Like many unhappily married couples in New York City, I had been pondering the question of whether or not I should get divorced for years before finally making the decision to leave. I won't go into any details as to why I yearned to leave my husband -- let's just say we had certain "core issues" we were trying to "work out." And while it seemed pretty clear to me (and to our marriage counselor) that our differences were irreconcilable, I never had the strength or the courage to actually leave. I was full of fear and self-doubt back then. Plus, I was locked into an unhealthy dynamic in which the very husband I wanted to leave would often tell me that I would "never make it" on my own and that "no one would want me anyway." Part of me believed him. Clearly, I was stuck.
Now, people who are stuck are very good at denial, and people in denial seem to be willing to tolerate a less-than-perfect present because they believe (or rather want to believe) in a better and perfect future. Thus, I always told myself that "one day" my marriage would get better.
Then one day the future stopped. Our city was attacked. The planes hit the towers. Hundreds of people jumped to their deaths. Thousands burned. Thousands more were crushed as the towers collapsed. On the streets, people screamed in terror, fleeing for their lives. Time itself seemed cleaved in half: Before 9/11 and After.
Who can forget the fear on those peoples' faces as they fled? Who can forget the now-iconic photograph of the Falling Man? So much has been already written about the Falling Man at this point; scores of essays and poems and even films have explored what he has come to symbolize on a global level. But I can only speak about how he affected me and my decision to finally take action to change my life -- to not just hope it would change.
You see, it wasn't just that he jumped. It was that he jumped alone.
It is often said that the only thing we humans fear more than death is dying alone. And thus many of us are terrified of being alone ever-- even when we are young and healthy and supposedly immune to death. (The attacks on September 11th, of course, taught us all that none of us are immune, ever). We could die alone, within seconds.
But that week, I realized I already was alone. As soon as my husband heard about the attacks, he left our apartment in Brooklyn and rushed to his office in midtown. He was, and still is, a television news producer -- and an excellent one at that. He left on Monday morning and I did not see him again for several long and lonely and agonizing and traumatic days. And while I do not condemn him for leaving me behind that week -- I respect his work and understand his decision -- I must confess that his choice affected mine. I suppose it's because when we are alone in the midst of crisis, we are forced to really face our true selves. And sometimes it's not pretty.
A friend once mused: "Which is worse: to be unhappy in a relationship, or to be unhappy alone?" Ah, we were young and witty and bitter then. (Plus, we were MFA candidates, which meant that bitterness could work to our advantage in terms of our prose.) I always chose the former -- the unhappy relationships -- because, yes, I was one of those women who was terrified of being alone. But on September 11th, I realized nothing is lonelier than to feel alone in one's own marriage.
I worry that I am now sounding insensitive here -- talking about my own personal concepts of loneliness just a few paragraphs after mentioning the horrors of September 11th and the Falling Man.
But one forced me to look at the other. The "some day" had come. It was finally time to ask myself: Why was I so willing to tolerate dysfunction? And what role did I play in that? Why did I always feel so alone, in a city of eight million; in a world of six billion? And what if there was a third option to this unhappy-alone versus unhappy-with-partner scenario? What if it was actually possible to be just plain happy?
I had to find out. And I believed the only way I could find answers was to leave.
Plus, would it sound weird if I said that, after 9/11, I felt duty-bound to pursue happiness? I felt duty-bound to all those people who had died in pain and terror and fear; to all those who lost their loved ones; to anyone who has ever felt alone.
There I was: a timid woman in her early thirties, lying alone in front of a television on a sofa in Brooklyn, watching the towers fall again and again. I couldn't help but think of all the times I had wanted to leave my husband, but had decided to stay because of fear. I had many valid reasons for wanting to leave, and many invalid ones, but my reason for staying was stronger: I believed his claim that I would "never make it" on my own. Fear thinking.
Yet what was this fear compared to the ones the victims faced, especially the jumpers, who were forced to choose between being burned alive or leaping to their deaths?
No, I decided, the world does not need any more fear. Not even the low-grade fears or doubts or uncertainties I felt in my marriage. The world did not need another second of pain or doubt or loneliness. She needed answers, and courage.
After 9/11, someone began circulating an email attributed to Neale Donald Walsch, which included the sentence: "The time has come for us to demonstrate at the highest level our most extraordinary thoughts about Who We Really Are."
I wanted to know who I really was. And I guess I decided I would not be able to truly know myself if I remained locked in an unhealthy dynamic with my husband.
And please don't think I disliked my husband. I loved him. It seems a lot of couples feel they need to hate their spouses in order to justify divorce. But after 9/11 it occurred to me that leaving him might possibly be the greatest act of love I could offer. We both needed to find ourselves. We both needed to get to the root of our then-unhappiness, and unearth it, and set it free, so that we could each experience the true happiness we both deserved. Every being on this planet deserves happiness, right? And how many lives had been cut short on 9/11 before they attained this?
And so I ventured forth, on my own. There was still the fear that I wouldn't make it on my own. And it was quite possible I would, in the end, still die alone. But I had to try. I had to try to be fearless. Just as the Falling Man had tried.
Was it possible that the Falling Man had a moment of peace and acceptance before he leapt? Did he remember the one he loved and hold her in his heart as he fell? I hope so. Because that's what it means to rise.