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September 11th, 2011

September 11th, 2011

by Vera Mehta, Ed. D.  |  October 2001

This was not supposed to be Chronicle #12. Chronicle #12 was going to be about the role of the Physician Assistant at Yaffe, Ruden and Associates. In mid-August I handed each of our Physician Assistants here, a brief questionnaire hoping they would fill it out and return it to me before I left for vacation at the end of the month. However, as everyone knows, our PAs are both, extremely hardworking and extremely busy. I did not get my questionnaires back until after Labor Day. Over the weekend of September 8 I started working on them. Today, as I start this, it is September 23. Tuesday September 11, 2001 happened in between.

It is hard to know how to write about this. Thousands of words have already been spoken and written by people who span the spectrum, from accomplished, established writers who make their living with words, to ordinary people struggling to make sense of what seemed on the surface an utterly senseless, totally horrific act. I am one of the latter.

As almost everyone noted, September 11, 2001 started by being one of the loveliest of mornings. There was a sense in the air of new beginnings, kids going to school for the first time, others relieved that summer was finally over and they could now see their friends again-you could almost smell the new books and freshly sharpened pencils in the brand new backpacks banging against you in the buses and subways. In New York, I have never thought of spring as the season of renewal. September has always been the month I think of as the city coming back to full, vigorous bloom again.  The tourists are gone, the streets crackle with energy, and commerce and culture (low-brow, high-brow, doesn’t matter) mix with the ease you find only in the great metropolises of the world.

September for me is also a month for celebrations. My son Jyotin’s birthday, September 10, my husband Bruce’s, September 11, our wedding anniversary, September 27. The two birthdays are usually celebrated together on one of the days but this year we had to plan for the 14th because neither day was going to work out for everyone. Jyotin went to Detroit on business the evening of September 10. I figured on a quiet evening with Bruce at a local restaurant after we both returned home from work the evening of September 11. But the only thing about this birthday that went according to plan was that at 6 AM I gave him his birthday card and the gift I had bought during our vacation in Maine two weeks earlier. It was a medium-sized statue of Captain Ahab, wooden leg and all, one of Bruce’s favorite characters in fiction as portrayed by both Melville and Gregory Peck. It even had an odd sort of resemblance to him and Gregory Peck in the craggy eyebrows and large, bearded imposing face. I thought it would look perfect in his office, which looks out over the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan onto a breathtaking view of the Hudson River and Jersey City on the opposite bank. The only problem was that when Captain Ahab was taken out of his box, he had exactly one hour in which to revel in it. After that hour, it would never again be the same view.

September 11, 2001. The alarm went off at 5 AM and my mind slowly drifted from sleep to a sharper awareness of what day it was. Anxiety flooded my consciousness in nauseating waves. For a moment I did not know why. Then I remembered. The evening before, my son Rahul who had the kidney transplant that I have written about in these pages, had developed serious new health problems, apparently in reaction to one of his anti-rejection drugs. By Monday September 10, the pain in his hips was so severe that we had to get him an emergency appointment with Dr. Dana Mannor, the orthopedist recommended by Dr. Yaffe, whose office is around the corner from ours. Somehow he got himself there from his office on the 16th floor of the World Trade Center (yes, I swear) where he works 3 days a week at a research institute. It is a job he cannot afford to give up because it helps pay his bills and his medical insurance while he goes to school to get his Ph.D.

Arriving at Dr. Mannor’s office he was practically collapsed from pain. Since I was so close by, she sent for me so I could be present when she told us what she thought was wrong. Also, because the pain was making it very hard for him to get his pants and shoes off. After completing her exam, she sent us uptown for an immediate MRI to confirm her suspicions of the diagnosis-a very, to us anyway, frightening two-word phrase called “avascular necrosis”. It was clear he was not going anywhere that evening without help. She loaned him a pair of crutches and we both learned for the first time just how complicated it can be to get in the back seat of a taxi when your hip joints are in excruciating pain. His girlfriend Laurie met us at the radiology center, and she and I waited together as he had the procedure. It is a wretched feeling to watch someone you love, suffer, and being utterly helpless to do anything about it. It was supposed to be the first night teaching my Fall Introductory Sociology class downtown on 23rd Street. I had no choice but to call and cancel it.

