09/08/2011 12:38 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2011

Tragedy Reminds Us Of What Really Matters

As I boarded the airplane for Hawaii, I was full of dread. I didn't know if I would immediately hop back on the first flight to San Francisco, my two boys in tow, or stay for our family's annual working vacation.

Earlier that day, after my husband and our older child caught a morning flight to Oahu, I found undeniable proof of what I had suspected for almost two years -- my husband had been having a long-term affair. As my young son watched movies and napped on our afternoon flight, I tried to hold it together. I masked my pain with a fake smile and by burying my face in my book, When Your Lover is a Liar -- the title hidden under a paper bag book cover I'd made -- looking for help on how to confront my husband, asking myself over and over, now what?

I was already reeling from the news that my dearest friend and her family would be moving back to the East Coast shortly. Her children were my children's best friends; they were over my house so often it was as if they were my kids, too.

It was the summer of 2001.

A few weeks later, I watched in paralyzing horror as the World Trade Center was reduced to rumble. My father had worked on the upper floors of the south tower for many years, delighting in the ways the tower swayed on windy days; I spent the first 19 years of my life in New York City and then returned for a few years in my 20s before leaving for good. New York was home; my husband and kids were my life. At once the things that mattered most to me -- family, home, friends -- seemed to be crumbling as the towers did. I was overcome with grief, trying to wrap my head around what had happened to my city, my country and my tiny corner of the world.

I cannot separate the dissolution of my marriage from 9/11. While the marriage was clearly in trouble before that fateful day, the tragedy clouded my reasoning. Pained by all the years of deception, I still wanted to make my marriage work; I thought of those who lost a spouse that day and would never have the same opportunity I now had before me. I thought of the frantic last phone calls to loved ones; none of us wants to die alone. I thought of those who left for work that morning angry or disappointed with their partner for something that -- in the end -- meant little if anything at all. I thought of how, when faced with our own mortality, we finally understand the clichéd phrase of "what really matters" -- often too late.

But it also demanded of me an honest answer: Yes, I was worried about my kids, but was my desire to salvage my marriage a need to hold onto something -- anything -- that felt normal and real amid the ruins?

Two years later, I divorced.

When faced with tragedy, it's hard to make sense of things. We either grab on to what we have or run away. Sept. 11 was a national tragedy and a personal one for the thousands who lost loved ones and for the rescuers who still suffer today. While we all live with death and loss, many of us may also know tragedy intimately; in the course of a lifetime, there's a 22 percent chance we'll experience a natural disaster, a 69 percent chance we'll experience a traumatic event -- a tragic death, an automobile accident, an assault.

Divorce itself is like a death; there's a period of grieving that must occur to get through it. While there are rituals that allow us to openly express and share grief after a death and that invite compassion, there are none for divorce; instead, there often is judgment, shame, a sense of failure. It is, after all, a man-made "tragedy."

In the aftermath of disasters out of our control, we marry, we divorce, we make babies, we start affairs or end them, we act reckless, we settle down, we become religious or lose our faith, we self-destruct, we make promises or we break them -- all with a sense of urgency and passion.

"In a life-threatening situation, people are motivated to reevaluate their lives, their goals, their futures and their priorities," says Catherine L. Cohan of Penn State University, who studied how 1989's Hurricane Hugo and 9/11 impacted relationships. "There may be a feeling that life is too short and they are motivated to change whatever situation they are in, whether it is getting into a marriage or getting out of a bad relationship or having a child."

For many people, 9/11 was a reminder of how random life is and how truly vulnerable we are. We go about making plans, making assumptions, acting as if we are in control, but we aren't -- not of everything. So many of us vowed to change -- to be better parents or partners or community members or better to ourselves. Ten years later, those positive changes may be how some of us now define ourselves; others may have reverted to their old ways. The sense of urgency is gone, but maybe it shouldn't be. Life is precious. We can't live thinking each day might be the last, but we can never know for sure what's ahead. "We've got this moment now to live, then it's all just dust and dark," writes Bruce Springsteen in "Worlds Apart," a song from his album reflecting upon 9/11, "The Rising."

After 9/11 I vowed that I would always make sure the people I care about know how much I love and appreciate them. At midlife, I am entering a time when there will be much more loss and grieving ahead; I don't want any regrets. This 9/11, as I quietly honor those who died and those who risked their lives, I will hug my loved ones just that much tighter.