After what feels like months of crying over so many things, the news yesterday of Robin William’s death hit me hard. Like so many others, I wish I could stay home and hide under the covers. It’s hard to get up and go out and be in the world.
I wrote this last night as my Facebook status–it is all that I can manage for now.
“Can hardly even write through tears at learning of the loss of this deeply talented man. He made me laugh out loud and he made me cry and I loved him from the Mork & Mindy days, and beyond. So sad to lose a great artist who brought joy, love, and laughter to our world which is in desperate need of joy, love, and laughter. Robin Williams was truly one of a kind.
Thank goodness he shared his tremendous gifts with us for as long as he could. Carpe diem.”
I made this quick sketch this morning because I woke up with eyelashes that stuck together because I cried myself to sleep and I had to force my eyes open, and wash away dried tears, and this was all I could do.
I made this before going out into the world, which is harsh, but also beautiful, in which no one is safe, really, no one is, from heartache and sadness. And many of us (is it all of us?) fight that feeling, to hide under covers, to stay home, to give up.
Please don’t give up today. Please seize this day, even while crying and sad. Please be kind to your self and others. If you need help, please reach for it. There is always a need for more hugs and understanding. There is always a need for more love, joy, and laughter.
It is with a deep sense of fear that I’m sending this to you. I don’t know if it is the memory of the fear from that day, or a fear of sending this because I don’t have a hero story or even a courage story. I was terrified that day, 9/11/2001. I spent it inside my apartment being very afraid. I didn’t lose a loved one, unless you count the scar on my city, which was a kind of loved entity, much bigger than me. I share this with respect for the ones who lived through it, the ones who were lost, the ones who were injured, the ones left behind to grieve forever. And also out of a need to finally, after 11 years, to write publicly about what I can remember experiencing on that day. So, it isn’t a fancy story, or a hero story, or a survivor story. It is just what I remember. And here, a poem from the days after, which I posted last year. This is because thousands of people died in my city, in our country, and my heart aches. I don’t know what else to do with my sadness, but write.
This is the day I wish to return to: The day before.
On Monday, September 10, 2001, I was working as the audience warm up / stand up comic for Emeril Live on Food Network for a standard week of taping. The studio was in walking distance to my apartment. We had a regular day, then I went home. I barely remember that day, it was so ordinary.
On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, my husband, who was already at work, left a message on our answering machine. I didn’t have to be at the studio until around 11am, so I was still in bed. There was urgency in his voice. Something happened… Something is happening. Turn on the TV.
I jumped up and turned on the TV. My first thought, after the initial shock and utter confusion: There are people in there. And then a speeded up frenzy of memory fragments of every time I’d ever been in or near those buildings, in or near or up in the World Trade Towers. I fell to my knees.
At some point, my boss called me or I called her. I was told the day was cancelled. Stay home. I found out later, the whole week was cancelled (we usually taped once a month). Shortly after that, it became impossible to make or receive phone calls.
From the south facing window in my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, on West 49th Street, I couldn’t see anything, being so many blocks north. But, there was that smoke cloud and smell. It lingered for a long time. The smoke cloud. That smell.
In the evening, we ventured out confused and hungry, looking for food. I remember that it’s astonishing to feel hunger in the midst of chaos and destruction, but the fact is, people get hungry in every situation there is. People walking the streets were dazed, walking slowly, holding each other. I noticed that everyone looked directly into each others eyes. Our favorite Chinese food place was open. We brought the food home. I couldn’t taste anything. The endless images on TV which we couldn’t believe were real. Being afraid to fall asleep. The sound of sirens. Not being able to sleep. Being too afraid to sleep.
That night, and in the middle of the night when some phone lines became free again, I got calls from friends and relatives. One call from my friend in Israel sticks out, as it had usually been me being the one worried about her every time there was a terrorist attack there. Things had changed.
I was a new immigrant in Israel, around ten or 11 when I knew first hand a friend who had lost her twelve year old brother in a terrorist attack. I only remember crying and asking my parents, How does this happen? Why do people do this to each other?
I grew up in a place that knows the terrible, ongoing grief of terrorism and war. A place where it was routine to lose loved ones in the most barbaric of ways. At a pizza place, a café, a bus, in schools, and even in homes. The only thing I understood from all that is that what we do in our life while we are here must matter and be directed to working towards peace and love. Towards fixing what is broken. To loving. The only thing it taught me is that life can be taken in an instant, at any time, in any place and nothing is promised us. The next day is not promised us.
