I happened to be home on September 11, 2001, instead of at my job as an Associate at a global Executive Recruiting firm, because my puppy had just been spade and was recovering from surgery.
I was standing in line at PetCo, buying doggy treats, when the cell phone of the woman in front of me in line rang. She listened to whoever was speaking on the other end in stunned silence, then burst into tears and ran from the store, leaving her purchases unpaid on the cashier's counter.
Poor woman, I thought. Somebody must have died.
When I got in the car and turned on the radio, the usually jocular DJ was saying we normally joke around on this show, but I'm deadly serious when I report the story of some kind of plane hitting one of the world trade center towers.
My heart plummeted into my feet. I knew people - many people - who worked at the World Trade Center towers, because I was in the financial services industry. I had clients there. Candidates, people I had placed into jobs who worked in those buildings.
I raced home and turned on the television just in time to see the second plane hit.
By the time the reports of the Pentagon strike and the fourth missing plane were coming in, I was calling my assistant and my husband, sobbing, and begging them to leave for the day and go home.
I called my Mom, nearly hysterical, as the first tower fell, my mouth agape in horror, as I thought of all the people I knew who worked there, all the people I didn't know who worked there. I assumed they were all dead.
When the second tower fell, I was lying on the floor, all cried out, and the horror of the day was just beginning to sink in.
We all have our "where I was that day" stories from September 11th; it is a day etched into our collective consciousness. I only think about it a few times a year now, though - when I'm in New York, or on the anniversary of Sept. 11th. I have that luxury, because all the people I knew got out of the buildings. Some of them just barely.
I went back to work two days later. As executive recruiters, it felt barbaric to make any phone calls, to try to recruit anyone anywhere. So we mostly sat at our computers in a kind of stunned numbness, made phone calls checking on the people we knew. I found out about one woman my husband knew who had died in one of the towers. I found out about another woman and her child, my father knew them; they were on the plane that hit the second tower.
I went through my Rolodex, systematically pulling out all the cards with a World Trade Center address. Gone, gone, gone, I thought. Those building are just GONE.
About a week after 9/11, a colleague forwarded a slide show of pictures from that day in an email. I didn't want to look. But then I thought: the people directly involved in that tragedy had to look. They had no choice.
I clicked open the PowerPoint slide show; it was mostly horizon shots of the burning buildings, or the ash and debris filled streets with people running from the toxic mushroom cloud as the buildings fell.
But one image is emblazoned on my brain forever. This image I do think about often; more than I think about 9/11 itself.
It was a woman falling through the air, captured by a zoom lens. She was in a reverse pike position, bent at the waist, arms and legs above her head. She was wearing a fashionable off-white pencil skirt, a tucked in black blouse, and one shoe. And she was falling to her death, preferring to end it that way than stay in the burning tower.
I imagined her the morning of 9/11, carefully picking out her outfit, finding just the right jewelry to match, kissing her husband and kids goodbye as she headed off to work on that spectacularly beautiful day. I imagined her sliding her graceful feet into those leather pumps as she smoothed her skirt and stepped out the door to start her day.
I stared at that image for hours, pulling it up on my screen over and over. I became a little obsessed with it, as maudlin as that seems, and it took me a while to figure out why.
9/11 shattered a lot of what we believed to be true about our world. A lot of innocence was lost that day, along with thousands of brave souls.
At that time in my life I was feeling on top of the world: thirty-two years old, married, no kids, successful job, traveling the world, presenting to Fortune 500 companies on a regular basis, kicking ass and taking names. Gratitude was not a word that entered my consciousness. Ever.
That woman falling through the sky, that woman who could have been me, gave me the gift of gratitude. Through her, I realized that we never know, as our day begins, how it will end. Through her, I learned that we can live our life in fear of this, or we can push past the fear and find gratitude in the small moments. Like kissing our kids in the morning, or at night as we tuck them in, or the flash of our loved one's smile, the smell of autumn in the air, or the feel of our baby's downy head.
When I think about 9/11 I don't think about politics, or war, or terrorism. I think about how you just never know, and you should be grateful for every. single. day.
I think about the families who lost loved ones, who live the nightmare of 9/11 everyday. I'm sure they do. They don't have the luxury of thinking about it only when they are in New York, or on the anniversary of 9/11.
They can't forget, and I won't, either.