On New Year’s Day 2018 my mother, brother and I stood on the 101st floor of the new World Trade Center, looking southeast across the expanse of New York Harbor. In that moment, I imagined my mother looking out at the same view prior to 2001, but with a completely different perspective, memories and hopes.
One September morning when I was 10 months old, my mother kissed me goodbye and didn’t return home for more than half a year. A partner at Cantor Fitzgerald, she was entering the lobby of the north tower when the first plane hit. Engulfed in flames, she battled to escape. She was catastrophically injured with burns covering more than 80% of her body. Her story is one of extraordinary strength but started as desperate struggle. Her recovery was long and hard and inextricably bound with my childhood.
9/11 didn’t color every second of my life, but there were constant reminders. I remember my mother’s disfigured hands trying to grasp a ball to throw to me, holding her bandaged hands in my own as a young boy and telling her I could make her better. For me and my family, the effects of the trauma took hold on 9/11 and continued in an acute way for years. The reminders of the terror of 9/11 remain ever-present anytime I look at my mom. Although she is still beautiful, all that was taken from her is a constant reminder of the senseless mass murder.
When I was 11, I started to change. In class, I’d catch myself staring at words, not taking them in. I withdrew from friends. I could tell that something was wrong. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I now realize that I was trying to reconcile the disconnected pain I felt for my mother, close family friends who’d been murdered, and all who had perished that day.
Although my parents tried to get me help, I didn't meet the criteria for programs designed for the thousands of 9/11 children whose parents were killed. There were few other children of parents who survived with grievous injuries. People would implore me to “be strong for my mom,” and to feel grateful that at least I still had a mom. Others would remind me that my mother lived to come back to me. Although these words were spoken with good intentions, they haunted me.
The pressure to be strong and consider myself “lucky” lead me to stifle my feelings, which negatively impacted me in ways I would only understand years later when I finally allowed myself to feel the loss. I was 14 before being correctly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I would face my own battle that took me on a journey far from home, knocked me from a traditional path at school for a time, and compelled me to methodically rebuild myself. Standing where I am now, I can see how much my perspective has shifted.
Through a great deal of self-reflection and hard work, I learned that I can deal with things that aren’t always in my control by acknowledging my own fear and pain. I continue to draw the example of faith from my mother whose resilience President Obama cited for its worldwide impact. I learned that I can conquer adversity by acknowledging my own fear and pain. I am committed to a future of learning, and where I can bring awareness, connection, and genuine help to others.