At around 7:30, it was over. Laurie and Rahul went home in a cab to their 5th floor walk-up in the Village. I was so grateful to her for being with him. And because I knew it was out of love and because she sees the same splendid human being I see. I got on the cross-town bus crying uncontrollably. Dramatic foreshadowing?

September 11, 2001. 7:30 AM. The only thoughts racing through my brain were how soon I could call Dr. Mannor’s office to see if the results of the MRI were in. I sat at my desk trying to work, when I gradually became aware of snatches of conversation just outside my door, in which the words “plane crash” seemed to occur with alarming frequency. So absorbed was I in my own tormented thoughts, that, at first, the words barely registered. I thought vaguely a plane must have crashed somewhere and I’d hear about it later on the evening news. How could anyone, even in their wildest imaginings, have conceived of the diabolical scenario that would unfold with such relentless inevitability over the next several hours, days, weeks, what today seems another lifetime ago. It was, quite literally for us, the ordinary inhabitants of this city, the witnessing of one historical era passing and making way for the next. I now understand why it was so important to be drilled in all those dates in High School history class. Dates matter, oh yes they do.

September 11, 2001. Between 8 and 9:30 AM. I do not know in which order things happened next. My most vivid remembrance was that I kept punching in the numbers to Dr. Mannor’s office, getting very frustrated by a constant busy signal, trying the radiology office with the same result, trying to reach Rahul to see if perhaps someone had called him. No luck. In this day of instant communication anywhere around the globe, it seemed crazy that you couldn’t reach someone a few blocks away. Finally I managed to connect with Rahul through the AOL Instant Messenger on my computer. He wrote back that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. His words made no sense. I told him to get off the Internet so I could call him. I thought he was babbling. Then he said something like “There goes my office”. I said, “What did you say?” He said, “That’s my office. I work in the South tower.” I flung the receiver on the desk and rushed to the TV set in the patient waiting area. This was the first of the thousands of times I saw the same scenes being replayed. Over and over again, the pandemonium, the terror, people covered with white dust fleeing down the streets, the unbelievable sight of a plane slicing right through the World Trade Center and its towers slowly going up in flames.

There is no need for me to describe the scenes any further. It seems to me, we have exhausted all the metaphors the English language is capable of, in our attempts to do this. Our visual memories of this day have become part of our collective subconscious.

In the office, reactions varied. A patient, waiting to get a colonoscopy, said she couldn’t believe that, years later, when people related what they had been doing the exact moment of Tuesday, September 11 2002, when they first heard the news, she’d have to say she was sitting on an exam table in a pink paper gown waiting for Dr. Yaffe to put a scope up her rear end! Other patients were frantically trying to reach family members or friends on their cell phones. Many were crying, in some cases because they knew somebody who worked in or near the WTC, others simply because there was no way for them to get a handle on their emotions. This had not happened in Israel or Beirut or Rwanda or Belfast or Kosovo. This had happened in downtown Manhattan where people one knew, lived and worked and went to school and shopped for bargains at Century 21 and made plans to meet for dinner…

It slowly dawned on me. My son worked there. He would have been there. And he would have probably died because, even though he was only on the 16th floor, he would not have been able to get out fast enough in pain, and on crutches. I was grateful for whatever power or force it was that saved his life. But for the first time I hesitated to call it God. What kind of God was it who kept allowing such hideous suffering to be inflicted on innocent people? And what kind of God was it who inspired people to do such terrible things in His name? Report of the attacks being linked to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network of followers were already being broadcast. But at that moment I could think of nothing except how this was affecting me and mine. I was not able to grasp any of the wider, political implications, the enormously complex explanations for WHY…

Among our office staff, most people’s immediate response was to try to get home whichever way they could and huddle with their nearest and dearest, or at least under the bedcovers if they had no one near or dear close by. It was difficult to make travel plans because news reports seemed to change from minute to minute-nobody knew what buses or subways were running, which bridges and tunnels were closed. Also rumors were flying fast and furious about possible new attacks. No one felt safe anywhere, but everyone’s blind instinct told them they had to get “home” because if “home” isn’t safe, then nothing is. By around 11:30 AM the office was almost completely empty. The only people around were the few who lived, if not in walking distance, at least close enough that they COULD walk if they had to. There were no patients to see so Dr. Yaffe put everyone who was there to filing. We’re always behind in filing. It seemed as useful a way to pass the hours as any other. It also didn’t require much investment of either imagination or emotion.

