A 9/11 Survivor Looks Into A Mirror

by Artie Van Why (avanwhy@aol.com)

You look at yourself in a mirror; something you might do at least a few times during your day. But this time it’s not just to catch a fleeting casual glance of your reflection.

You want to gaze at your face intently to acknowledge that the face looking back at you is that of a 9/11 survivor. This is the face you want to scrutinize; as if for the first time.

Your face has changed during the past 15 years. You’ve aged; maybe a little, maybe quite a bit. If you are past the half century mark of your life, there may be more gray hairs (or less hair) than there was in 2001; a few extra lines along your forehead or at the corners of your eyes or mouth.

If you were in your twenties or thirties on September 11, 2001, there may not be significant visual differences in the face staring back at you.

Whatever your age, you’ll notice that you’ve either gained or lost weight just by the fullness or thinness of your face’s shape.

You consider each of your facial features; beginning with your eyes. You concentrate on them; wanting to see beyond just their color. You want to examine them closely with an intense purpose. We’re told that our eyes are the windows of our souls and that is what you genuinely want to uncover; your soul. But you are afraid to look too intently for fear you’ll see just how damaged your soul became on September 11, 2001, and how irreversible that damage is. Your eyes can also reflect the broken spirit of who you once were. That brokenness is an open wound; which resulted from your world being so violently shaken that morning.

You look for a light or twinkle of life within your eyes only to realize they seem to be more deaden than alive. Those eyes of yours were the eyes of a civilian the morning of 9/11. That is until you found yourself on a battlefield between the two towers. You were on the front lines and are one of the first veterans** of a war that was just beginning.

Your eyes witnessed moments you are still unable to speak about. You saw death, among the destruction, all around you.

You might try looking even deeper into your eyes, hoping to get past the barrier that you mentally placed around some of your memories of that day; protecting yourself with a self-imposed amnesia.

Some memories are best left unreachable; yet you want to fill in those missing moments you can’t recall. You want to believe you are brave and strong enough to remember the gaps in your memory of that day because you’re afraid you are forgetting something important. Yet, you are also afraid you’ll remember something so horrific that it might drive you mad.

You look at your mouth and vaguely recall screaming; loudly. Were you screaming out of fear that you would lose your life? Or screaming for someone to come help; either you or an injured person you were attempting to aid? Or screaming as you witnessed others’ deaths? You might have had your fist in, or your hand over, your mouth unable to utter a scream or any sound.

Did any words come out of your mouth? Any sentences?

“Oh dear God, no!”
“What’s happening?”

Did you swear or pray; or do a bit of both?

Can you evoke the taste in your mouth that morning? Of the ash, soot, dirt, and god knows what else that filled the air all around you? Looking at your nose, you wonder how much of all that you breathed in that day. What, exactly, settled in your lungs?

Are you reminded of any of the smells? Certainly, the smoke. Perhaps the vapors of fuel. Did death have a smell?

You almost forget to acknowledge your ears. Through them, you took in all the sounds of that morning. The cacophony that still plays in your head. Sirens, shouts and screams, explosions and the smashing of falling debris. You now know what chaos sounds like.

All of the above comes from simply staring at yourself in the mirror. Acknowledging that you are looking at a 9/11 survivor. But before you step away, take one last look and leave off one descriptive world.

As you stare at your face now, know, with certainty, that what you see in the mirror is a survivor.

**A dear friend wrote the following to me.

“I just read your latest Huffington Post blog and was silently reflecting for some minutes afterward.

You expressed the same thoughts and emotions that I've heard from so many combat vets.

As I pondered this, I came to the realization that, in fact, you are one of the earliest combat veterans from the continuing global war on terror. This is not allegory. This is truth.

You are as much a veteran as the men who endured the bombardment of Ft. Sumpter, the people who ran from the bombs at Pearl Harbor, and those who stood waiting as the helicopters flew to the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon.

You are a member of this brotherhood. You are not alone...no matter how you feel."

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