By ANDREA HIGBIE
The day that everything changed promised to be a gorgeous one -- bright and cloudless with just a snap of cold.
A good day to be alive. The kind of day that makes even the least sentimental among us cherish New York City in the fall.
And it was that, every bit of it, for a little while.
I was zipping my navy skirt, deciding between the crisp white shirt and the olive silk, when the TV screen lurched. I looked. I thought: an accident. Then, of course, it wasn't.
Time stopped that day.
The day was September 11, 2001, and here we are again. Every September since has arrived loaded with pain, shared and remembered by a nation. And by each of us.
For me, life became 9/11 24/7.
Always on my mind, at home (just 12 miles west of New York City), at work (at The New York Times, in midtown), even in my dreams, Sept. 11, 2001, became my landmark day, my point of reference, my go-to milestone. Without my knowing it, everything slowly became classified in my mind as before 9/11 or after it.
A romantic might think of a wedding day as a landmark, marking time before and after. The cynic, a divorce. A landmark date might be a child's birth, or a parent's death. A new job. A perfect day at the beach.
Without thinking about it, and without even noticing, I'd been using my birth date as my landmark day, and while the math was growing harder by the year if not the minute, it was nothing to dump a perfectly good reference point for. Somehow -- by saturation? shock? pessimism? -- it was dislodged by the tragedy.
It was unintentional on my part, that date sliding its way unnoticed into pride of place, and it happened long before I realized it had.
Did we go to Cape Cod before or after 9/11? The scar under my chin -- how long before? When was the big summer blackout? Oh, yes, 2003. After.
I noticed it just a few weeks ago, when thoughts of 9/11 began their annual percolation to the front of my brain. Never a fan of September (end of the summer, beginning of school, 30 days of blah) or Sundays (end of the weekend, beginning of school/work, blah), this Sept. 11 falls on a Sunday -- the only one since 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. Bad all the way around.
No matter how hard I try, and I would if I could, I can't change the past. The lives lost cannot be restored; the wars cannot be undone. The tragedy must be remembered, and memorialized.
But I don't have to define myself by 9/11 anymore, or measure my comings and goings by it. And from this Sept. 11 on, I'm not. Sept. 11 will never be a normal day, nor should it be, but at least I can keep it from defining the rest of my days.
That day, we could see smoke from our windows. Everything was immediately shut down, borders closed. Still in my skirt, I yanked a T-shirt -- red and white, an inadvertent jump on the patriotic fashion fever to come -- over my head and rushed out to my younger son's school, leaving my husband standing at the TV and still insisting that terrorists did not bomb schools.
"Come get your babies," the principal called to the parents. We were told to sign the children out and keep them the rest of the day. No going back in. Counselors were coming to speak with the children who remained. The father of one little girl perished, we learned later.
At the high school, no one was leaving; the counselors were already meeting in the library with pupils whose parents worked around the World Trade Center. My son Paul was with them, but he was unworried. He said he knew his father would not yet be at work, at The Wall Street Journal, during the attacks. Funny, I thought then: a deadline saved his life.
Mine too. And when I could finally get in to work the next day, it was 9/11 24/7.
Before lunchtime, my sons and I were huddled together, the three of us tight on a plump little sofa, watching TV. We couldn't look away. Even with the TV off, we stared, outwardly, inwardly.
We stared across the river. We smelled it. And we watched the smoke drift away, day by day.
People we'd known were there, and more people from our town died. What started as a splendid September got lost in the smoke and the fear.
Walking in the city weeks later, on another brilliant day, I was shocked, standing still. My stomach dropped. Just overhead the rumble of a plane flying low paralyzed everyone around me too. There was nervous laughter, and prayers.
I dreamed of planes crashing through our windows. I woke in the night drenched in fear.
I could not look away that first day, and I could not look away ever. Commuting back and forth in the months afterward, I'd stare out my window where the towers had been. Just looking at their ghosts, and crying.
Pain is inevitable, as we all know, but suffering is optional, as I've finally learned. At that point, though, I embraced both, remaining reverent at all times.
The rest of 2001 was predictably gloomy. Even when Rudy Giuliani went on "Saturday Night Live" and said it was OK to be funny, it still wasn't. (And neither was "SNL.")
While New York City started coming back and everyone was still being nice to one another, the rest of the nation didn't do as well. War, an awful presidency, the economy, extreme weather, Sarah Palin -- so much was wrong.
On my domestic front, much was wrong too. The previous decade had been excellent, though nicked by our civil wars. I waged a deforestation attempt with my volumes of lists -- divorce, pro and con -- and finally we decided to stop while we were behind.
For me, the high point of that autumn was my husband saying, "I don't blame you for 9/11, but...."
Now, that was funny.
For fun during the decade, I underwent two emergency intestinal surgeries. For five splendid months, I reveled in having a monthly mortgage and a monthly hospital bill for the pied-à-terre I occasionally shared with a double amputee.
Just at that point, someone from my past popped up. Who could it be? Daddy! How lucky was that? Not at all!
Oh, and not long ago my mother died.
Officially designating 2001 as a decade marker, promoted from its milestone-date status, would be like ordering my coffin now and hopping in early to get my money's worth.
There were good things, even great things, in the last 10 years.
I learned that I am superb at procrastinating, which could be why I didn't get around to any of this sooner. I had a wonderful nighttime plane ride, which may or may not have been a date, over New York City. As lovely as that was, however, I could not talk myself into spending more time with a man who has a pet bunny.
And I realized, at last, that Scarlett O'Hara's waist was 17 inches after the corset had been tightened, not before. And there I had tortured myself for years. This was before 9/11, of course; that kind of concern does not belong in a post-9/11 world. If in any world.
So, Sept. 11, 2001, is no longer my landmark date, my milestone, my go-to point of reference when I can't remember if I was happy when I saw "Pulp Fiction" or crying before the lights went down.
Since I have two children (and 2001 on has been great for them, knock wood, as were the previous two decades, each having one to himself), I cannot discriminate by choosing just one of their birth years as my marker. From now on, I will be using my birth date as my milestone and make it easier and happier for myself.
Especially since I'll be knocking a decade off it, just to round things out. For good measure.
World Trade Center, by the architect Minoru Yamasaki, 1973-2001.