When we make a choice to take an action out of the ordinary, many unexpected outcomes can result. For example, when I asked my manager for a leave of absence during January 2001, before she responded, she said that I had a lot of courage. “What?”, I said, because it certainly didn’t feel as if any courage was involved. She explained that because the company had been having layoffs, I might be sending the message that I didn’t want or need my job.
Hmmm, I hadn’t considered that. “Do you still want to put in a request for a six-week unpaid leave of absence,” she asked. “Yes.” I had no doubt about it. She assured me that she would encourage her director to approve, but could not guarantee it. Thank you, Tracy. Two days later, my request was approved. The immediate expected result was my one-month trip to Thailand on my own, with no tour guide, no agenda other than to be open to new experiences and adventure every day.
Fast forward to fall of 2001, after being back to work for six months. As had been the case before my leave of absence, every two weeks I flew to New York on Monday morning, returning home on Wednesday afternoon. I alternated between staying in Manhattan at the World Trade Center and staying in Jersey City, depending on where I had meetings. This time, I was in Jersey City, working on the 25th floor. I’d flown in on Monday, September 10, for a routine day. On September 11, I arrived at my office at about 8:30 and was working at my desk when a colleague several desks away screamed. Several of us ran to her desk, where she was clearly distressed.
“A plane just hit the World Trade Center!”, she screamed. The floor-to-ceiling windows in front of her desk looked across the river at that building. We looked with her and saw nothing unusual, just clear blue skies above the city. “Was it a little plane?,” I asked. “No, it was a full size plane!,” tears streaming down her face.
We stood by her desk for a few minutes, bewildered, watching. Seeing nothing unusual, we returned to our own desks. Another few minutes passed and her new screams brought us back to her desk again, facing the windows. “Another one hit”, she screamed. This time, we could see the smoke coming from the side of the World Trade Center facing us.
My immediate thought was: “My God, we are being attacked! We are actually being attacked, right here in the United States!”
We were in one of the tallest buildings on the New Jersey side of the river. “I wonder if we should leave the building,” I said. Just then, the building’s alarms began to sound, instructing us to leave quickly. I didn’t even take my computer, just grabbed my purse and walked down the stairs, the 25 flights.
My colleagues and I gathered at the base of the building, uncertain about what to do next or where to go. One person headed for an ATM, saying they might not be available soon. Another headed for a grocery store to stock up. Pretty quickly, ferries from New York with frightened passengers began to disembark near us. It became clear that on the New York side, roads had been closed quickly. The ferries were returning to New York empty, ready to assist people leaving.
My hotel was only a few blocks away and I invited others from my office to join me there. They were unable to return to their homes because the roads were blocked and public transportation was stopped. One colleague, Masha, was frantic with worry. She had a sister, Ruthie, who worked near the World Trade Center. This was hours before we knew the details of what was actually happening.
About a dozen of us walked to my hotel. Along the way, I was astounded by what greeted me. People who lived and worked there had spontaneously set up help stations with chairs for people who needed to sit and cups of water for those who were thirsty. I was overwhelmed by the kindnesses I witnessed and numbed by the steady blue skies that seemed out of place with what was actually happening.
When we reached my hotel, the lobby was packed with people who could not get to their homes. I stopped at the desk and told them that I was taking friends up to my room with me. The staff were understanding, assured me they were welcome.
As soon as we got into the room, we turned on the tv and learned what was happening. Over the hours, we watched the towers, thinking it impossible that they could fall, until they did. Then, we watched it over – and over – and over.
Have I mentioned that phone systems were not working? Somehow, I had expected that the hotel’s phones would work, but, no. This was in the days before cell phones were ubiquitous, but Tracy, remember Tracy who had ok’d my leave of absence? Well, Tracy had a cell phone and called others who had one. My room became the home base for identifying staff from our office and their safety. Somehow, Masha contacted her sister, Ruthie, and asked if she could join us. Of course! When she arrived, there was a collective cheer of shared joy!
Suddenly, the hotel phone rang, in service again. I answered it and it was my husband. Flying to New York had become so routine for me that I had neglected to let him know which hotel I would be staying at, so he kept calling both hotels all day, fearful that I’d been at the Millennium at the World Trade Center. After I assured him that I was fine, I asked him to call my mother to let her know I was ok. When the others in the room heard me say that, they began to ask if he would make a call for them. I passed around the phone and Paul wrote down names and numbers for the dozen calls he would make when we hung up.
The next call I made was to my son. Incredibly, Jack happened to be working in New York for the first time ever that weekend! He worked for an art storage company in Boston and was packaging, then delivering art from New York to Boston. Although he was on the other side of the city from me, somehow it made me feel better to know that he was nearby and safe. However, it was not clear when either of us would be able to leave, with all roads and means of travel shut down. We agreed to keep in touch.
By the time we were ready to sleep, everyone had been able to get back to their homes except Masha, Ruthie, and me. They shared one bed and I had the other. By morning, the commotion of the day before had diminished. When I looked out the hotel window, I could see a piece of heavy equipment in the distance with an American flag attached high. “Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” That line of our national anthem kept going through my head and I cried for the first time. I had been numb.
It was Wednesday now and the world felt new, raw, and unfamiliar to me. I don’t remember how it happened, but I learned that I could return to the office and get my computer. I wanted desperately to be home. It was unclear when planes would be flying again and trains were not running either. No cars were available to rent and it was unknown when any travel option would become available again. Somehow, we got through that day and the next, though my memory of it is blurred. Finally, on Friday, my son called to say that he had a van from his company and did I want to drive home with him?
I was so excited to be leaving and to have that time with Jack. He was to take me to Logan, where I had left my car. When we arrived at the airport, it was like something from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, nothing moving anywhere. No planes, no cars in motion. When we entered the parking garage, an attendant checked our identification, then stood by when I got out of the van near my car. That’s when I began to cry hysterically, with an awareness of being in a new world. Jack got out of the van and the attendant came to me, offering support, the attendant asking if I wanted someone to accompany me. “No, I just need a few minutes,” I said. Jack gave me a giant hug and I drove away.
The 20-mile drive to home was eerie, routes 128 and 1 deserted. I was – what’s the right word? Not happy, mostly relieved to reach home and be enveloped by my husband at last. That night, there was a lightening storm. The thunder woke me and I went to the front door, looked up, and thought we were being bombed. It took me a few minutes to recognize that it was only lightening. That evening and the next day, friends and neighbors stopped over to express their relief that I was unharmed. I felt like Dorothy, home from Oz, so grateful to see them all again.
So, what’s the connection to my month in Thailand? The company’s plan had been for me to be laid off on 9/11. Because of the attack on the World Trade Center, I got to keep that job for another few months. In early January 2012, my job ended and I gladly began a period of renewal before moving into my next career.