The only thing it taught me is that some people survive and recover (and recovery manifests in different ways for different people), and some do not. I learned to never judge those who cannot “recover” or “move on” or “heal” according to random standards — for no one knows the pain of losing a loved one in this manner, than those who have. I learned that the holes people leave behind are never filled, and the pain of losing a loved one stays with you for the rest of your life. I learned that some people are able to create something meaningful out of their loss and are able to honor their loved one’s memory, by doing things that help others. Others are able to express in some way what their experience has taught them, or how it has impacted their lives, and if they share it with the rest of us, then we can learn from them, and take some lessons into our own lives. Or we can simply understand, just a little bit more, what it means to be human.
I’ve learned to respect grief, and other people’s feelings more, and I learned to at least always try hard to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I learned that we’re all connected, and that our grief and loss and joys are usually the same; no matter what we look like, no matter what language we speak, or where we’re from.
The next day, Food Network kitchens mobilized to make food to bring downtown. I went to help. Like so many others, I desperately needed to do something. I felt entirely helpess, until I was put to work chopping. It was a tremendous relief. Of all the food prepared that day, I only remember the roasted acorn squash. Cut it in half, sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake. I was happy someone was telling me what to do. Do this, then this. It was comforting to be with other people. I didn’t want to leave.
Because the whole thing was epic and staggering, I needed to focus on people that I knew. Once I could, I made calls, or others called me. Where are you? Are you OK? And with each one, all but one call, the relief.
Our family’s near misses: a cousin of Andy’s who emerged from a subway station there that morning with falling debris overhead. He was knocked to the ground. A stranger helped him to safety.
I remember one of the daily papers in the days after. One image was of a woman who had escaped from a high floor of one of the towers. I learned she was the sister of my cousin’s ex-wife.
There was my Emeril buddy, Maggie, who was a volunteer firefighter. So was her husband. I remember she told me that he drove down there right away. I remember thinking how extraordinary these people are, but they’re not asking to be heroes. They’re doing their job. Still, I think the ones that went down there to save, to rescue, to salvage, to recover—they were remarkable. I wonder how these heroes are now, all these years later.
There was a friend on the phone, who told me that her cousin was missing and her family was searching for him. He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. His name was Michael and he was 27. Some of his remains were found eventually. I attended his memorial. I didn’t know what to say to my friend. I was helpless. Wordless.
I went to my local fire department in the days after. Engine Company 54/Ladder Company 4/Battalion 9 on 8th Avenue lost 15 brave firefighters that day. I stood, speechless at the fire station staring at a growing mountain of flowers. People brought them food. One firefighter and I hugged. I wondered if any of them had been the ones who came to my building after I called 9-1-1 one time because I saw and smelled smoke coming from my neighbors’ apartment right next to mine. They had come quickly, and they put out a fire that had just started. They told me that if I hadn’t called, the whole building could have gone up super fast. I’d thanked them way back then. I still wonder if they were the ones who were taken on 9/11. I think firefighters are amazing every day. I think what they do needs to be acknowledged and respected always.
I saw the piles of flowers, candles, the handmade missing persons fliers plastered everywhere. Everywhere in the city, there were shrines, vigils, people shaking their heads, crying in the streets. There were the people who lined the West Side Highway going downtown, cheering at the trucks and workers and rescue people and their amazing rescue dogs, bringing equipment to dig, to find, to recover. What all those people did was restore a sense that humanity had not completely been lost, but that there were good people left in the world and it was clear that the cooperation needed to get through what happened would have to go on for a very long time.
The grief was overwhelming. It was on every street. It was in the air. It was also there for a long, long time. I remember when I stopped seeing the missing person fliers and posters; when they were so battered from the elements, when they got torn and peeled off. When so many days and months and years passed and posters got covered up with new posters about things that had nothing to do with all those many people. Because the city kept going and that is how it was. All the memorials, living in people’s hearts and built from materials. Stone, rock, granite, water.
I was grateful that my husband, who up until a few months prior, had worked briefly at a company in one of the towers, but was no longer working there, and instead was safely at his new job near our apartment. Not there. Not there. Are you OK?
I remember a friend and her class who walked from downtown all the way uptown. How she got the kids to safety, walking.
Today, a day like it was 11 years ago. A day with perfect blue skies. Back then, before it happened, it was an ordinary Tuesday. Until it became one of those days we can’t hide from.
