Are we, as individuals, primarily a product of the events to which we’ve uniquely been exposed? Are we, as individuals, defined by the relative impact and perspective of our lived experiences?
Or, is it our individual reactions to potentially life-altering events that define us? Is it the moment of decision, or the decision in the moment? Exposure to experience, or reaction to that experience?
Not nature versus nurture so much as stimulus/response. Cause:effect.
Until you’ve been tested, witnessed, experienced, suffered…until you’ve accomplished, hurdled, exceeded, excelled…how do you imagine yourself responding to failure or success? And how have you been altered, allowed yourself to be changed — how do you, both willfully and unintentionally, (re)define yourself once you’ve encountered failure or success?
Without such experiences, would our counterfactual selves be worse or better than our actual living selves? How would my other me vary from the me that I am?
I acknowledge that I run the risk of treading into the fruitless and dangerous exercise of “What if?” But that’s not why I’m grappling with these words, nor why I’m trying to work through these ideas in a public space such as this.
Nor I am not writing for sympathy.
I’m writing for understanding. Not really for my own understanding of the world, and why things may or may not happen as they do. Not naively and selfishly claiming that I possess the faculties to understand how the universe works as it does.
I want to understand how and why I have allowed events that I’ve experienced to shape me as they have.
Three events in particular bear upon me regularly, and as I move further in time away from them, their weight generally lessens. But their impact is undeniable. And there still remains the occasional day, often out of the blue, where for whatever reason I can’t escape the weight of these events. Those days are rough.
In the summer of 1992 my family was in an automobile accident. It was a terrifying head-on collision. I was the driver. It was not my fault. We were hit by the vehicle of an inebriated driver who decided to pass five cars in a no-passing zone through an intersection. He wasn’t in my lane when I turned, and in fact I had time to accelerate in my lane of travel sufficiently to attest to the fact that he wasn’t in my lane when I left the intersection.
But the deep voices inside my head know that I could have prevented it. I could have waited. I could have been just as cautious as I usually preferred to be, even if it meant light ridicule for being too cautious. To this day, Captain Safety remains my nickname.
But I didn’t wait.
The details of everything involving the impact are irrelevant here. We were lucky/blessed/fortunate that we all survived the accident. My mom physically took the most damage, and was hospitalized.
My damage was to my psyche.
I became afraid to leave the house. I instantly learned to fear vehicles. I used to love the freedom we gained from cars. And now I was petrified.
So, I didn’t leave the house. I wouldn’t leave our property. For many weeks, I ate everything in sight…out of guilt, or comfort, likely both. When I did leave the house, it was to hide in the woods behind our house and smoke. Or to take a baseball bat to an old tree stump. I needed a release. I had harmed my family by a decision I had made, and I couldn’t function with that realization.
I put on more than seventy-five pounds in about three weeks. I destroyed my metabolism. I went from a quasi-capable (not talented, but competitive) athlete, to (what I felt to be) nothing. I hated my mind, and soon, my body. I hated myself, and I hurt.
Nearly a decade later, I awoke on a weekday morning to get ready for work. I lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and my job was in the financial district at the southern tip of the island. There was no hot water in my building. I skipped the cold shower. My contacts wouldn’t sit right in my eyes, so I begrudgingly opted for glasses. If only these were the worst things I’d experience that day.
I’ve never written about that Tuesday. It feels so selfish. I lived. I almost can’t even believe that I experienced it. I remember giving a phone interview to an old friend who worked as a reporter back near home in Pennsylvania a few days after it. I distinctly remember entering this cathartic, documentary state of recollection — the only way I feel is fair for me to fully recount my experience when someone asks me about it — for I what I guess to be about forty-five minutes. Every single detail matters, and deserves attention, or else I haven’t told the full story. Evidently, a few weeks later a cousin who worked for a small Ohio television station came to where I was in Ohio to interview me — where I had moved to, ran to, retreated to. (Or as I often punish myself: moved from, ran from, retreated from). I don’t recall that interview ever happening. My mom told me about it not too long ago when I was trying to track down the newspaper article about my experience…I have no recollection of it whatsoever.
I think I was in shock for several weeks after September 11. If I close my eyes today, I can recount nearly every second of that morning as I experienced it. It takes a long time to play out.
I worked in what was known as the Standard Oil Building, at 26 Broadway. If you’ve ever visited the iconic sculpture of the Wall Street bull, you’ve stood in front of my building.
The first plane must have hit the first tower when I was in the subway. Maybe, and more likely, I was in my building’s elevator at the time of first impact, as I traveled up to the sixteenth floor. That makes the most sense, but I don’t know.
The second plane flew over my head as I stood outside on the patio/roof of the sixteenth floor. I’ve never before nor since seen a plane move so slowly. I know it’s highly unlikely, but I said at the time, and I maintain it now…that plane was so slow, so low, and so close, I swear I could have hit it with a baseball. Like a throw to home from left field…
Even today, right now, I don’t have the energy to recount the rest of my experiences that morning. I’m writing this, and there are tears in my eyes. I’m forty-one years old, this happened nearly 16 years ago, and I can’t. I. Can’t.
