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'Life is too short': 9/11 prompts many to not only question, but to change
Gone is the brownstone in Brooklyn with the tiny garden but room for little else, and 10-hour days devoted to building careers. Gone are the social lives filled with close but mostly childless friends, and a biological clock that seemed on snooze.
For Gillian Caldwell and Louis Spitzer, these things disappeared along with the towers, when terror struck home on a September morning 10 years ago.
Now, a decade later in the lives of this couple, there is a Queen Anne Victorian in a close-knit Maryland suburb with a yard big enough for a dog and seven chickens. And days filled with soccer, karate and school. And lives keenly focused on family and, most of all, love.
And, of course, there are Tess and Finley, their children, who embody a series of life changes brought on by a tragedy that moved their parents to reprioritize and adjust.
"It was like a total reset," Caldwell says of the 9/11 attacks, an experience so traumatizing and disorienting that she and Spitzer chose to dramatically transform themselves ' and the direction of their lives. It gave her "a clarity about who and how I wanted to be in the world."
Americans still think of 9/11 as the day that "changed everything," but how many of us did it change in any sort of lasting way?
For a time we may have felt more patriotic and united, more vulnerable and wary, more appreciative of life, more concerned over the state of the world, but then we settled in to our "new normal" and went back to routines modified for us ' not by us.
When asked how the attacks changed us, one commenter on a Yahoo message board replied: "9/11 didn't change my life, it changed the world."
But some did set out to change their own lives. Some moved. Quit jobs. Started foundations. Found God.
In Texas, an estranged daughter reconnected with her parents.
In Rhode Island, a high school junior traded medical school for the Air Force Academy.
In Pennsylvania, a shy hardware store owner volunteered to retell, week after week, the story of one of the doomed flights.
And in a brownstone in Brooklyn, literally within days of the attacks, a New York couple decided to have the children they knew they wanted one day, because 9/11 made "one day" suddenly seem too far off.
It was a life-is-too-short moment for us all, a shock to the system that forced us to stop, take stock and think about what mattered most.
After 9/11, many needed to act on what they were feeling by adapting their lives in big ways and small. Some wanted something good to come from evil, or needed to change to help themselves heal, or simply felt a responsibility to rethink the direction of their lives.
"I felt the need to earn the rest of my life by serving," says Nicholas Mercurio, who was a high school junior in Providence, R.I., on his way from home room to physics when a classmate ran up to him and said, "They blew up the World Trade Center."
Just 16 years old, Mercurio had known exactly what he wanted to do in life ' until that moment. Before 9/11, he planned to become a cardiovascular surgeon and was readying college applications to Harvard and Columbia. After 9/11, he was consumed with thoughts of service and sacrifice and what it all meant. Watching a football game on television, he saw the men and women in military uniforms on the field, and felt a conviction he'd never had about becoming a doctor.
He decided, "I could continue on the current path of my life and not sacrifice anything and have a pretty good life. But what would that feel like?"
He didn't know anyone killed in the attacks, but that didn't matter. After speaking with his parents and his grandfather, a World War II vet, Mercurio said goodbye to Harvard and Columbia and applied to three of the military service academies.
Ten years later, he is a first lieutenant in the Air Force who returned this summer from a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan. At 26, he is no longer that bookish kid who loved microscopes and mock trials. Mercurio changed when he rerouted the course of his life.
"I'm more confident. I carry myself differently. I became a much more self-assured person," he says.
He's seen things men his age, or any, just shouldn't ' and yet he has no regrets. He can't even picture himself as a doctor now.
"When I'm in uniform in airports, at least a handful of people will come up and thank me. I don't really know what to say."
But Mercurio knows how that makes him feel. "I'm proud."
It's difficult to know just how common, or rare, stories like his are. Five years after the terrorist attacks, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that only one American in five felt they'd permanently changed their lives because of the events of that day.
Yet they are out there, these tales of transformation ' on the Internet, in local newspapers, in a new book focused on the very idea of post-9/11 change.
Wendy Stark Healy wrote "Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal after 9/11" after being inspired by a pastor who spent five months volunteering at ground zero and later became a social worker and a counselor after seeking counseling himself to heal from the horrors he'd seen. The book features the Rev. Tom Taylor and 12 other people who changed direction after 9/11.
There's the financial consultant who became CEO of the September 11th Families' Association. The Wall Street trader who, after losing 17 friends on 9/11, moved his family to a coastal community in South Carolina for a more serene life. The fashion designer who became a disaster response expert after distributing supplies in the days after 9/11. The aspiring actress who became a Buddhist and a spiritual healer.
"People said here's the 'aha' moment. I don't even know if it happened that way for some of these folks, but they all had a little caveat," says Healy, recalling one person who told her, "I no longer take hellos and goodbyes for granted, because when I say goodbye to somebody I realize they may not come back."
Healy herself was inspired to write this, her first book, because of the attacks and the many people she met afterward when her own life changed. She went from writing annual company reports to working for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York.
"It's like something stirred in us," she says. "How can we not be changed?"