As for me, as soon as I could tear myself away from the searing images on the TV screen, I went back into my office to call my husband Bruce and see if there was some way he could meet me somewhere so we could go home together to Rockland County. All I got was an answering machine. Waves of panic went careening through me like a car out of control. I was overcome by a sense that I had to somehow make connection at least with my children and make sure they were safe before I went out the door, because once I left I might never be able to talk to them again.

My daughter-in-law Kendall works on the Lower East Side in an adult day care center. I reached her first and she told me she was alright but very shaken not only because of what had happened but because her cousin who had gone to the WTC that morning for a meeting, showed up at her job, practically out of his mind with terror and panic. Fortunately, it happened to be a day when no clients were at the center, so at least she didn’t have to deal with the logistics of how to get an agitated group of elderly people, many in different stages of Alzheimer’s, home again, in the middle of the day. We comforted each other as best we could. She told me she had spoken to Jyotin in Detroit and he and the colleagues who had accompanied him for the case, were trying to rent a car to come home again. So, for now anyway, they were both OK. Rahul and Laurie I’d already talked to. God only knew when we would get the results of his MRI. I called my daughter Ariane, in New Orleans. I knew she was safe, but I had to hear her voice tell me so.

Then began the long trek home. As everyone has said a trillion times by now, all of us who were in the city that day had a strong desire to DO something, help out in some way, be less useless, but nobody was quite sure what. Already there were ominous reports that all the doctors, nurses and medical personnel from around the area and elsewhere who had rushed down to see how they could help, were standing around with nothing to do, because there were no injured people being brought out who could be treated. They were not being brought out because they couldn’t be found. They couldn’t be found because their bodies had been blown apart and the parts mixed in with the giant piles of burning debris that were once the two towers of the World Trade Center. As I left the office unsure of how I was going to make the 30-mile trip home, I felt like Scarlett O’Hara fleeing Sherman’s tanks and Atlanta burning, with only one thought in her head-how to get home to her beloved Tara. I wanted nothing in the world so much then as to bundle up under the covers with my dog Sophie, the only creature in my life who never changes and never pulls any surprises.

I began to walk through Central Park to get to the West Side. It was strange to see so many people in business suits hurrying through the park with their brief cases at 12 o’clock in the afternoon. They were not walking for exercise. About halfway through the park, I began to catch up to an old lady teetering along very unsteadily even though she had a cane. As I was about to pass her, I noticed her legs. They were unnaturally swollen from ankles to knees and sticking up above her little heeled pumps like two tree stumps in pots that was too small to contain them. I could not see how she would ever make it through the park without help. I offered her my arm and said I would walk her to wherever she was going.

At this point it didn’t really matter how or when I got home. I was conscious of living only in the moment and doing whatever seemed necessary in the moment. Neither past nor future had any relevance. My little old lady was only dimly aware that “something bad” had happened because she had heard it in the waiting room of her doctor’s office from where she was returning that morning. There were no buses going through the park so that’s why she was walking. I tried to tell her what little I knew from the TV reports but don’t know whether she quite got it. It didn’t matter anyway. She was 93 years old, lived by herself on 66th and West End and had a niece who came in about once a month from Arizona to check in on her. Almost everyone in her family had died in the Holocaust. What could I or anyone, have to tell her about destruction and loss, that she did not already know?

As we stumbled on together, fellow travelers going into our own “darkness at noon”, she told me that her meals were delivered to her through the Meals-on-Wheels Program. Right now her biggest worry was that she wouldn’t be home in time for the delivery. She hoped they would give the food to her next-door neighbor to keep until she got home; her neighbor must be wondering where she was. I told her I was sure they would. We talked about how her niece to whom she planned “to leave everything” had come down in March for her birthday and taken her to Fiorello’s for dinner and how much she loved sea food, especially Italian sea food. After many stops and starts we finally made it into Barnes and Noble on the corner of Broadway and 66th. A security guard got her a chair to rest in while I ran upstairs to the cafeteria to get us both some orange juice. After about 15 minutes, revived and strong again, she insisted she was ready to walk the last 2 blocks home by herself although I offered to see her to her door. She said, “No, you go on home”. Then she threw her arms around my neck and hugged me as she said “Thank you”. Our strange intimacy had ended, but I was the one feeling bereft as I watched her, slowly and alone, make her way down the street. It must take an awful lot of courage to believe that life is worth living when the highlight of your day is awaiting the arrival of the Meals- on-Wheels delivery boy.

