My friend Christine Lewis-Varley wrote this guest post for me in 2011 and it ran for the 10th year anniversary of 9/11 over at the HRSchoolhouse. Sadly Christine passed away in 2014. I’m re-running this post today in memory of Christine as well as in memory of those who perished in the attacks, the heroes, the survivors and the families.
This weekend we’re going to be inundated by media hype – we’re going to see the planes go into the Towers time and again. We’re going to switch the TV off because it’s so incredibly sad and there’s nothing we can do to make it better. We can’t take it back, we can’t rewind the movie.
In some ways it seems like a life time since September 11th 2001 and in other ways it seems like yesterday. Certainly none of us will ever forget where we were, what we were doing and how we felt. I wanted to share a story with you.
Amongst the thousands of memories that I have of September 11th 2001 I have one very special one that is forever imprinted on my heart. A young woman, by the name of Anya, was living in Brooklyn with her husband Alexander – they were from Siberia. Alexander was a very young technology guru who was brought to the US by Leman Brothers to work in New York. Alexander brought with him his young twenty year old bride, Anya. After several months in the US Cantor Fitzgerald contacted Alexander and offered him a job working for them in the World Trade Center. Alexander was very excited, it was more money and he and Anya had not realized how expensive it would be to live in New York and so additional money was going to be tremendous for them. The rest is history!
Alexander called Anya just before he died and told her what was happening. All alone, Anya watched the television for hours and days until someone from Cantor realized that she must be alone – they sent people to sit with her, to comfort her until her young sister arrived from Siberia. Anya was 20 and her sister was 19 and neither spoke English!
After September 11th 2001 I was very honored to join a small group of New York female executives in the rag trade who opened their hearts and their businesses to the women who had been left behind after their husbands, fiancées and significant others had been killed. The mission of this small group was to help the women talk, share, explore and start to get involved in completely different areas of work than most of them had ever dreamt of. The idea being to that these new and different areas would help the women have something different to think about as they moved through this agonizing period of their lives. As a side note – it was amazing – the CEOs of fashion houses such as Ann Taylor, Perry Ellis, DKNY and others that I can’t think of right now, offered the women jobs, apprenticeships, days in the life of – anything they could think of that would provide a distraction for just a little while! It was amazing and truly an experience that none of us will forget. (WITHH = Women in Transition Helping and Healing.)
We met many times with various groups of women and we talked and talked and it was at one of these gatherings that I had the pleasure of meeting Anya for the first time. She was the most beautiful young woman, as you can imagine, blonde and blue eyed. She and her sister sat quietly together, listening intently to the other women as they shared their stories. I watched Anya very carefully and I could see that she was trying to figure out how to say something in English – I reached for her hand and squeezed it gently and attempted to send as much supportive energy as I could. She started to speak – you could hear a pin drop. Very carefully and quietly she shared with the room of strangers, united by a bond that nobody wanted, many of whom were understandably angry and frustrated and others who were silent and crying as they listened to the women share their feelings.
Anya told of the horror she experienced – how she had sat in her apartment alone for the first few days and how she would hear the heavy footprints in the hallway outside her apartment; she would know they were coming for her to sign a receipt that another fragment of Alexander’s remains had been identified. She told of her difficulty in understanding what was being said; she told of her loneliness and terror in a foreign country. She told of her sister’s arrival days later and the comfort she’d found in being able to talk to someone in her own language. She spoke for several minutes – nobody cared that she struggled hard to put the words together to make sense and often used her hands to show her meaning and other times asked for help to clearly make her point understood.
She completed her story and then she shared something that was extraordinary coming from anyone, especially someone so young. Anya said that she didn’t want her wonderful memory of Alexander to be marred by hate. That she didn’t hate the people who had done this. She said that she felt sorry – terribly sorry. She wanted to understand why they hated so much and why they could do something so horrendous. She said she would spend the rest of her life teaching love and helping children build bridges of love and understanding rather than hate and terror.
You can imagine – the women in the room received Anya’s message with very mixed feelings – they certainly had a right to hate but here was a young women, who had gone through this terror alone, who was in a foreign country away from her parents – and her message was of love not hate.
I was very fortunate to become Anya’s surrogate mother in the US until she left three years later. We spent many hours on my porch in West Hartford, talking about her future, her past – what she was going to do with her life and how what had happened to her was going to influence her future. Anya went on to graduate from NYU and is now home in Siberia with her family, she has found a new love and one day she says she may get married. She’s a teacher, and best of all, she has founded an organization with a friend in New York to bring Siberian children to the US and American children to Siberia. Anya would often tell me, as she laughed with delight, that when people found that she came from Siberia they immediately asked “how?” She said the Americans she had met thought that Siberia was made up of snow and bears – they had no idea people actually lived there. The truth is that Anya lived on the second floor above an open shopping mall – she would make me laugh when she told me how she would have a date and have to run downstairs to the shops to buy a pair of tights! (FYI – her clothes were off the charts – fashion in Siberia is very high style).
I will never forget Anya and her amazing soul – old and wise beyond her years and blessed with a grace that is almost impossible to comprehend.
I met so many women, there were so many stories – those are the people I want to hear from this weekend. I don’t want to watch the planes go into the towers – that happened, there’s nothing we can do to change it. I want to hear and see about the incredible guts and determination that those left behind have harnessed and used to do extraordinary things with their lives – those are the people I want to hear about.
This Sunday I will go to church and thank God for standing by my side – even when I ignore him as I have done so many times. I will hang my American flag this weekend and I hope you will too.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on the media – I have just heard another great story of a wife of a young husband and father of three who lost his life in September 11th 2001. She has started a foundation to help Afghanistan women create small businesses so that they can make their own money to buy materials and build schools to educate their children.
I wonder what I would have done had I been one of the women left behind – would I have had the guts to carry on? I wonder!