Susan Russo of Pearland, Texas, was moved to reconnect with her parents, from whom she'd been estranged for years after a sibling died. Now, she calls them every day and visits twice a year. "I told myself I wanted to know my mom and dad before they died," says the 53-year-old administrative assistant.
Sept. 11, she says, "completely changed my life."
Karl Glessner, who lives near the field in Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 went down, was prompted to carve out two hours every Saturday to serve as a volunteer at the memorial. The 60-year-old hardware store owner tries to answer whatever questions visitors might have.
"They want to know what I experienced when the plane crashed," he says. "I'm getting used to it by now. ... For a shy, quiet fellow like me it wasn't the easiest thing in the world."
"I'm changed," he says, "but I was kind of dragged along kicking and screaming. ... Nobody here wanted it."
Still, Glessner won't quit the work. Though hard, "it's one of the best ... and most rewarding things I do."
Lawrence Calhoun, a professor of psychology at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, co-wrote a book about what he calls post-traumatic growth, examining how and why some people seek out change in the wake of tragedy. A trauma such as 9/11 challenges our core beliefs, he says, sometimes leading individuals to confront questions not previously examined.
"Most of us do not go around thinking, 'What am I going to do for the rest of my life?'" says Calhoun. But a "confrontation with mortality or potential major loss," as on 9/11, "may represent a place where people focus on fundamental priorities."
As Healy said of the individuals she wrote about: "These people ... got the chance to change their lives. Three thousand people never got that chance. When you think of things that way, it's easy to make a change."
They'd returned to New York from a vacation in Italy on Sept. 10, 2001 ' two 30-somethings eager to get back to careers they both loved.
Louis Spitzer was the director of research and development for an upstart wireless technology company; Gillian Caldwell was executive director of WITNESS, a nonprofit organization started by musician Peter Gabriel to use film and video to bring attention to human rights abuses.
They had moved in together a year earlier, committed to building a life and, eventually, raising a family. But the couple were like many in thinking, "Now's just not the right time for kids. We have so much still to do professionally." They worried about the financial stress that comes with having children, and the commitment.
Says Spitzer: "We couldn't envision carving more space out for a family at that time."
On Sept. 11, he was at a Starbucks on the Upper West Side when the first plane struck. She exited the subway in Tribeca, only blocks from the World Trade Center, and saw the gaping hole. When the second plane hit and the towers fell, Caldwell stood on the street still, able to think only: "My God. Everybody in those buildings is dead."
Ten years later, just saying the words brings her to tears.
The couple became part of the alternative universe that was New York, and America, in the days that followed. Everyone was traumatized, mourning, questioning. Some were angry. Some paralyzed. Spitzer and Caldwell took a half-glass-full approach, talking about whether something good ' hopeful, even ' could come from the death and destruction.
Their conversations were vague, at first. Then, a week after the attacks, Caldwell went out for drinks with a friend whose best friend's brother had been killed in the towers. They talked for hours about the state of the world. The next morning, Caldwell awoke with a feeling of absolute clarity. She went to Spitzer and asked, "What are we waiting for?"
Only a few weeks later, she felt a strange pain in her abdomen, took a home pregnancy test while Spitzer slept ' and then hurried to wake him up.
Tess arrived on June 23, 2002, a child born not of some newfound sense of mortality but rather a choice by two individuals to put love and family first in their post-9/11 lives, no matter how drastically that altered their world before that horrible day.
"In response to something like this, you can either say to yourself, 'Who would want to bring a child into a world like this? What a terrible place to be.' Or you can say, 'Well, the only thing that really matters is love,'" says Caldwell.
It was the first of many transformative decisions. Spitzer became a stay-at-home father. Meanwhile, Caldwell's focus at WITNESS suddenly included finding someone to succeed her as executive director.
In 2005 their second child, a boy named Finley, was born. Two years later, the couple moved to the Washington, D.C., area when Caldwell went to work for a group lobbying for solutions to climate change, a move driven by her desire to leave a better world for her children.
Today, the family lives in Takoma Park, Md., where Caldwell, 45, works from home running her own consulting business. His world view reshaped by both 9/11 and his role as a father, Spitzer, 48, works at a nonprofit fighting to end extreme poverty.
Finley is a sandy blond 7-year-old, full of questions. Now 9, Tess loves hip hop dancing, gymnastics and martial arts. She also plans to start her own soccer team that she will, of course, coach. "She's very entrepreneurial," her mother says, laughing.
It's hard for Caldwell and Spitzer to imagine how different their lives might have been if not for 9/11 and the choices they made because of it. Maybe they would, one day, have had children. Or maybe they wouldn't have been able to conceive by the time they got around to it. Maybe they would have adopted. What they know is they wouldn't have Tess and Finley.
They have told Tess the story of how she came to be, but it's a story they know they will tell again when she's older. There's no way to think about how their daughter was conceived without thinking about Sept. 11. It's part of the narrative of all their lives now.
Still, the narrative isn't that Tess was the consequence of hate or evil, or the aftereffect of some unthinkable act. Rather, says Caldwell, she is the product of one beautiful decision that came from all of that, the choice "to give love and life another chance." When the time comes to recount the story once more, that is what she'll tell her little girl.
Pauline Arrillaga, a Phoenix-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.