I think of 9/11, not just on 9/11, or on the days leading up to it, or after. It comes to me when I see a perfect blue sky, or see an airplane flying low, or both. It comes to me when I think of my friend’s family and the loss which they live with every day, and they go on, but it never leaves them. There is a 9/11 memorial not far from my home now, which has his name there along with all the other names. I have gone and touched his name, and thought of my friend. I realize that probably does absolutely nothing in the end, but maybe that is not the point. Of all the names, I remember his. I think of her and how strong she is. How I wish this didn’t ever happen.
I wonder about people who got out and survived and how this has forever changed their lives but their experience will always be a mystery to me and how I want to understand what happened to everyone that day and in the days afterwards. And if it is so painful for me to think of, but I only watched it unfold on TV, how must it be for the families?
Today, I have an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. I can’t bear to watch the news footage or even look at still images. My son doesn’t know too much about 9/11 yet. That’s fine with me. Because as he gets older, he’ll have plenty of time to learn about the horrors people inflict on each other. But yesterday when he got off the school bus, he told me, “I need to wear red, white and blue tomorrow. It’s a special day.” He told me, “You need to wear red, white and blue, too, Mommy.” I wonder what they will tell them today at Kindergarten. I hope they teach them something about kindness, as I hear some schools do that.
The birds are singing on this beautiful sad day. My body remembers 9/11. It has to go through the anniversary with the involuntary remembering, alternating with shutting it out, and then remembering again. I am not able to not remember. Forgetting seems impossible. I was only a witness to the reality broadcast on TV that day, in my city. I watched in real time as one building came down and then another. I didn’t lose anyone in my immediate family, but thousands of others did, and my heart still breaks for them. I was just a New Yorker that day and my city was attacked when men flew planes into the tallest buildings and thousands of people were murdered. I am sad today because there is nothing that will ever bring them back. I want to go back to the day before and have this not have happened.
I think we returned to taping a month later. I felt dread as my first performance post 9/11 came close. I felt inadequate. I wasn’t a first responder, firefighter, or EMT. I questioned the validity of the work that I was doing. What does it mean to be a writer/artist/comedian in the face of death and destruction? I had no answers.
On a blue sky day, bright and sunny, with a little chill, with children going to school and people working. On a day like any another. Like today. Like tomorrow.
Last week, Max said this to me:
“Girls aren’t better than boys. Boys aren’t better than girls.
Nobody’s better than anyone else. All people are better.
All people are the best. It’s not that one family is better
than another. That’s regular people. But cops are better
than the bad guys.”
With love and peace,
There I was, writing about Kindergarten fears, when news of the shooting near the Empire State Building in NYC on Friday stopped me cold.
I started to write about that.
I started to write about that.
Then yesterday, the news that Neil Armstrong had also died.
I stopped trying to write and let it all sink in. I tried to focus on the good.
Two great men. Two kinds of heroes. Both figures that entered my world when I was just a toddler and have been around my whole life. Gone.
Jerry Nelson was immensely talented. He brought joy and learning to countless children and grown ups over his long and marvelous career.
I thought about watching Sesame Street as a child in 1969 when it first aired.
I found myself furiously sketching this:
Then I reached for a book, Sesame Street Unpaved, scripts, stories, secrets and songs by David Borgenicht
I thought of my friends who work at Sesame Street and how sad they must be.
I thought about how incredibly fortunate I was to work there (on and off) in a variety of jobs for over 20 years. I first started working there in the early 90’s, just a few weeks before the late, great Jim Henson died. At that time, I was an intern, answering viewer mail. I’d never seen so many condolences letters. So many lives were touched and changed by his work. And we continue to enjoy his greatness even though he’s long gone from the planet. I think Jerry Nelson will also be remembered for a very long time, especially through his remarkable body of work as a masterful puppeteer, most notably as the creator and original performer of The Count, among many other characters.
How do you quantify or measure that?
I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein:
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Jerry Nelson’s work and legacy lives on in the many characters he created; immortalized on film and video. It’s all there for us to enjoy for years to come. What a great gift we’ve been left with.
I thought about relationships and work colleagues. I met my husband at a party on the set of Sesame Street in 1995. Tomorrow, we’re celebrating our 12th wedding anniversary. I couldn’t be more grateful for that life changing moment when my friend, a writer for the show, introduced us. I love and admire her for many reasons. That moment, which has led us to 17 years together, is certainly one of the biggest reasons. That isn’t something I can quantify. It’s immeasureable. At the same time, it counts as a HUGE moment that altered my life for the better and in ways which I could not have imagined for myself.
