“The human mind works at low efficiency. Twenty percent is the figure usually given. When, momentarily, there is a flash of greater power, it is termed a hunch, or insight, or intuition.”
—ISAAC ASIMOV, FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE
I used to have a morning ritual.
Each morning, I would hit the snooze alarm a few times, carefully
calculating each additional seven minutes of rest, then wake up and turn on the television to the local news. I would sleepily gather my clothes for the day, then meander into the shower. Like clockwork, I would always be out of the shower by 8:25 A.M., ready to brush my hair, watch the news, get dressed, and go to work—so I could roll into the office by 9:00 A.M..
This particular Tuesday started the same as always.
“Shorty came in, and she caught me red-handed . . .” Snooze. “I-iiiiiiii want to thannnnnnk you . . .” Snooze.
“I’m a Survivor, ain’t gonna . . .” Snooze!
After the third song, I woke up, a bit groggy, but no worse for wear. On came the television.
“Traffic on I-93 SB is flowing well into the city . . .” It was an average day.
I absent-mindedly grabbed my towel and headed for the shower. A few blissful minutes later, I emerged, dripping and ready to detangle my hair, which took a while, so I grabbed my hairbrush and sat on my bed in front of the TV.
They were talking about normal morning news things when suddenly, there was a bright red “Breaking News” banner.
An aircraft of unknown size or origin had crashed into the World Trade Center. There was no other information available.
I dropped the brush.
I looked at the clock. It was 8:45 A.M.
I grabbed the phone.
I was a newlywed—not yet married a year. My husband Leon was a
charter pilot who flew for the military.
We had a ritual. Every night, before we went to bed, he would call
me from wherever he was, and tell me where he would be flying the next day. He would go over his route with me, in detail, so newlywed me would not have to worry. I could look at the clock and know that he was over Arkansas, or Richmond, or New York City.
He would take me flying with him, so I would get to know the exact patterns of his flights, where he would need to turn, and where things could go wrong.
That Monday night, he had gone over with me that he would be flying from Maryland to New York, with a flight pattern over Manhattan that involved flying straight toward the Twin Towers—so close you could feel the wind disturbance from them—and then turning around the city.
We had flown this route together only a few weeks prior on Labor Day Weekend. The winds had been so bad we cracked the windshield of our rental plane.
For this flight, the time he would be over Manhattan was 8:45 A.M.
I was so tired and selfishly distracted that Monday night, I wanted to get off the phone quickly. I cannot even remember if I said I love you.
Staring at the TV, with color drained from my face, I reached over to my nightstand and grabbed my phone. I called his cell phone, but all circuits were busy, and I could not get through. I called the flight dispatcher, and they could not give me any information either. I called the airport—nothing.
I called the place where he was staying to find out if he had gone to work that morning. Yes, he had.
I called the local news station to find out if they knew anything. They hung up on me, telling me they needed to keep the lines clear for emergency reports.
I called everyone I knew that might be able to help me find answers. Did the man I love pilot the plane that had crashed into the tower?
When the other plane crashed soon after, I wondered if the man I love was responsible for causing two planes to crash?
And when the towers fell, I questioned if the man I love caused all those people to die?
While it seems ancient history now, it was many hours before the news reports changed from “small plane” or “unidentified aircraft” to “coordinated terrorist attack.” By then, I had been in a heightened state of panic for hours. This intense emotion, stress, and feeling of helpless- ness had locked itself into my brain—forever.
Later that evening, around 5 P.M., Leon called. They grounded him from flying that morning, and since his base had been on lockdown, no one was allowed to call out.
When I found out that he was alive and his flight had been grounded just before the first attack, when all communication lines went down, something inside me changed. I felt a great loss for the victims and their loved ones. Even after knowing the truth, a part of me could not remove the initial misplaced guilt that it was somehow his plane that started it all. That day started me into a grief spiral that I could not escape.
Due to his unique position, he was one of the few civilian pilots who had clearance to fly over the city in the days following, which meant that I did not get to see him for another few weeks.
When he finally returned home, the woman that awaited him was a stranger. The jovial, bubbly, spoiled girl-child he had married was gone, replaced by a guarded and sad young woman. I was fearful of his going away to fly. I was uncertain of the future.
Leon and I were married in December 2000. We had an unconventional marriage—reminiscent of military deployment. He was an airline pilot, and for the first two years of our marriage, we lived apart because his job based him in Richmond, VA—600 miles away from mine, in Boston, MA. We did not see each other much, maybe every other weekend for a day or less. As we were just starting our lives together, we barely had the money for gas, much less a plane ticket; this relegated us to seeing each other only when he could hop a flight in the jump-seat of a plane heading somewhere north.
To cope with my absence, Leon got a cat to help pass the lonely nights. He named the cat Bastian after a character in one of my favorite books, The Neverending Story, and he would spend hours talking to the cat. It was not long until Bastian was as much a member of the family as I was.
After 9/11, things changed. I stayed home, transfixed by the images of destruction in New York. I watched the footage on repeat. Hours would pass, and I would continue to view all the angles and listen to the stories. I stopped eating—all I could do was cry.
My group of friends in Boston were all from New York City, and all of us were affected similarly. Since one of the aircraft departed Boston, a pall hung over the city. There was a melancholy feel to everything—and while I imagine everyone in the country was grieving, I could not see a way out.
Eventually, I decided that I needed to break the cycle. I turned wholeheartedly to my work with renewed vigor. I was now often the first to arrive and last to leave. I volunteered for night and weekend shifts, which no one else wanted. I became the perfect employee.
I have always been a driven person, someone who works hard and has goals I want to achieve. However, after the towers fell in New York, Leon saw that I was in a crisis. To move past my depression, I needed my husband.
He took stock of the situation and realized that he could not take me away from the one thing that was holding me together—my work. He would have to give up his dreams of flying to support me emotionally, help me to get better, and, ultimately, help me to succeed.
Unlike most other jobs, where a transition from one company to an- other means upward career mobility, in the airline industry, a pilot must start at the bottom rung of the ladder at each new employer. The years he dedicated to getting better schedules, higher pay, and better aircraft were suddenly in his rear-view mirror because of his love for me. That was a bold move on his part. He sacrificed his entire career for me in one moment. At the time, I did not even recognize it—I could not because I was swirling in the depths of depression. The only way out was for someone else to pull me forward.