersey,
just 15 miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel,
glued to CNN, to the lockdown in Brussels
that took place after the attacks on Paris.
The baby was now seventeen, and she had a sister and a brother, thirteen and eleven.
The CNN camera stayed fixed on an apartment where the suspected terrorists might be . . .
And I wondered if the very neighborhood the news showed was the one my friend lived in.
I’d never been to Brussels.
I wanted to know if my friend was okay.
Not only he, but also his wife and his child, who was just the same age as our middle child.
I was across the ocean, in New Jersey,
and I wrote him an email, every day of the lockdown.
I asked if he was okay
and what he was doing in the face of such terror?
I wanted to know his daily rhythms.
Could he walk outside, water the garden?
Where was he and was he safe?
And he answered me.
He said he continued to walk the dog.
He said that his twelve-year-old daughter insisted on riding the subway to school,
despite a bomb going off in the station earlier that week.
He said he and his wife continued to shop at the Moroccan grocery store that others were avoiding.
Emailing with him, back and forth, helped me remember what mattered most.
Connecting to one another.
The two of us got together when he next came to New York.
And we decided to make a story about it—
Come with Me by Holly M. McGhee & Pascal Lemaitre is available in bookstores everywhere September 5, 2017.