On September 11, 2001, my husband and I were fighting. I can’t remember what we were arguing about, but I remember that we were breaking all the important rules for “how couples should disagree.” There was name calling and shouting. We didn’t know that at the time that we were fighting, a plane was crashing into the first tower.
There were red lines that I could see in my mind as the walls of our apartment seemed to absorb the foreign bitterness in our voices. Don’t cross those lines. I felt an unknown danger rise up inside of me, and I was frightened without knowing why. It was the afternoon in Jerusalem where we were living at that time, and when we finally both gave up arguing, we decided to drive to the Kotel, the Western Wall. We didn’t know how to say sorry or how to forgive. So we figured that getting out of the house would help.
On the way to the Old City, we heard the first reports of the terrorist attack. But the Hebrew was so fast, we kept thinking that there must be some mistake. “Did they say New York? An airplane? What’s going on? Turn it louder.”
It wasn’t until we parked and saw the crowd standing next to a television outside of a kiosk that we understood what had happened. As we stood there, with the afternoon sun glinting off of the Jerusalem stones beneath our feet, I watched in horror as the second plane exploded before our eyes.
What were those tiny black dots falling across the screen? When I realized that those dots were people jumping to their deaths, time seemed to stand still for a moment. How could this be? I could hear the busy signal already on my husband’s cell phone as he dialed our fathers’ numbers who worked in Manhattan. Where were they? We kept pushing in the numbers over and over again. Please let this call go through. Please. The phone dangled in my husband’s hand, its siren of protest joining the chaos before our eyes. The sky was the color of the clearest blue water. It was eerie how perfect the day was. When President Bush appeared on the screen, I couldn’t watch anymore.
“Let’s go,” I said. And we walked in a daze through the narrow alleyways until we reached the Wall. I almost ran to the familiar, worn stones. I was suddenly so tired and riddled with guilt. Laying my head upon the warmth of the Wall, I cried. How could I have said such awful things to the person that I cared most about in the world? And how could it be that at the exact same time that we were fighting, a plane was crashing into the World Trade Center? For some reason, that made everything so much worse. As if our own immaturity and anger had contributed in some way to the destruction that kept replaying itself in front of my eyes.
The fire. Shouldn’t I have learned long ago not to call anyone names? The darkness. Didn’t I know that shouting meant you lost before you began? Didn’t we both know so much better? Afterwards, my husband and I sat on a ledge overlooking the graves lying so peacefully on the Mount of Olives. We sat for hours as we apologized and forgave and wondered what had happened to us.
On our next trip back to New York, I saw the gap in the skyline from hundreds of feet above the earth. The horizon of my birthplace was forever changed. In the place of towering, glinting steel was nothing. Absolute emptiness. The kind of emptiness that accuses you every time you look at it. It reminded me of a pointless argument that had no content but too much pain. It reminded me that every time we forget the power of our words, we damage not only ourselves but somehow also the world around us.
And staring down into the dazzling city lights around that cavernous space, I saw the images flash before my eyes. The black dots that were really people dying. The careless words that were really swords slicing through the heart. What has happened to us? Sometimes red lines are blurrier than we know. Sometimes our words create and destroy in ways that we can’t even imagine. Sometimes, on an autumn day when the sky is the color of water, we see the absolute emptiness of a world that has crossed every last line. There are people falling. There are hearts breaking. There is the space still in the skyline of the city. It is telling us all that we still have so much more that we need to rebuild.