I found out I was pregnant in October 2001. By all calculations, our baby was conceived a few days after 9/11.
My husband, Greg, and I work in New York City -- about a 20-minute cab ride or 30-minute walk from where the World Trade Center once stood. We were already parents when we got the news that I was expecting, but this was going to be my first pregnancy. Our first child, Eleanor, was adopted from South Korea in 1998. I had also been adopted from South Korea so we had made a conscious decision to build our family through adoption. The news of my pregnancy (at age 42!!) was a big surprise, but the fact that it followed on the heels of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history -- one Greg and I had witnessed not on TV but in real time from the window of our commuter train as we traveled to work -- gave me and my family a reason to remain strong and hopeful in the days, weeks, and months that followed.
Those of us who live and/or work in Manhattan don't need the aid of national news broadcasts or commemorative magazines to "reflect on and remember" what happened last September. How could we possibly forget? We feel the lingering presence of the attacks every day.
For months following the destruction of the World Trade Center, the air downtown was thick and rancid -- a strange mixture of smoke, metal, fuel oil, and burnt paper tinged with the sickeningly sweet odor emitted by charred human remains. Traffic patterns and subway systems were snarled for months after 9/11. Some subway stations near Ground Zero still have not reopened. Telephone poles throughout the city and the walls of major transportation hubs were plastered with photos of those missing and presumed dead. Many of those pictured wore wedding gowns or were seen smiling and mugging for the camera during a Caribbean vacation. All the posts were underscored by the same desperate plea from family members and friends: "Please contact us if you have any information regarding the whereabouts of... "
I feel very fortunate. I did not lose any family or friends in the terrorist attacks. But all of us in New York City who personally witnessed the World Trade Center's destruction remain haunted. We will never forget what we saw.
On the morning of September 11, Greg and I boarded our regular commuter train from New Jersey at 8:25 a.m. ET. As the train approached Manhattan, we had a direct view of the skyline at 8:45 a.m. ET when the first jet crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center and exploded. From where we were sitting, we couldn't see the plane careening into the building. What we saw was a steady stream of gray smoke curling into the sky. Greg said, "Look. There's a fire or something at the Trade Center." I glanced out the window then looked around. Even though I didn't grasp the magnitude of the moment as it was unfolding, I remember thinking how strange it was that no one else seemed to notice the smoking twin towers. A woman in the next row dabbed on lipstick. A man sitting next to us continued to peruse the stock pages of the Wall Street Journal. A college student across the aisle sat with her eyes closed -- her head thumping in time with the music flowing through the earphones plugged into her portable CD. After about three minutes had passed, the train's conductor got on the loudspeaker and said, "If you look out the window, you'll see that the World Trade Center appears to be on fire." It seems incredible to me now that no one screamed, gasped, or cried in response to his announcement. The car was eerily silent. None of us understood that it was probably the last time we'd be granted the luxury of reacting to anything out of the ordinary with such nonchalance and confidence.
Knowing what I know today, it seems impossible that Greg and I kissed good-bye that morning then headed off for our separate offices. How could we not have sensed that something life-changing had just happened? Now any time I see a gathering of police officers, hear a series of sirens, or sense panic in a crowd, my pulse quickens and I think, "Oh, God. Has something else happened?"
Once I arrived at work and learned that the second plane had hit the south tower at 9:03 a.m. and that several other planes were reported missing, I left my office and ran as fast as I could back to Penn Station so I could get home to Eleanor. I had made several futile attempts to call Greg. The phone lines in and around New York City were overloaded for hours, even days, immediately following 9/11. As I rushed past crowds on 7th Avenue, pushing my way toward Penn Station, I saw people weeping and staggering in the opposite direction shouting, "Get out! Get out!"
I wasn't sure that the trains were even running. One person outside of Penn Station said all transportation in and out of Manhattan had been suspended. I decided to take my chances and head down to the tracks to find a train -- any train -- that could get me out of Manhattan and into New Jersey. I figured I could take a taxi to my home, but I didn't want to be stranded on the wrong side of the Hudson River, unable to reach my daughter. When I reached the boarding area, I was somewhat surprised (but very relieved) to find that my train line was still running. I quickly boarded one of the last trains to leave Manhattan before New Jersey Transit shut down for several hours. (Greg did not arrive home until much later that evening.)
I slid into a seat at the back of the car -- one with no windows. At around 9:45 a.m., there were gasps and cries when a fellow passenger shouted, "Another plane has hit the Pentagon." I watched the reactions of those around me. Some faces filled with grief or horror while others were bathed in numbness and incomprehension. Our train left the station and several people in front of me gathered near the row of windows on the side of the car facing New York City. As we emerged from the tunnel that runs under the Hudson River, passengers near the windows stood in stunned submission as they gazed at the World Trade Center towers smoking in the distance. I didn't have the heart to look. I was happy just to close my eyes and try to make sense of all that had happened in the last hour.
