Please, God, let him telephone me now.
The morning began like most others. Hammett hurried onto the balcony while securing the knot in his tie. After forty-two years, the fit of his black suit and crisp white shirt still stirred butterflies in my stomach. I poured two cups of black coffee as he buttered the toast, our usual pre-work breakfast. Between bits of conversation I followed the movements of a jogger as he plodded his way through Central Park, a view we’d paid dearly for.
As September mornings go, humidity already presented a challenge, but the pale blue sky and mid-60s temperature offered Hammett a perfect seven-mile bike ride to his office in New York City’s Twin Towers.
He pushed his plate away and gazed toward the tall green trees. An occasional hint of autumn splendor painted the leaves. Hammett leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head.
I enjoyed him this way, relaxed, with a slight upturn in his lips. “Are you sure you have to finish out the week?” If only I’d bitten my tongue. Instead, the words rang like an alarm clock.
Hammett looked at his watch then sprang out of the chair. “I promised Julia I would.” He bent down and kissed my forehead. “Just three more days.”
He touched my shoulder, and I held onto his hand. I stared into his deep blue eyes—the worry lines in his forehead more pronounced than I’d ever noticed. I held back words I wanted to say. Words like, you don’t owe her anything; I’ve always admired your dedication, but; it’s such a beautiful day, let’s ride the ferry. Deep inside, I knew it wouldn’t help if I said them.
We’d married two years before we graduated college. Hammett began his career as an intern and continued to work for the same marketing firm for forty years. I stayed home and raised our children. Hammett climbed the corporate ladder until he’d earned a place at the table—chief financial officer. With our debts paid, children’s futures secured, and nothing preventing us, we sold our home in the country and bought a penthouse on the upper west side. Our wallets took a wallop, so I accepted a part-time job as an at-home editor. After ten years, we achieved our dream. We paid off the mortgage and breathed easier. We owned the penthouse free and clear.
Though we had means, we’d chosen to live with fun and frugality in mind. We’d gone on a few cruises but stayed in hostels when we’d toured Europe. Our friends bought yachts, we rented kayaks. Skiing in Aspen never made it on our radar. The nearby Poconos filled that need.
Several months ago, as our knees shook, we met with our investment banker. A month later, Hammett signed his retirement papers. At the firm’s request, he agreed to work as a consultant on an occasional basis, and at his discretion.
That afternoon we went through our scrapbooks and picture albums. Every page told the story of our lives. Days, weeks, months, and years passed before our eyes. Though I hadn’t voiced the thought, I wondered how many more years we’d have together.
As if he read my mind, Hammett took my hand. “It’s the beginning of the rest of our lives. Whatever time we have, we’ll make the most of it. You and me.” A tenuous smile spread his lips.
The sun warmed me as I stood at the edge of the balcony and waved to Hammett, his bike pointed toward his trek to work. He leaned over the handlebars, his satchel slung on his back, the path through Central Park a little busier now than thirty minutes ago. He stopped pedaling long enough to throw me a kiss, something he hadn’t done for years. I pretended to catch it and threw one back to him. He smiled and rode down the sun-dappled pathway. No longer able to see him, I lingered on the balcony, absorbed in the moment. Hammett’s words from months ago, “the rest of our lives,” flashed through my mind like a shooting star. A quiver shook my spine.
Somehow, the thought took me back several years when our daughter-in-law and son, Solomon, an administrator at Cedar Sinai Hospital, traveled to Haiti. Unable to conceive, they adopted a newborn in Port-au-Prince. Solomon returned a changed man. “Mom, Dad, you’ve gotta go there. We take everything for granted here. They have nothing, yet they’re the happiest people I’ve ever met.” A week later, Solomon lay in a hospital bed with fever, severe abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Diagnosed with malaria, he slipped into a coma. A few days later, he left our lives forever.
Hammett and I grieved in different ways. He poured himself into his work and allowed it to consume him. “Can’t we talk about this?” I’d asked him. He shrugged, undressed, and fell asleep the second his head hit the pillow.
To cope, I skipped meals. Lots of them. If Hammett and I were invited out, I sometimes pretended to eat. Other times, I’d polished off my plate like a ravenous wolf. When my stomach rebelled, unable to handle its contents, I excused myself to find the nearest restroom.
My friend Jessica noticed my weight loss and unhealthy eating patterns. She invited me out to lunch. But, instead, she took me to meet with her therapist.
After several sessions, I asked Hammett to go with me. “Don’t ever ask me to go to one of those shysters. It’s mind over matter. You think they’ll help you, but all they do is take your money.” He pointed his finger at me. “Besides, I’m not the one that needs help.”
In five weeks, I’d gone from a healthy 152-pound, 5’6” woman to a lethargic 129 pounds. I knew I was out of control when I caught a glimpse of my skin-taut rib cage in the mirror. It didn’t surprise me when I woke up in a hospital bed, disoriented and bewildered, with tubes and monitors all around me.