I survived. I felt guilty that I escaped, that I didn’t work in the World Trade Center. I felt embarrassed that I no longer wanted to live in New York City. I hated the world, and I hurt.
Susan died four years ago yesterday, on April 22. I tried to have this story finished yesterday, but it was too taxing mentally.
I am amazed to this very day how hard she was able to fight. (I am not amazed that she fought with such tenacity, strength, passion…I am amazed that she was physically capable for fighting for so long.)
The last time we saw her was on her birthday, April 2, 2013. She was busy making plans for her future, but I know she knew. I couldn’t stomach the thought of thinking it at the time, but I knew it, too. She wouldn’t make it to the end of the month.
I hated life, when it inexplicably tears such brilliance away from us.
Though I’m seeking an understanding of my reactions to these events, it would be foolish for me to claim that I’ve found any answers. I have made some mental compromises, or perhaps pushed myself, to arrive at a stasis that does not cripple me.
When the accident arises, I now force myself to think about alternative outcomes on that day. I make myself consider the worser “what if” scenarios that could have played out. What if my dad had been driving, and neither he nor my mom would have been wearing seat belts? What if this accident prevented us from an even larger, fatal incident on the interstate? What if our accident prevented the other driver from killing someone at the crest of the upcoming rise in the road?
I am scarred physically from the dramatic weight gain following the accident. But instead of asking what if I had not sheltered at home and gained so much weight, I concentrate instead on how I know I have changed myself for the better. Because of the accident, I stopped playing basketball and instead acted in the school play. My circle of friends grew and changed considerably, and I grew close to people outside of the basketball and baseball players with whom I had grown up, people I wouldn’t have associated with otherwise because they weren’t cool.
I learned empathy, and sympathy, and the importance of perspective. I discovered a more creative side to myself that I previously was afraid to explore.
I’m still Captain Safety, more so than ever before, but I can live with that. At least I don’t hate myself for it anymore.
Had it not been for the events of 9/11, I feel confident that I would not have left New York City. And I’ll be forever grateful that I did, because of everything I’ve been able to experience as a result.
New York City bears upon you. I’m sure that most cities have a comparable effect, the pressures and constant presence of millions of people trying to live their lives competing for the same resources. But in my experience, it was tremendously difficult to escape these pressures.
And it changes you. New York fundamentally changed who I was. My value system changed…to a capitalist, consume everything, give me more and more, I want it all, defined-by-my-possessions lifestyle. I wanted money, and I judged others by money. I stopped being welcoming and considerate, stopped smiling, and on the subway, I started pushing back. That’s when I knew I was a different person, alienated from family at home and old friends. I knew it, and I didn’t care. Because the consume-everything ethos of the big city told me I was successful. Told me I shouldn’t care…told me to push, and keep pushing.
I would not have changed had something not forced me. I required the magnitude and enormity of 9/11 to wake up. That is self-absorption.
And perhaps that contributed further to the inevitable shock that consumed me for weeks after 9/11…because I was not just processing the attacks upon our country, our way of life and being. I was working through a deep, spiritual re-envisioning of who I was, who I believed myself to be, who I wanted to be, and how I wanted people to know me.
I was freed to be comfortable with who I was. I no longer needed others to affirm my being.
I can’t bring Susan back. None of her friends can, no matter what we would so happily sacrifice, if only we could.
Mourning her loss had its time. Even though she would have despised the fact that people were thinking and talking and remembering about her, we needed the chance to process the prospect of no more Susan. It would, of course, be a complete lie to say that we’re over her. It’s simply untrue, now and as long as those who knew her are still alive, because she had so many plans…and the will, drive, curiosity, engagement, passion, humor, to accomplish them.
It would be easier to retract from the world, angry at this place that somehow would allow a cancer to starve and eventually steal such brilliance. Getting from April 2 until April 22 each of these years since her death is painful. The hope and happiness of a birthday and then the sorrow twenty days later, filled in between with an inescapable despair, because you already know what happens on April 22. What that date means, and always will mean, to you.
My experience of Susan’s death by breast cancer has elicited in me an unyielding desire to fight back against cancer in all its forms. I have found a community of dreamers, visionaries, and leaders who are committed to the very same. And it is this community to which I have dedicated myself in response. I don’t have the scientific knowledge to cure cancer, but I sure as hell can help those who do.
I proudly ride in Pelotonia each year with other dreamers, seeking a cancer-free world. I push myself throughout spring and summer to be ready to cycle 180 miles in August. I push myself to leave no stone unturned in spreading the word about Pelotonia, in being shameless in advancing the cause, and finding support for our team. I push myself physically when we’re on the road — to make myself a better cyclist, a healthier person, but also to celebrate the lives of Susan and Aunt Judy. Because I’m still angry and hurt at this world, but hopeful.
My response has been to allow Pelotonia, and the hope for a cancer-free tomorrow, to consume me.
And I couldn’t be happier.
Some team members will contribute periodically throughout the season as we ramp up to Pelotonia weekend in August.