Makes me think of when Andy plays the Elton John song so beautifully on piano, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (Lyrics, Bernie Taupin):
“And I thank the Lord for the people I have found.”
Oh, yes, minus the Lord, for me, but yes, deeply thankful for the people I have found. And what a beautiful song that is.
I thought about how when loved ones die and leave behind a family, friends, colleagues, those people will never celebrate another living anniversary or milestone or ordinary day together ever again. Life can be gone in an instant. I’m grateful daily for the people in my life. Gratitude helps with my sadness. It grounds me in what is here now and it lives along with the sadness. It isn’t one instead of the other. It is both. Sadness and gratitude holding hands.
I thought about respect, talent, and a love of children. And a belief that all children have a right to a decent, good education that is free from war, violence, and sorrow. They have a right that we do our best to provide that. They deserve that we don’t stop working towards that.
Here, two great men, one from the arts, one from science–both made remarkable contributions to our country and the world. I think about science and the arts and that they’re equally important and they’re both connected by imagination, exploration, and discovery, by hard work and requiring an attitude of humility, and open minds that creates a pursuit of life long learning, which in turn creates progress. I want Max to have role models and heroes in every area of life. And I want him (and all the other children in this country and beyond) to grow up in a place where both science and the arts are recognized as being of value.
And where they intersect–in places like Sesame Street, counting, numbers, and math delivered in a fun, playful, accessible way. Art, math, and music together! Do you remember that Slimey the Worm also went into space? Sesame Street pretty much covers it all. Then there is flight, courage, space exploration, walking on the moon, and from that we have heard and seen some of the most poetic words and images. There was an opening up of imagination and expanding limits beyond what was possible that still inspires today:
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
–Neil Armstrong, First man to walk on the moon
I get goosebumps every time I see that footage. I was three when I saw it happen live for the first time. It never gets old.
I thought about a disgruntled worker, killing another. Someone lost their job a year ago, and on Friday, killed a man, and created panic and fear in the heart of NYC. The news says what it says. The same story spins around again.
I thought about guns and why our country is hell-bent on self-destruction, so heartbroken, fearful, and angry. Quick to pull the trigger. So desperately sad. I watch neighborhood children with their toy guns and their water guns, and I wonder why their parents can’t (or won’t) find them something else to do with their natural, human aggression? Why the guns?
Then I thought about people like Jerry Nelson who brought light and laughter into the world. Our world needs people in it who bring fun, light, color, movement, creativity, and music. Then I think about those who suggest the arts, physical education, foreign language, libraries, and classroom aides are lines that should (and are) cut from the budgets. They are deemed unnecessary. Really? Imagine a world without art, music, film, tv, theater, or books.
We need to give children a fighting chance to grow up by making our country safer and healthier. We need people who inspire learning and play. We need science and math and ALL of it. We need people to end hunger. We need people to fight poverty. We need people to teach in ways that support and nuture children, not just test them into oblivion. We need business, too, of course, but not instead of people and their basic welfare and health. There’s a way to have both. Not all businesses are evil, far from it. But priorities must shift. Maybe remembering these two men will remind us all what people can become and accomplish if they’re nurtured, educated, and fed both literally and figuratively.
I see people are incredibly unkind to one another. The anger is spraying bullets through easily purchased guns. I came across this:
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
I can’t say I’ve never been unkind, I know I’ve been unkind, and I know I’ll likely be unkind again, because I’m human, and sometimes people are unkind. But what if we made this our goal? Something that we work towards. At least something we attempt to do with our children. Each other. Our city. Our town. Our country. Our planet. The only thing I can come up with for today: to the news of the violence, to the news of death, to the news of endings–is to send out words, colors, love, and wishes for peace.
I choose a rainbow of colors, fur, monsters that don’t hurt, but teach us how to be human.
I choose marveling at the moon and the men who walked on it.
Thank you, Jerry Nelson for the years of amazing characters, voices, and songs. I hope you rest in peace. You have made a difference in so many lives, including mine.
I love this quote from him I found in Sesame Street Unpaved:
“Don’t give up, no matter how far away you are from the mark.”
For my friends who knew Jerry Nelson personally, and who worked with him, some over a lifetime, you have my deepest sympathy and I’m sorry for your loss.
For Neil Armstrong, American Hero, I’ll see you in the moon, there to remind me what is possible when dedicated people work together for the greater good.
A long time ago, a little girl saw images on TV and they lit a spark that continues to inspire today. Thank you.
all words and images copyright 2012 Elana Halberstadt except where noted otherwise.