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Sept. 11, 2012—A note to the reader: I published this post last year in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I would like to share it with you again, today, as we acknowledge another sadly inevitable milestone, and leave you with these words from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay:

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.

So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

—From “Dirge Without Music”

Dedicated to those who died, and to those whose lives were changed forever.

Like many of you, I sat transfixed in front of the television today, watching the poignant ceremonies and tributes in New York City, in Washington, D.C., and in Shanksville, Penn., honoring the victims and heroes of September 11. Like many of you, I watched with a loved one, grateful that I was not alone with these heartrending images. Like many of you, I remain painfully aware of the thousands of loved ones who saw their lives forever altered during those brief, horrific hours ten years ago.

My heart goes out to these families. I cannot even begin to imagine the magnitude of their loss, the depths of their grief.

My husband and I also watched MSNBC’s playback of NBC’s live coverage of those terrifying moments when the world changed. We held hands tightly. My gaze remained fixed on the gaping hole in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I could almost see the imprint left by the plane, a jagged, gaping black hole belching smoke.

My husband was to have been there.

At the time, of course, he was not my husband. At the time, I did not even know that he existed. I was still married to my first husband, he to his first wife.

Ten years ago, surrounded by colleagues and students, I watched the catastrophe unfold in real-time; someone had set up a television in the student lounge at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where I worked. I had no idea that less than 50 miles from where I stood, a man sat with his own colleagues, watching the same images, shaking his head in wonderment that he was alive.

These are the jolts of time and circumstance that leave me speechless, in awe of the powerful forces that alter our lives.

John has spent the majority of his career in commercial insurance, specifically, environmental insurance. From 1994 through 1998, he worked in the Cleveland office of AIG. It was while John was with AIG that he became friends with a New York-based AIG colleague, Jeffrey Gardner. John left AIG to become vice-president and managing director of Seneca Environmental Management, a division of Seneca Specialty Insurance Company. Jeffrey ultimately left AIG to join Marsh McLennan as an environmental insurance broker. At the time of the attacks on 9/11, Marsh McLennan had offices on eight floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Because John’s responsibilities at Seneca involved all aspects of national marketing and underwriting, he traveled frequently for work, often to meet with his clients—insurance brokers in cities all across the country. Jeffrey was now a client. At 8:30 on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, John had a meeting scheduled with Jeffrey in his office at the WTC.

Less than one week before their meeting, John telephoned Jeffrey to postpone. “I looked at my calendar and realized that we would both be at the same conference at San Antonio in a few weeks’ time, so I called Jeffrey and suggested that we put off our meeting until then. It is so vivid—I remember standing next to my desk and looking out the window on a clear Friday afternoon, with my phone in my hand as we spoke for the last time.”

At 8:46 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, 16 minutes after the originally scheduled time of John’s meeting with Jeffrey Gardner, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north side of the North Tower, between the 94th and 98th floors.

Jeffrey’s office at Marsh McLennan, where he was to have met with John, was on the 98th floor.

John watched the horror unfold from the safety of a third-floor office in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, with his colleagues. Here is his account:

I didn’t make the connection at first—that I would have been staring at the nose of the aircraft as it split the building.  All I could think of was the terror coursing through the veins of everyone in the building. I knew quite a few people in there and my brother, Brian, lived just across the river, in Brooklyn.  I heard about it on the car radio on my way to work; I lived just a few miles from the office, so I turned around to get a small TV from the house so those of us in the office could follow what was happening.  I returned with the TV and had plugged it in just after the second plane struck the South Tower. 

All seven of us were in the office, riveted to the TV. I turned to see one of my assistants, Elaine, staring at me.  Her face was ashen. She whispered, “You were supposed to be there.” Then, after a measured pause, she repeated the same words in a slightly more audible voice. It was then that I felt my stomach drive itself into my throat.  All of a sudden I could almost feel a part of myself in the office and a part of myself standing hopelessly somewhere among the mass hysteria that was unfolding. 

Just as I was coming to grips with the fact that I was safe, the first tower collapsed.  My own words came slowly this time: “I was supposed to be there. I was supposed to be there.” I could not take my eyes off what I was witnessing, knowing that my fate had placed me safely in a third-floor office in Northeast Ohio instead of in the unspeakable crosshairs of history. I would be able to come home and hug my sons, and they would still have a dad. 

Despite our inability to connect with home office for days, we eventually learned that all of our company people were accounted for. But had I not made that fateful call to change my plans for that day, there would have been one less name on the company roster.

The two beautiful waterfalls designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker that now soothe the scorched footprints of the Twin Towers at the Memorial site have a most philosophical name: “Reflecting Absence.” John and I plan to pay our respects, to look at the names etched in bronze on the memorial’s perimeters. We will pause when we get to Jeffrey Gardner’s. We will say a prayer for him and for his family. And we will reflect upon John’s absence from the World Trade Center on that fateful day.


 —Originally published on Sept. 11, 2011