How To Live

[I post this every year on September 11.]

That was it.

Everything was gone.

He knew this on some instinctive level, though the had no time to really understand what that meant. He rolled from underneath an SUV, jelly-legs, and looked around. The building would not stop collapsing. It came down, then the giant clouds of dust, coffee cups, motherboards, phones, people, a burning Pompeii in the sky. Now the air was full of dust lighter than air, floating on the currents. When he rubbed his eyes, they stung. He tasted gritty metal in his mouth, and he spat on the ground.

The ground was covered in ash, like a nuclear winter. He lifted his face, astonished to feel sunlight suffused through the dust, warm on his cheekbones. His red, irritated eyes would not register the empty blue space where a 105-story building had stood until just sixty seconds ago.

It was over. Gone. Work, marriage, Manhattan: gone.

Sean stumbled forward, knowing he must move. He had lived in Manhattan for most of his life, yet he was disoriented. He did not know which streets led where, or even where he was going. He looked down and realized he was still holding his cell phone. With the clarity of shock he knew that she would not be on the other end anymore. He slid the device into his pocket and continued to walk, picking up random documents from the debris, as if he could save something, anything.

The second building came down. He felt the rumble vibration in his body, he saw the cloud, grey-white, huge, abstract. He stood shivering with strangers in a small bodega, face pressed against the glass, watching the building pass him by.

It took hours to find his apartment. His parents burst into tears when they saw him. He recoiled, he did not want to be hugged or touched.

He went into the bathroom and turned on the shower and stepped in the stream. Under the water, he pulled off his jacket, his shirt, pants, underwear, socks, shoes. The floor outside the shower was muddy. Dirt and dust and people.

He stood under the shower.

It was all gone. His wife. His job. He tried to wash off the dust. The dust was in his nose, in the seashell curves of his ear, between his teeth, under his fingernails, in his hair. He lifted his face to the stream.

He checked on his son. His son was napping. His son slept through it, somehow.

There was no hope. But even not having hope was torture because in the darkness was the promise of light. He second-hand hoped, grudgingly, against his better judgement. He hoped because it was all he knew how to do.

His home phone would not stop ringing. His mother answered the calls. One of the calls was from his company’s CEO. He told the CEO that he was alive. He agreed to meet him in the morning.

He did not sleep. They watched television all night and talked on the phone. He went to bed around four but could not sleep. At six-thirty, his alarm rang. He got up and showered and dressed. It was all gone but he could not step outside the template of his life. He could not stop acting like it still existed.

His mother could not sleep either. In the morning, his mother made eggs. Sean drank orange juice to please her, but could not eat the eggs. The eggs were scrambled and had onion and diced green bell peppers in them, and a little bit of cheese. They were his favorite eggs. He could not eat the eggs. He drank the juice and he washed his cup and left in the sink. He knew his mother would clean the cup. He left there as an act of mercy, to give her something to do – an apology for not eating her eggs.

His parents did not want him to go. He had to go because it was all he knew how to do. Everything was gone, except the outline of a life. He would trace the outline. He would lie in bed even if he could not sleep. He would eat. Maybe not today, but eventually. He would look for his life in the outlines. The existence of the outlines, the actions taken in rote memory, would lead him up and out.

He kissed his son. He took his father’s cell phone, which had periodic coverage, and he left.

There was nothing left.

The company was gone.

There was no building, no desk, no computer, no paperclips, no printers, no chairs, no coffee cups, no phone system. There was no way to know who was alive and who was dead. He met with the CEO and a few others who had survived. The first thing to do was make a system for accounting for those who were alive.

They used pens and paper. They tried to hunt down survivors. Sean would not think of his hope. Sean would focus on the next minute. When that was too much, the next second. He had an outline. When he felt like screaming he knew that he wouldn’t because he had an outline that would keep him contained.

Rumors would appear – Joe was alive! – but then hours later the rumor would die. They visited hospitals. They called widows.

When they were not trying to account for the people who might have survived, they worked. There was a back up facility in New Jersey, and another office in London.

Everything was gone, but there were backups. As long as he could manage the problem of getting data back online, he did not have to know that most of his coworkers were dead. He worked hard.

They set up an office at a hotel. It was a clearing house for information, where widows could come and try to find out about insurance settlements, and a place where the skeleton crew would try to work. He bought computers with his own money for those who came in, shellshocked like himself, and wanted to work. He bought pens and pads and food.

When the markets opened, he took orders for trades over the phone. He had not been a trader in a very long time, but he took the orders, writing them down on a pad of paper, then calling the order in to the backup facility, and the back up facility would complete the order. When he was not taking orders, he was trying to get a new system built, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was trying to find out who was alive.

The small hope was extinguished after ten days. After ten days, he said, “she is gone.” He shut his eyes to hope. He could not concentrate on the pain of that knowledge, so he worked hard. He took orders on the phone, like it was 1981.

One day he heard piano music. He looked up and saw Carol King playing the piano, singing “You’ve Got A Friend.”

Joe is alive! Joe was not alive.

The funerals began. There was a funeral every day for eighteen months, sometimes two or more a day. When the funerals became too much, friends would step in and go in his stead. He would go in their stead. The survivors tried to be everywhere, every funeral, every widow’s midnight companion, every babysitter helper nursemaid. They tried but they were exhausted.

He was a widower but he made himself available to the widows who called in the middle of the night, crying, wanting to know, “what was the last thing he said to you?” or “tell me what he was like at work.”

The widows had children. The widows did not know how to balance their checkbooks or who their mortgage company was. Sean drove to Westchester County one Saturday morning and helped the wife of a friend get her financial affairs in order. He wrote out the checks himself while she nursed her newborn baby. When he was done, he saw that she had fallen asleep with the baby on the sofa. The widows were exhausted too.

The funerals were a full-time job. He dutifully attended the funerals. He tended to the widows. He bought computers and food.

They had a meeting about new office space. Sean said, “Any suggestions?”
Someone said, “Not a tall building.”

They all laughed.

They got a new office space. Sean took a an office on the top floor. A plane would not fly into the building, but once he looked down at the street and he knew that anyone who wanted to could drive up with a car bomb, park on the curb, and accomplish almost the same thing.

They had new office space. He had an office on the top floor.

Work – the company – had come back from the dead. Nothing else would repeat the miracle. His wife was gone. His old life was gone, a giant swirl and enormous vacancy.

Everything else had fallen apart, disintegrated, collapsed, pancaked. There was nothing but dirt. He had released himself from hope and all thoughts of a future of peace.

Without being consciously aware of it, he had made a vow that he would survive. The vow was the broken remains, the trace of eternity, which a person can live on for the rest of his life. Even if it cursed him, he loved it. He dragged it with him, lugging it into the sunlight, into darkness, exposing it to the elements. It could not be broken.

Filthy air filled his lungs.

Unfathomable evolving. Do you know what you are, what you have been, what you may or must become?


  1. Thoughts and prayers are with you and your family today, Sean. God bless you.

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