I am sitting in an intimate theater room at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. When the 11-minute film begins, there is sound but no picture. Sirens. Urgency. Then it goes quiet and on three sides of me there is white dust and paper falling. The images are projected onto the walls, but I am transported there in that instant.
I breathe deeply.
Yes. This was a good idea today. I need to feel.
I had not planned to precede a trip to the 9/11 Memorial Museum with a day spent in the emergency room, but there it was, happening just like that.
A few weeks ago I bought a ticket for the museum, specifically for 1 p.m. on a Friday. I had been seeing headlines about it and avoided reading, wanting to make up my own mind. I decided to go alone, mostly because it is so intensely personal a choice when one is ready to go or if one wants to go at all.
The Thursday before I was in my usual routine – working out at the gym. While I was on the stationary bike, pedaling away, I had what I call a ‘whisper’ telling me to check my blood pressure. No pain. No shortness of breath. Just a feeling, an instinct.
I continued pedaling, pooh-poohing the meddlesome thought. But it persisted. After 15 minutes I got off the bike and went to the aerobics room, grabbed a mat and got on the floor for some crunches and yoga poses. The feeling persisted. I skipped weight training, returned to the locker room, and packed up. Then I went to the Walgreens a block away because I know the pharmacists there will take your blood pressure upon request.
Bearing in mind that I had a hypertensive issue diagnosed two years ago, have been on three different meds that had troubling side effects, and decided to make a lifestyle change in July 2013 that included better eating and no meds at all, I was not a stranger to this. The pharmacist put the cuff on and when my blood pressure registered I saw her face and knew.
“Is it above 150?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she said. And then, “Ma’am, are you feeling OK? Do you have any symptoms?”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
Turns out my reading was above 180. I was alarmed. She suggested I go home and rest, maybe talk to my doctor. I sat right there and called my doctor, leaving a message explaining the situation. I walked out of Walgreens and ran into someone from my community. The tears were brimming behind my sunglasses and all I needed was a nudge from her to spill it. She confirmed what I was already thinking – go to the ER.
I walked the five blocks or so to the hospital and, at first confounded as to why I was there with no apparent symptoms, the nurses and doctor immediately went into action when they saw my blood pressure for themselves. They ran a battery of tests – EKG, CT head scan, chest x-ray, blood and urine work. They found nothing wrong, blessedly; the most challenging part was succumbing to the needle because I have tiny veins and it almost always takes multiple attempts to draw blood.
I liked the doctor a lot because he spoke to me clearly, outlined what they were doing and looking for, and the possible outcomes. The nurses were gracious, professional and went out of their way to make me comfortable. In a few hours my BP had come down into the 150s. The doctor gave me a pill and an hour or so later the reading was below 140. The lower number dropped, too. When the doctor came to deliver all the results, he added that I should check with my doctor (which of course is the plan) but that he thought this was a rare episode and not indicative of a sustained problem. I asked him about the next few days, adding that I had a ticket for the next day to go to the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
“Don’t get over-wrought,” he said with an ironic half-smile. We’d developed a rapport by then and I got his message.
Feeling physically fine that night but emotionally drained, I wondered what to do about the next day. When I woke up in the morning, I decided to go. It would be healthy to emote. I didn’t feel it was a coincidence that these things happened together. The train ride is only 10 minutes. I could always change my mind mid-stream.
When I reached the door and stood in one of the lines for admission, I noticed the line next to me was for groups. This group seemed to be veterans and their loved ones, several in wheelchairs and one young man with a prosthetic leg below the knee. Already there was a lump in my throat and I hadn’t even cleared security yet.
Once inside, after just a few minutes, I walked by a veteran in a wheelchair sobbing before one of the displays. He was being comforted by the person with him. My tears began anew. I don’t even know how to express how that felt.
What it did, though, was amplify my own lens on this moment I’d chosen to be in and the circumstances of the day before. As I started through the displays, what came pouring in was this – it was 9/11 that put me in a volunteer and serve mentality, that spurred life coaching and a spiritual journey that has been wholly supported by the Universe in an abundance of ways. I am an artist. I have been called to create and I am responding to that. I have been since that day. My call to serve was not crystal clear immediately but in a way that is still unfolding in its clarity.
This trip, this museum, this day was a big, fat reminder. I feel called all over again. To serve. To live meaningfully. To have faith in outcomes. To attract people who support me and help me grow.
Each portion of the museum was heartwarming or staggering in some way. The room with the faces and stories of those who perished. The mural where children in South Carolina had been encouraged by their art teacher to express sentiments about the tragedy and one chose to write, “The Lord is my shepherd …” The massive pieces of the towers on display alongside the smallest items recovered from the rubble. The audio of 911 calls. The maps outlining the routes of the planes hijacked. The section where each event of the day is shown unfolding in ways ranging from poignant to disturbing.
I was in the West Village that day, commuting to work from Hoboken, and when I emerged from underground the first tower had already been hit. So when I saw one photo in the display of people in that neighborhood standing and looking downtown in disbelief, I gasped.
There was so much that touched me deeply, but the much-discussed beams that were found in the shape of a cross, well, wow. I stood and looked up at it and marveled at the size and miraculousness of it. For some it’s meaningless, but for me it’s powerful. I didn’t expect to be so moved by its scope and presence.
At one point as I made my way through, I overheard a woman say to her friend, “I don’t think I can come here again.” I understood what she meant because at that point I, too, was feeling I’d reached my emotional limit.
A short time later on my way out of the area, dwarfed by a glistening Freedom Tower on a sunny day, I stopped to see the survivor tree and give it a nod.
I think I know a bit about how it feels.