Well, I made it home. It was not an especially arduous or difficult trip-I was expecting much worse. By the time I got to the West Side, the A train was moving again. Once we got to the George Washington Bridge, another commuter lent me his cell phone so I could call my husband Bruce (who had already got home) and ask him to pick me up from the other side. I thought at first we’d have to walk across the bridge, but there were shuttle buses provided by the time I got there, and although the lines were long, they moved quickly and in a calm, orderly fashion. It was funny how the whole city had been hushed into being on its best behavior. Bruce was not able to meet me at the Citibank ATM machine as we had arranged, because the police were not allowing any traffic except for emergency vehicles beyond a certain point. I started walking in the direction where I thought it most likely I would run into him and after about half a mile I did-he was walking along the same road from the opposite direction. I was very glad to see him. We spent the rest of the day in front of the TV. We avoided any reference to his birthday.

It is too soon yet to reflect on the meaning of this tragedy in all our lives. Externally I have followed the story mainly through the coverage of the New York Times, which by and large has been extraordinary. I almost completely stopped watching TV after the first two days mainly because I could no longer stand listening to yet another talking head or watch the shrill displays of patriotic fervor from the anchors at stations like Fox News and MSNBC. But I have thought about a lot of things since September 11.

I have thought about how my son was “saved”. How many people have told me and how I have told myself that I should be grateful he was spared when so many others lost beloved sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers… I AM grateful, but at the same time, I wonder a little bitterly, “Why did those others lose their lives? Not just at the WTC, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, but in so many other places and times in history?” Two World Wars in the last century, the Holocaust, Korea, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the Sudan, Bosnia, all over the Middle East, on and on the list goes. What about all the people who’ve died from starvation, disease, natural disasters, the evil that human beings supposed to be created in His likeness, wreak upon one another? What else does God have in mind? Has He saved my son only to put him through more trials of endurance? Is He really a Divine Being or just some capricious Egotist who distributes suffering or blessing because it is His Pleasure to do so?

I have thought about what it means to be an immigrant and about love of home and country. I love Bombay, the city of my birth and the first 21 years of my life. I don’t think I will ever cease to feel “Indian” in whatever hybrid, cockeyed way I understand what that means. But India is no longer home. New York is. I have now lived here longer than I lived in India, almost 28 years. I love New York City with the passion one has for a once-in-a-lifetime lover and the affection one feels for a favorite pair of old pajamas.

The only thing I liked about living on Staten Island was riding the ferry into Manhattan and seeing the Statue of Liberty or driving up to the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing that fabulous, beckoning skyline come into view. I love New York’s buses and subways, its bus drivers and construction workers, its bridges and tunnels, its restaurants and museums, its bookstores and pizza shops, its concert halls and parks, its giant buildings and its noisy streets, its endless variety of neighborhoods and its feisty, complaining, pretentious, opinionated, but often surprisingly generous and goodhearted people who seem to come from every background under the sun. My history is written in so many places in this city. So when Bruce Springsteen performed the very haunting and beautiful dirge he wrote for the Hollywood tribute to the victims of September 11, and sang about “my city in ruins”, it was MY City he was mourning.

I am trying to understand why the people who wrought such havoc on September 11, 2001, did what they did. Intellectually, I have been trained to consider all points of view when making a judgment about any situation where each side claims their version of “reality” is the only “true” one. So who or what do we believe? Do we accept the position that what happened on September 11 was an abomination against the United States and all that it stands for and that therefore, we should make war against all those who were responsible and their supporters? Or should we try to “understand” the enemy and meekly accept that, as the Indian writer Arundhati Roy wondered aloud in a Guardian piece dated September 29, America got what was coming to it, not because of its ideals of freedom and democracy, but because of its government’s “record of commitment and support to…military and economic terrorism, insurgency, military dictatorship, religious bigotry and unimaginable genocide (outside America)? Maybe, there is truth in both propositions, but why is that conclusion so unsatisfying?

