Every year, the world relives 9/11 through its horrific imagery: the planes smashing into the Towers; the ribbons of smoke flowing from Lower Manhattan into Brooklyn; the hoards of people huddled together in shock and devastation; the Missing Persons signs wallpapering Union Square. And every year, the first person who comes into my mind is my father, a lifelong New Yorker who experienced the tragedy from hundreds of miles away, and as a blind man.
He'd lost his sight a few months earlier, basically waking up one morning to vastly diminished vision that slipped further away over the course of a week. It was blamed on Ischemic Optic Neuropathy, a stroke in one eye that spread to the other as the result of an immune system weakened by cancer. An incredibly good-looking (and vain) man who'd always been a quick study, he was still able to do everyday things like shower and dress himself. But for more complex tasks, he was assigned a social worker from The Lighthouse for the Blind, who taught him to use a cane and shave his face and cook himself soup.
Divorced from my mother for several years, he was engaged when the loss of vision occurred; his fiance called off their engagement and asked my father to move out of her house. That was when fate stepped in. While my sister and I scrambled to find a place for my father to live (even if we'd had enough room in the apartment we shared, we couldn't have put up with his manic moods, his selfish tendencies), Dad reconnected with an old girlfriend -- a former nurse, as luck would have it -- in Burlington, Vermont, where he'd gone to college 40 years earlier. Sharon was stunned to hear about his condition and instantly offered to have him come live up there with her.
And so, on July 4th weekend of 2001, my sister and I helped my father move his life from Long Island, where he'd lived for the past 50+ years, to a city we barely knew. And it was sitting on the couch of his new apartment there, listening to the Today show (and with his daughters 300 miles away), that Dad learned that one plane, and then another, had crashed into the World Trade Center.
"Helpless," "scared" and "confused" are the adjectives Dad used to describe the way he felt upon hearing the news; since he is gone now, I can't go back and ask him to elaborate. All I know is that he reached my sister and me on our cell phones just a few minutes after the second plane hit, before the city lost service. "Are you okay?" he asked first, swallowing the words in his urgency. And then: "Describe what you are seeing." In moments such as that one, I felt like my decision to become a writer was a fateful one, like maybe my whole life was leading up to being the descriptive guide for my father. I was walking from my office in Madison Square Park to my apartment on Lower Fifth Avenue when the first tower fell. I told Dad everything I saw, and he was silent on the other line; I could tell he was crying. He urged me to stay inside, lest there be another attack; writing these words now, I remember how it seemed the whole world was going to end on that day. And then, my phone service went on the fritz, and I didn't talk to my father again for several hours.
During that time, he got all his information through the television, from TV journalists as uncertain about what was happening as the rest of us. He didn't leave his couch until evening, and said he thought he could make out the image of the burning towers on his backlit television. (He was occasionally able to decipher silhouettes of people and objects, if the lighting was just so.) He cried, multiple times. He repeatedly phoned us, phoned my mother, phoned other friends in New York. A week later, he boarded a JetBlue plane and came back to his city, so we could walk him through Union Square and he could feel the loss, if not actually see those Missing Persons ads, floral arrangements and votive candles. He cried there, too, a lot; possibly more than I had ever seen him cry. These were his people, and this was where he was meant to be.
My father eventually succumbed to cancer on September 22nd, 2002 -- almost a year to the day after 9/11. All New Yorkers were changed by the tragedy, but I think that day made Dad realize, more than anything else since his blindness, just how much he'd personally lost in the months prior. So while I, along with the rest of the world, will spend next Sunday mourning all the people we lost on that cloudless September day, I will also -- once again -- mourn my father's loss of his vision, his city and life as he knew it.