The Road Between

So I have to tell you about last night. But before that, I have to tell you about my life on September 11, 2001.

Yes. 9/11.

Everyone has a 9/11 story. It’s like the day Kennedy was assassinated or the space shuttle Challenger exploded. We remember where we were, what we were doing when we heard that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers…and then it just kept getting worse. It was one of those days that one way or another is part of your life story, whether you want it to be or not. I’ve yet to meet someone who can say that the events of the day didn’t make some impact or scar them in some very deep way. Even if you didn’t know anyone personally who died that day, it felt like you did. If you’re too young to remember the day, in many ways I’m jealous of you. In other ways, I feel you will lack the ability to really relate to the story I’m going to tell, but I trust your imagination is vivid enough that you’ll find a way.

This is the story of how 9/11 changed my life forever.

A friend of mine from my years spent in the hallowed institution known as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced he was getting married. It would be a small wedding, but he wanted me to be there. I was flattered and honored. Before that time and honestly since, I’ve attended so few weddings I can count them on one hand. And I know a lot of people. I just don’t seem to get invited to a lot of weddings. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not upset about this fact — look, we all know people for whom we would gladly bear witness to one of the biggest life-changing moments in their lives…but often, we may not know them well enough for them to justify the cost of another dinner plate at the reception.

My friend was actually not going to be married in Illinois, but rather on the East Coast, specifically, Block Island, which is part of Rhode Island. I was living in Florida, trudging along in my chosen occupation at that time and really only just coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t living the life I wanted. I had finally gotten some stability in my emotional life, having finally determined that I needed to be assessed for my depression issues, and gotten medicated and therapy, which was helping immensely, but wasn’t curing that existential dread that loomed around every corner of my life. The one thing my lifestyle at the time did afford me was vacation time and the financial security that allowed me to travel. Under other circumstances, I might have declined my friend’s invitation to his wedding, but I had never been to the Northeast, and found this as an opportunity to visit New York City for the first time, turning my friend’s life event into a whole exploration and vacation for myself.

You probably know where this is headed, and you’re probably right, but stay with me.

His wedding wasn’t planned on 9/11, in fact it was for many days after — my recollection of the exact date is fuzzy, but for some reason the 16th sticks in my head. I could be off by a day or two on either side, but I know it wasn’t on the 11th because that was the day I had a plane ticket to fly into Laguardia Airport, with the intent to stay in New York for a few days before renting a car to travel to Block Island and attend the wedding. I was traveling with a very close work friend of mine who had been to New York many times, and was originally from Connecticut, though his family had moved to Florida when he was a kid. I was thankful I’d have a guide for my adventures in the Big Apple.

So, of course, the day came — time to fly to New York. We had a morning flight (9 AM) and were at the Orlando Airport early enough to wait around for boarding. I recall looking up at one of the TVs at the gate and watching the weather on CNN — a hurricane that had been moving up the coast was moving off shore. We had perfect flying weather to look forward to…

And then, we didn’t. I’m still not certain whether we learned what was happening from the TV or not. And the order of events in the span of the next few minutes are a little confused for me 13 and a half years later, but I remember we were in the pre-boarding line, waiting for the group number to be called, etc. when the plane stopped boarding. We were delayed. I looked back at the TV for the weather wondering if I had misinterpreted the map I had seen before, and somewhere in this gap we learned what was really going on. The TVs in the passenger gate areas weren’t broadcasting it. We all had to make our way to a bar situated further up the concourse away from the gates, where the TVs were showing real CNN and not the faux-airport CNN, which was still showing weather and headlines that didn’t include the breaking news. It was a little chaotic at this point — none of us knew what was happening, whether we’d be delayed temporarily or if we were grounded. At this point we only knew one plane had hit one tower.

And then the second plane hit. And that was the ballgame.

They started pulling luggage off planes and lining up all the bags in the concourses, so we could all get the bags and go home. It was clear that planes weren’t going to be flying that day, or for many more days in the future. People walked around in a dazed state. I got a panicked phone call from my mother and also from my sister, both of whom knew I was flying to New York and were terrified I was already on a plane headed that way — no one knew how broad the terrorist attack was. Could a flight from Orlando to NYC be similarly targeted as the planes that hit the towers or the planes that hit the Pentagon or crashed into the field in Pennsylvania? Could there have been a planned attack on Walt Disney World? (a very legitimate possibility, as WDW is a prime terrorist target, for obvious reasons.)