Then the unthinkable happened.
At 10:05 a.m. the south tower of the World Trade Center cascaded to the ground in a cloud of dust, fire, and debris. A man sitting in front of me pressed his hands against the window and shouted, "No. This can't be happening. No. No. No." Others screamed and cried out shortly before a frightening hush traveled through the car.
If you've ever been in a car accident, your know that there is this moment when you realize that something bad -- possibly fatal -- is about to happen and there is nothing you can do to stop it. You have no way of knowing what the end result will be. Your only choice is to surrender to your fate and to hope (and pray) that you'll emerge alive and intact once you've reached the other side of impact. I experienced this same feeling in the 23 minutes between the fall of the south and north towers of the World Trade Center. I knew -- we all knew -- what was coming and during that time I experienced that same bone-chilling sense of surrender. I wondered what shape my world, my country, my city, and my family would be in after the second tower had fallen. For a split second I allowed myself to imagine that this might be the end of the world, that a weapon of mass destruction might be on its way. I also realized that the worst thing about this possibility was that I would not be spending my final moments on earth with Greg and Eleanor. Suddenly my focus narrowed. Getting everybody home safely was the only thing that really mattered.
Six weeks later, I found out I was pregnant.
When you're pregnant, the passing of time takes on a new sense of urgency and wonder. Your body changes. Hormones rage. After several weeks you can no longer look down and see your own shoes! New markers like "trimesters" and "due dates" provide the context in which you live and plan your life. Because of my condition, I wasn't living by the same internal clock as my neighbors, colleagues, and friends in the days immediately following 9/11. They were counting the days, weeks, and months until everything would become "normal" again.
The fact that I had gotten pregnant against overwhelming odds (women my age have about a 1 to 3 percent chance of conceiving) couldn't have happened at a more significant time. I am not a religious person nor am I someone who accepts "It was meant to be" as a reasonable explanation for many things that happen in life. Yet the miracle of my unborn child's existence was something even I couldn't deny. Greg and I hadn't planned on ever having birth children, yet here he was -- a new baby -- the most hopeful of things taking root in the hours immediately following such a monumental tragedy.
In my small circle, the people who coped most effectively right after 9/11 were those who were most comfortable with their own mortality and vulnerability. New Yorkers are notorious "control freaks," and I'm convinced that those unwilling to loosen their grip on life in the hours following the fall of the towers suffered the most. In my case, I never had much of a choice. Pregnancy forces you to give up control of your body, your privacy, and your general comfort. In the 40 weeks following the terrorist attacks, I experienced the ultimate kind of surrender: making room in my physical and emotional space for another person to live inside me until he was strong enough to survive on his own.
One of the best decisions I made at the beginning of my pregnancy was to take a "head in the sand" approach to news and information that didn't directly affect how I behaved on a daily basis. As a former newspaper reporter, this was hard. But how else could I hope to maintain even a small measure of sanity? After having a front-row seat at the destruction of the World Trade Center, I didn't have the capacity (or desire) to indulge in the disturbing worst-case scenarios being posed by the so-called experts and warmongers appearing on the nightly newscasts. None of us could have ever imagined, even in our wildest dreams, that terrorist hijackers would crash three planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, causing the twin towers to collapse in heaps of ash, metal, and debris. What good could come from reviewing possible terrorist threats -- especially (in the case of a smallpox epidemic) if we were ill equipped or powerless to stop them?
Don't get me wrong. I never jeopardized my safety or that of my unborn baby by steering clear of the news pages. I heeded credible news warnings and took action when necessary. When the rash of anthrax attacks occurred at neighboring New York media companies, I quit opening my letters and I refused to go anywhere near the mailroom. I just couldn't devote 15, 10, or even five minutes each to day to the kind of idle terrifying speculation that surfaced immediately after the terrorist attacks. It would sap me of my energy and leave me feeling powerless and full of despair.
Instead I drew inspiration from accounts of surviving World Trade Center workers who had been pregnant during the terrorist attacks. I marveled at how the adrenal rush -- the overpowering will to save their unborn babies -- enabled them to make it down 40 or 50 flights of stairs to safety. I followed, in awe, the stories of widows who were pregnant when their partners perished on 9/11. I admired their courage and conviction and I respected the difficulties each of them had in reconciling such tremendous losses with the love they felt for their newborn children.
Our son, Max, was born via cesarean section shortly after noon on June 4, 2002 in a large New York City hospital. I was only partially conscious after the delivery when my doctor came into the recovery room and asked Greg and me if we would mind being interviewed by CNN. The news channel was doing a story about babies born nine months after 9/11 and the producers were asking all new parents in the hospital if they'd be willing to participate. We declined because I was too exhausted. But had I been up to it I would've told them this: Max, and every child conceived in the days following 9/11, is an affirmation that our faith in life and our national resolve continues to live on.
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