This I Believe – Kate FitzGerald

When reading the American Ajax chapter in the Theater of War by Bryan Doerries, I could not help but by struck by one line in particular. When describing his time in Iraq and in particular, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Major Jeff Hall described when he noticed that the “rules of engagement had changed.” We all have that defining moment in life ─ a line is drawn in the sand and things are described as before “x” and after “x”. I’ve had a few of these instances in my life that have really stuck out to me as defining moments. Moments where I knew that my own rules of engagement had changed; whether it was because the world had changed and I needed to react to it differently or because I had changed and I could feel it happening. The first rules of engagement change I will talk about has to do with time standing still and the moment of 9/11 and my protection for my family. In my third memo, “My Quests of Fortitude,” I spoke about an internal shift in my rules of engagement where I recognized what I am capable of doing. In the below story, a shift happened externally that caused me to think about time, my place in the world, and my relationship with and protection for my family.

I have always believed in the power of time, most specifically a day. Twenty-four hours. One day. I know it may sound trite but the fact that the simple continuum of days and the positivity and promise that it brings has guided me through some difficult times in my life. It’s pretty astounding that something so simple can be so powerful. Sometimes I think of a new day as a reset button, something I think about it as a continuation, or a next step, sometimes I think about it as just a day. I love the fact that no matter what a new day brings, there is almost always a guarantee that my mental, emotional and physical states will be different, maybe not in a radical way, but certainly in a nuanced way. I also like the fact that the passage of time and the emotions it brings – excitement, fear, anticipation,  joy, apathy, wonder– is a constant that every single person on the planet experiences just in different ways at different times. Time can be a friend or ally, or an enemy that you just want to run from.

For me a time when it was a bit of both was 9/11.  My brother worked in a building right next to Trinity Church. I felt blinding fear and nausea like everyone when I realized the gravity of what had happened. Then more palpable fear as I talked to my brother as he went back inside his work to get his wallet, All I said was get out and then no more than 5 minutes afterwards the first tower fell and I didn’t hear anything on the phone but a busy signal for the next 18 hours.  I remember thinking that if I could just count through the fear and the nausea that somehow it would get better. I didn’t know what better meant, I just knew it was a moment away from that moment that I had just experienced. Moreover, the further away I got from that moment; it just had to get better. I got in my car in Atlanta and drove 13 ½ hours to Philly stopping only to get gas. I still hadn’t heard from my brother, no one had. But at least Philly was closer to New York than Atlanta. I just kept counting. Wishing and praying that the longer I counted, the closer I’d get to hearing Pat on the phone. There was simply no other option but to be positive about it. To look ahead and not back…To actually visualize him calling me.   Then just out of the blue, sometime around 4:30 in the morning, he called.  I literally didn’t know what to do with emotions I felt. The nausea came back instantly, and I had to pull over to the shoulder of the freeway b/c I couldn’t see the road I was crying so hard.  The cognitive dissonance I felt was disconcerting b/c I couldn’t get away from the guilty feeling of being happy knowing that so many people, some dear family friends of ours even, were still stuck in this evil vortex of time. My brother was fine, pretty beaten up and in shock but alive.  I’ve never experienced time in such a visceral and powerful way since but it doesn’t mean I still can’t be transported there with a thought or a memory.  I cannot have that memory without the companion thought that our family was one of the lucky ones and this story does not begin to compare to the pain time gave thousands of others.
Last weekend, while on an overnight trip to NYC, we had a chance to visit the reflection pools at Ground Zero and I was overcome by its simplicity and power. It was almost 17 years ago – there have been thousands of new days since then – but in some ways, it feels like just yesterday. I took the feelings that I could still remember – the anxiety and fear, the nausea and the worry─ and I tried to reflect upon the feelings of those few days after I heard from my brother. My anxiety and fear were still present as the calm of finding loved ones didn’t assuage the overall anxiety of what had just occurred and how it changed everyone and everything about our world and our culture as we knew it. My story did not end with extreme and personal grief as it did for so many. As I sat there at the reflection pools, I thought about how grateful and lucky I have been to have these last 17 years with my brother. This time, these compilations of 24 hours a day, have truly been a gift.