After the horror of the World Trade Centre attacks, I still had my mum. Did I even have the right to grieve?
On the morning of September 11, 2001, my mother, Michaela Ferrigine — a stock exchange trader only five days back from maternity leave after the birth of my sister Olivia — had been scheduled to go to a meeting on a high floor of the south tower of the World Trade Centre. But the night before, the meeting was postponed. She went instead to her office at 111 Broadway, the Trinity Building, next to the towers. She was there when militants plunged the first plane into the north tower, and along with everyone else in her building, she fled.
Mum was on a street below near the south tower when the second plane struck. She fell as she tried to run and was trampled by stampeding crowds until two men she didn’t know helped her up. Ash-caked, bleeding, dazed by the chaos, Mum eventually found her way to the pier at East 35th Street, where she was questioned as an eyewitness and hosed down to rid her of toxic residue. When she boarded the ferry home to Monmouth County, N.J., her blue dress suit, now gray, was still wet.
The people she’d planned to meet in the south tower had died.
Since then, my mother’s experience of that day has remained woven tightly into the fabric of my family, yet still somehow enduringly out of sight.
In the days and weeks that followed, my mother was despondent, unable to get out of bed or look up at the sky without hallucinating a jetliner. Loud noises shook her, and a smoky, chemical smell — a sinister remnant from the charred “pile” of rubble that she passed each day on her commute to work — lingered in her dark hair for months.
The September 11 attacks are omnipresent for my mother, just as I imagine they are for many emergency workers, commuters, victims’ families and others who were there. Mum eventually wrote a memoir of that day, self-published in 2014, but at home, she never spoke openly about it, coping with yearslong PTSD and depression. On the 20th anniversary of the attacks, my parents had tickets for an early morning flight to visit my brother in Chicago. A few hours before, Mum suffered a breakdown and was unable to go. To this day, when she sees a plane, she often comments on how low it appears to be flying.
The events of that day are still present for me, too. I was not quite 4 years old, watching a serrated image of the burning towers on my aunt’s television and wondering if Mum was inside.
Last March, shortly after my 25th birthday, a familiar malaise returned — a dread, a steady, suffocating feeling sitting in my chest. I knew I needed to talk to Mum about this. I needed to loosen the knots of unresolved confusion and tension. And so I began speaking with her, first in broad strokes and then with more pointed questions. Our conversations began tight-voiced and piecemeal. But we both knew we were chipping away at something, at once independently and together.
“You kept asking about why I was so sad,” my mother recalled, “why I was crying all the time. You wanted to know where the towers had gone.”
Even now, I’m jolted by mentions of the attacks, often struggling to contain tears as my mind unfurls, picturing faces, some real and others imagined, and scenes of terror. I hear grating metallic sounds and the hazy, hollow voices behind final voice mail messages. All this, even though I was not there. It feels like crying at a funeral for a person I didn’t even know. I wonder if I have a right to grieve.
Over the past 22 years, we have heard about the Sept. 11 children, the kids whose parents never came home that evening. But we hear very little of those whose parents survived. Perhaps because it is a sort of privilege to have my mother still with me. But the experience of being the child of a survivor is a profound one in its own right.
Locating others like me has been a difficult task. A seemingly inactive Facebook group created in 2018, Adult Children of 9/11 Survivors, has only 18 members. There are surely thousands more of us out there. Of course, no metric can measure the scope of seismic loss. Grief is idiosyncratic, and the fallout from the attacks has been both collective and individual. I feel deep sympathy for mum — but I also feel confused and even guilty for my own perennial, visceral reaction to Sept. 11. Why am I so emotional about this if I wasn’t there?
Of the 2,997 people who were killed in the attacks, 749 were from New Jersey, 147 of them from Monmouth County, my home for the last 21 years. My parents lost close friends and co-workers. Friends and classmates of mine lost parents, aunts, and uncles. A piece of steel from the wreckage rests in front of my hometown’s Borough Hall. Mail from the World Trade Centre Health Registry continually arrives on my parents’ kitchen counter, a surreal catalog of questions seeking to assess how the trauma of Sept. 11 affected my mum’s health. Over time I have come to believe that I inherited a version of that trauma by way of the deep emotional bond I have with my mother.
About a month ago, I met my parents outside the reflecting pools that now occupy ground zero. Mum looked lovely in a bright pink and white dress, her tanned skin emanating warmth.
The only other time anyone in my family had visited that hallowed site was during the summer of 2021. Making good on a promise to begin “letting go,” mum donated her blue suit and her New Jersey Transit train ticket from that day, now part of the archive collection. A curator met my family outside the museum to collect the items; my mother wasn’t ready to go inside.
On this more recent visit I was anxious. Would my mother cry? Would I? What if the throngs of tourists jostling to get through the doors were disrespectful, too loud? What if they smiled too much?
I instinctively became my mother’s shadow. While my dad took his own route, we moved among exhibits, pausing at nearly every plaque, every article of clothing, every singed handwritten note, every gnarled piece of metal. We quietly pointed out the faces we knew from laminated “Missing” fliers, many of which mum had seen years earlier on the gates of St. Paul’s Chapel two blocks from the towers. I tried to read her expressions — she was quiet, her face fixed with a look of concern and pain, save for a few moments of silent tears. I shared in her emotional reverence, walking around with a lump in my throat and my arms wrapped tightly around my torso.
After a few hours, we exited through the gift shop, where a familiar image of a small red and white boat caught my eye — “Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey,” the children’s book my mum had bought me and my siblings years ago to try to help us make sense of what happened. I picked up the book, skimming my fingers across its cover.
Answers, especially those sought in the wake of immeasurable grief, are a funny thing. They can be inconclusive and unsatisfactory. Or they can be epiphanic, coming from the most unexpected of places or people.
That evening, as my parents and I boarded the ferry at Pier 11 to return home to New Jersey, the fiery red mid-August sky resembled the one depicted on the cover of “Fireboat.” Gusts off the Hudson River carried us to our seats on the open deck at the back of the boat, where we had a clear view of the city. One World Trade Centre surged toward the clouds, illuminating the night. The city skyline was forever changed 22 years ago. And we were, too.
I turned to Mum and asked her for an answer I knew she couldn’t fully provide.
“Do you feel like today was helpful for you?”
She paused for a moment.
“For a long time, I didn’t want to share my 9/11 experience because I was humbled by the experiences of others,” she said, staring straight ahead. “But after I wrote my memoir, so many people told me that they had seen themselves in a story that was distinctively mine. And that’s how I felt today — looking at images of women being carried by men in suits, seeing the fear on people’s faces, reliving it all. That was me. That was all of us.”
Finally talking with mum over the past several months about her trauma opened a door for me — it allowed me to connect with my own pain. I now feel I can rightfully grieve. I hope others with their own painful experiences can begin to do the same.
(Gabriella Ferrigine is a writer and freelance journalist in the magazine and digital storytelling graduate program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute)
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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