While we stood and watched CNN around the circular bar with a couple hundred other people, we watched the first tower fall. We all gasped and a few people cried. It was horrifying. As difficult as it was to tear ourselves away from the screens, we managed to get our bags, which were now available, pack the car and head home.

No one had any idea of the scope of things, and it was paralyzing. It was in this state of complete disbelief and dismay, listening to news on the radio that we drove home in silence. My friend’s phone rang and it was another coworker who knew we were traveling and checking in on us. Upon learning we were fine he suggested we might be needed for ‘all hands on deck’ if anything were to go down at our place of employment — Disney World. The magnitude of the events of the day just kept piling up as we sat in front of my friend’s TV watching endless news, trying to cancel hotel reservations and rental car reservations…We briefly considered renting a car and driving to the wedding, but ultimately decided it was too risky and really unrealistic. Instead we stared blankly at the rubble in New York, DC and Pennsylvania and took stock of what would become the rubble of our lives.

Why am I telling this story? What does it have to do with last night? It’s only in retrospect that I can see clearly that in many ways, if it weren’t for the tragic events of that day, I might not be where I am, doing what I’m doing.

The ripples from that event spread wide — the tourism business in Central Florida dried up immediately. It was devastating — businesses had to cut back, even Disney World — I had only a few months earlier started working in a different department doing project management, a huge step up from my first job at the park, which was doing tech support for computers, servers and networks. I spent a lot of time crawling around on floors, squeezing into tight server closets and generally being both savior and necessary evil to everyone I met in my work capacity. One of the first things that happened when the cutbacks came was that I got moved back to my old job. I was lucky, really. A lot of people got laid off — they at least found a place for me to go. Meanwhile, my sister had only the week before left her job in Chicago and faced other personal challenges. She was ready for a change, and about a month later, my parents and she came to visit and maybe even attempt to heal together, but it also led to a fruitless job search for her. It was quite literally the worst possible time to be looking for a job in Orlando.

I barely remember the months between September of that year and January of the next. My next major recollection was of my paternal grandmother’s death, which was quite sudden and unexpected. I traveled home for the funeral and it was during the days I was with my family, that Julie and I came to the same conclusion — we were extremely unhappy with our lives as they were and felt unfulfilled. We both wanted to move to Los Angeles, so the plan was set. She would go first, flying there in February, sleeping on a college friend’s couch while she looked for a job and a place to live. I’d come later…I was on the slow boat to China. It felt foolish and incredibly impractical that we should both be unemployed bohemians, so I agreed to stay in my position in Orlando. A few weeks before my grandmother’s death I had been moved to the customer support center and out of field tech support, working on a project that would merge the call centers for the East and West Coast divisions of the entire Disney company. WDW had the largest of the call centers, so we were really leading the project effort. I saw in this an opportunity to leverage my position in this project to attempt a relocation. I knew this would take time — a lot of it, in fact, but at this point I was determined to be the master of my own fate. If I couldn’t manage the relocation, I’d quit by the end of the year and join Julie in Los Angeles.

I’ve told this story before — the story of our move cross country, how Julie got her job working for Dustin Hoffman’s production company (and later, for Dusty himself). How I visited her in July to find our apartment, so she could move out of her sublease when the time was up. How in August I was told the relocation might happen, but I had to be patient. Then, how I pushed up the timetable by making the riskiest move I’ve ever made in my life — I essentially packed a bag and moved myself to L.A. unbeknownst to anyone, under the guise of assisting the West Coast operations team, as it was coming into existence (including, the job I wanted). I paid for that initial travel, since I timed it with a “vacation” — traveling first to Las Vegas for a few days, then driving from Vegas to L.A. to attend the first Screenwriting Expo that Creative Screenwriting magazine was holding. Yes, I had already decided on my career and I was putting things in motion to accomplish it. I also had no return ticket purchased, so I meant business.

None of this would have happened had I been able to attend my friend’s wedding. I know this, deep in my bones. I imagine that I would have had a wonderful trip to New York, maybe seeing a show (I was dying to see “The Producers” which was the toast of the town, but tickets were impossible to get), visiting the Empire State Building, then going to the wedding…then returning home, still trapped in a life that was unfulfilling. The tourism industry wouldn’t have dried up. Julie might have gotten a job in Orlando, and we’d have been on a completely different path, or at least a much twistier version of the one we took.