I am what I suppose is considered a lazy liberal. I like to think that no matter how preoccupied I am with my own life and my own problems, I would, if push came to shove, always be on the “right” side, the side that values justice over injustice, freedom over oppression, equal opportunity over inherited privilege. However, my positions are too often instinctively taken and, I am ashamed to admit, when asked to defend them with specific “facts and figures”, I’m embarrassed because I haven’t done the necessary homework to successfully take up the challenge.

I am very uncomfortable with public avowals of patriotism or pride in belonging to ANY group-national, ethnic, tribal or religious-because too often, the ugly side of pride in one’s own group, is a sense of entitlement, and a belief about the inferiority or unworthiness of all others who don’t belong. When I first read the excerpts from the Koran, found in the luggage of one of the accused terrorists, I was filled with revulsion. It seemed horrifying that a section of religious text had been so completely distorted through being ripped from its original context and plunked into a 21st century guidebook of step-by-step instructions on how to kill “the enemy”. It also denoted, to me, the kind of “cultish” mentality that makes human beings into mental robots who have completely abnegated any kind of individual, moral responsibility in favor of a “higher” law.  Weren’t the Nazis engaged in a similarly grotesque endeavor helping Hitler achieve his “grand vision” of a “pure” Aryan brotherhood from which Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and all other “non-human” elements had been eliminated?

By the same token, although I find it temporarily understandable, all the flag waving and endless renditions of the national anthem on every radio station in recent weeks leave me cold. Maybe its because I think, it was just such pride in the righteousness of their cause that motivated the terrorists to act with such frightening disregard for their own lives and the lives of the others they took with them.

But I was moved to tears when Willie Nelson sang America, the Beautiful in that same Hollywood tribute and I love the 2ndparagraph of The Declaration of Independence more than I love the collected works of Shakespeare or all of Beethoven’s nine symphonies.

I am also woefully ignorant about the hugely complicated history and politics of the countries of the Middle East and their relationship to the rest of the world. Along with probably many others, I am now hastily trying to make up for this through trying to get my hands on every article and book that will throw more light on the subject. I am trying to understand the connections between I slam, Islamic fundamentalism, Palestinian refugee camps, the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the justification for a ‘Jewish’ state or a ‘Muslim’ state, American interests in Arab oil, the rise of the Taliban, women forced to wear purdah, women denied education or equal rights under the law, refugees fleeing one oppressive regime for another, the international drug trade, the CIA, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan…It is impossible to make all the pieces of this puzzle fit together in a way that answers the simple question, “What is the right thing to do?”

We have all gone back to our everyday lives after September 11, 2001. Here at Yaffe/Ruden, our days are as busy as ever. Maybe there are small but significant changes in some of the kinds of calls we get. More patients are requesting help for sleeplessness and anxiety. We’ve certainly had our share of calls for precautionary Cipro prescriptions. Lots of folks want to know, “Can we get vaccines for anthrax or small pox?” But people still make appointments for all the usual reasons, still complain about their calls “getting lost” in our phone system and about the endlessly annoying bureaucracy of the HMOs. People still go to work and school and look forward to vacations in Cape Cod or Sundays at Coney Island, still plan for their children’s Bar Mitzvahs and First Holy Communions, still go to baseball games and rock concerts. Life tugs persistently even in the middle of death.

As I type these last few words for Chronicle 12, America has just launched the first strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan. I know I will be watching Christiane Ammanpour on CNN the rest of the evening. But later, I will brush my teeth and put moisturizer on my face, make my lunch and put out my clothes for tomorrow, Columbus Day, because I still have to get up early to take the 6:30 AM bus to work. I will think during the day about solving problems at the office, what I’m going to do about the student in my Cultural Anthropology class who was so offended by my reading aloud of the Arundhati Roy article mentioned above, I will worry about my children, I will try to remember what I have in the fridge that I can throw together for a quick dinner, I will look forward to watching a “new” Sid Caesar tape with my husband because its one of the few things we both find equally funny.

-Vera Mehta