It happened in an instant. And then everything was different.
The first plane hit at 8:46 am.
My phone rang minutes later. I was still in bed. I had the day off. It was my dad. "Where are you?" he asked. "I'm at home," I said. "Look out the window," he said.
From the bedroom of my postage-stamp-sized 5th-floor walk-up apartment on West 15th Street, I had a direct view of the smoking North Tower, about two miles south.
I turned on cable news trying to understand what had happened. At 9:02 am, the second plane hit. And it became clear that we were under attack.
An hour later, my roommate arrived home. He worked with me at Lehman Brothers. Our office was at the World Financial Center, right next to the World Trade Center. He had just evacuated the building and walked home, but not before witnessing multiple people falling to their deaths. He said nothing when he came in, poured himself a large glass of whiskey, and downed it instantly. It was 10 am.
We were scared. We spent that day and night back and forth between our roof, where we watched in horror and disbelief as the second tower fell, and our living room, where we tried to get information from the TV broadcasts. It was surreal. It still is.
Our cellphones stopped working. Fighter jets flew overhead. We had no idea if more attacks might be coming.
That night, we both agreed to sleep with our sneakers on and made a rough plan to run to the river if anything else happened.
The next morning, we woke up to find out that we lived in a war zone. I left the apartment to survey the situation and encountered heavily armed military officers just one block away, telling me that no one could go below 14th street. Life had changed. In an instant.
That next year was a blur. We tried to figure out what life looked like in a post-9/11 world. Fear gripped the city (and country) for a long time. Terrorism scares were common. My mom procured me Cipro in case I got exposed to the toxin anthrax (thanks, Mom), and we all eyed each other on the subway and airplanes with suspicion.
We would never return to our offices at the World Financial Center. They were destroyed. But slowly, piece by piece, we got back on our feet.
My story is not particularly unique. I was lucky.* Thankfully, everyone at my firm survived that day. Close to 3,000 others were not as lucky. Their lives gone in an instant.
As I think about 9/11 this year, I think about how our lives can be turned upside-down in an instant.
A friend from high school died last week. He was 42 years old. He led an incredibly impressive life. He leaves behind a wife and three beautiful children. He's gone too soon.
My dad died five years ago, just shy of his 65th birthday. Gone in an instant. He left us too soon.
I think about my dad and what conversations I wish I had with him. But we ran out of time.
I think about my friend and the plans he had for his family—the trips they would take; the lessons he would teach his kids. But he ran out of time.
And I think about all of those victims of 9/11 and the plans they had—for their families, for their careers, for their lives. But they ran out of time.
“Life is short” is just a phrase that's easy to ignore, until it's your reality.
But we are lucky—you and I.
We still have time.
Of course, we don't know how much time we have. But we do have some.
The question is: What should we do with it?
In theory, that’s easy to answer. We should do whatever it is that we would regret not having done if it all ended tomorrow.
We should have those conversations that need to be had. We should take those risks that need to be taken. We should write those words that need to be written. We should say those things that need to be said.
But in practice, it’s difficult. We get wrapped up in our day-to-day lives. We assume there will be a better time to do that thing that needs to be done.
In reality, that time never comes. Or more accurately, that time is now.
How can we honor the victims of 9/11 and those close to us who have left us too soon?
We can take action. Starting today.
This doesn’t need to be complicated. We take action all the time. We make to-do lists every day for tasks that need to be accomplished. But we often let the most important actions we can take in life pass us by, assuming they are for another day.
They are not. They are for today.
Consider making a to-do list. Ten important things that you want to do. A conversation with a parent or a child. A career risk. A personal project. An apology. Whatever it is that you know you need to do, but you’ve been putting off.
Resolve to complete this list by year-end.
That’s more than three months to accomplish a list of tasks that you may look back on someday and think “Thank God I did that.” And “someday” could come much sooner than you think.
Too many have gone before us who would give everything for the chance that you and I have today.
Let’s honor them by doing something about it.
*I didn't even know how lucky I was until years later. The reason I was at home that morning is that my training class at Lehman Brothers was doing Series 7 (securities) training, and I had already completed the exam the prior year—so I had the week off. More than a decade later, when I resigned from the firm (by then sold to Barclays), I reminisced about my time there with the head of equities. He mentioned in passing "you were part of that really lucky 2001 training class, weren't you?" "Yes, I was part of that class. But why do you say we were lucky? Weren't we all lucky?" I asked. "You don't know?" he asked, "You were all supposed to be in the World Trade Center that day, but we canceled it last minute and had you do the training in our offices to save costs," he said. I couldn’t believe it. My training class, which just days before 9/11 had lunch with then CEO Dick Fuld on the top floor of the World Trade Center at the “Windows on the World” restaurant was even luckier than I knew. We were all unknowingly given a new lease on life—I hope we can put it to good use.
Image credit: Steve Harvey https://unsplash.com/photos/fiUtcbwezic