I thought on this a lot last night. Last night, Julie and I celebrated our first TV staffing job, a job we have worked to get for 8 years “officially” as a writing pair, and a lot longer unofficially, as you can track from the dates in this story. As each person came through the door of the bar where we invited people to come celebrate with us, I was genuinely touched and in some cases shocked by who had come to toast our success. There were people there that I had not seen in nearly 8 years, others I’d swapped a few Facebook messages or tweets with, but hadn’t had a real conversation with in the last few years. Every single person who arrived knew how long we had been working toward this goal and understood how much this meant to us. And I now understand how much it meant to a lot of them. For those who had served as our mentors, it was pride that we had accomplished what they hoped that we would, like parents who see their kids off into the world. For our peers, it was excitement and for some even inspiration — we were a motivator. We had done it, and for those who haven’t yet gotten their break, they were happy for us and wanted to follow our success with their own (and boy do we want that to happen too!)

I expected to tell people it was okay to hate me — I know how hard it can be to see someone else get the job you want, but everywhere I turned, I got the same reaction — just happiness, for us. No one was bitter or disillusioned. No one was petty or unkind. I can say with absolute certainty that the amount of pure love I felt was more than I’ve ever experienced in my life. Several times I was overcome by tears of joy and yes, I recognize that sounds ridiculous, but my emotions were so barely contained from all of the congratulations thrown our direction, that as the night went on it became too difficult to keep them down. They broke through, and maybe I looked ridiculous, but I don’t care. I told every person who congratulated me how much I loved them — which probably sounded like the drunken ‘I love you guys!’ that often breaks out after a few drinks, but I meant it sincerely. I loved everyone in that room, everyone who knew us and wanted to tell us how happy they were for us.

Those of you who were there, I am sorry that I was unable to split myself into about 20 different people so that I could have talked to every one of you for more than a few minutes. Wave after wave of new guests came through the door and it took everything I had to try to make sure I was greeting and hugging and talking to every one of them. I’m sad that there are people who got so little of my time, but I appreciate that most everyone understands what it’s like in those situations — large gatherings aren’t really great for in depth conversations, and I look forward to reconnecting with so many people I saw last night. For those who couldn’t be there, the messages and tweets and texts and carrier pigeon messages (okay, maybe not that last one) that were sent were more than enough. I hope to spend time one on one with them too in the near future.

I am not a social creature by nature, but last night all I wanted was to talk to everyone, hug everyone, tell everyone how much I loved them for being in my life and being some part of us getting to this place and having this success. So yeah, I got a little overwhelmed. Hell, I’m all teary-eyed right now as I write just thinking about the joy in my heart, that Grinchy heart that grew three sizes in the span of 6 or 7 hours.

I’m glad that when Julie and I arrived at the bar ahead of our guests, we had about fifteen minutes to ourselves. We toasted each other, and finally were able to acknowledge our accomplishment. I think my biggest regret of the night, was not getting someone to take a photo of the two of us in our euphoria. I know I posed for two pictures, but I wanted to be taking so many more! If for no other reason so that I would have visual reminders of this very singular evening that I can reflect upon on the road ahead, when we hit new bumps and obstacles. When those moments come, I will have this memory to hold onto tightly, the memory of such friendship, support and celebration to remind me that yes, in fact, I do have people in my life who give a damn. If I ever doubted it, I can never doubt again. Last night proved that.

I hope you all get to experience what I experienced, and I very much want to be on the other side of the equation for it — I want to be the one celebrating these people in return, their success and joys — whether they be career or personal. It made me mindful that the avatars I see every day online…they are all real people (well except for those bots that follows me on twitter, but you know what I mean.) They are real people who care enough to get babysitters or pay to valet park their cars and pay for overpriced (but really excellent) drinks in HOLLYWOOD, one of the most inconvenient meeting places in L.A….but then again, all of L.A. is inconvenient, Hollywood just more so.

When you have your success, remember me. Invite me to share in it. I will move heaven and earth to be there, if I can. If I can’t come celebrate it with you, I will let you know how excited and happy I am, and it will be from my heart, just as it was from all of yours.

My path from 9/11 — the beginning of the darkest time in my life to last night — the brightest day in my life. It’s quite a journey, one I honor and appreciate, even though I really wish it hadn’t needed to be so long. But, you know, everyone’s path is different. This was my path. I can accept that.

People asked me last night how I felt, and as the night went on I started to accept the reality — “I feel fucking fantastic!” There is no joy as powerful or as poignant as a joy that is shared with others.

Thank you for sharing with me. Keep in touch.

I love you.

Posted under randomness

This post was written by Shawna on March 28, 2015

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