Hammett stroked my hair. “I found you passed out in the bathroom. I’m so sorry. I should have done something . . . I.” His eyes met mine. “We’ll get counseling. The two of us. We’ll get better.”
We did get better. Hammett made it a rule—he’d get home by dinnertime every work day, and he stuck to it. Over the course of time, our therapy sessions went from twice a week to once a month. We learned so much more about each other, and as Solomon had said, we began to appreciate what we’d taken for granted.
By now, our daughter Madilyn had graduated medical school, and joined a small emergency medical practice in the City. Our daughter-in-law visited often with our grandson, Oliver. He lit up the room and kept us young. We enjoyed spoiling him with toys, books, clothes, and electronics.
Another shiver moved up my spine. I glanced at my watch, stunned that I’d daydreamed on the balcony for so long. I hurried to clean off the table and brought the breakfast dishes to the sink, then turned on the TV so my favorite morning show could accompany my mundane chores. As water splashed over my hands I hummed and scrubbed the plates.
“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you. . .” My head snapped toward the television—its picture captured my attention. The camera lens zoomed in close, as if I rode on the wings of a misguided jet. The commentator’s words pricked my ears.
Sirens and horns blared outside and in the background while the TV newscaster narrated the uncertain reality. Clear blue skies above the Twin Towers blackened with billowy smoke. Again and again, images of the plane as it flew into the North Tower appeared on the screen. I flipped through the channels. There had to be some mistake, maybe some sick reenactment of War of the Worlds.
I ran to the balcony and looked toward Manhattan, to the steel towers that graced our view. “God, help us.” Dark smoke rose into the air until it entombed the silvery tower.
Back inside, I grabbed the phone from the receiver, relieved that I still had a dial tone. Before I pushed a button, the phone slipped from my sweat-drenched palm. My breath caught in my throat. The TV camera tracked another plane soaring at low altitude on approach to the South Tower.
My body crumpled to the floor. My heart hammered as flames erupted through the tower’s jagged opening. The newscaster’s voice faded away. Eerie figures fell from windows of the north building, surreal and horrible. On the street, people screamed, too stunned to cry. Their confusion matched my own.
My cell phone rang. I leaped off the floor and raced to my desk, then read the number on the screen. “Hammett, where are you?”
For a nanosecond, everything moved in slow motion before rocketing forward. Shattered glass and noise rumbled in the background. Desperate screams almost drowned Hammett’s words.
I dug my nails into the desk. “Hammett, I can’t hear you.” I yelled over the chaos that probably surrounded him.
He sniffled. “You were right. I shouldn’t have come to work today.” His words came between stilted breaths.
I gripped the phone so tight my hand ached. I could only imagine what Hammett saw, how he felt at that moment, the thoughts going through his mind. I wanted to say something of comfort, something to encourage him.
“Hammett, I can’t live without you. I don’t want to.” The words left my lips and, oh, how I wished I could get them back. They weren’t helpful or what he needed to hear.
He sobbed. Hard. And I’ll never forget the sound of his voice as he gasped and choked out these words. “You’ve made my life so happy . . . I wish I had . . . a million more. Take care of . . . Madilyn. Suzanne . . . and Oliver. I’ll . . . watch over you.”
The line went dead. “Hammett. Hammett.” Bile burned in my throat.
Thunder rolled in the distance, or did the noise reverberate from the television? I ran into the living room and sank to my knees. “Oh, dear God, no!” The North Tower crumbled to the ground. Glass and metal hurled through the air. Frantic people scrambled in every direction only to have ash and soot swallow them. The TV screen became a gray-black blur as the camera crew darted for safety, their nervous voices lost in the melee.
Someone screamed, her shrill, loud voice filled the room and pierced my ears. Her tears flowed down my face into trembling hands. Pieces of priceless pottery sailed through the air, their broken sound less hysterical than she. I had to stop her before she lost complete control.
The wet carpet under my face became my first wake up call. Too weak to push myself up, I laid there. Garbled voices from the television drifted toward me spewing words that ran together. A third plane crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania, its destination shy of its goal. A man wrung his hands and mumbled something about the Pentagon but the information didn’t fully register. I forced myself to read the words on the screen. “America Under Attack.” Voices narrated their impromptu speculation. Eyewitnesses reported chilling accounts. Some commented about children in a nearby preschool whose parents would never pick them up.
No one tried to explain why my husband had to die in the attack.
Time lost its meaning. I don’t know how long I laid there while television commentators continued their analysis. Heat, humidity, and smoke wafted through my open windows. Damp hair stuck to my face.
A blinking red light caught my eye, and I thrust myself off the floor. Cell phone plans were expensive, and I’d only given my number to a few people. I racked my brain but couldn’t imagine who would’ve left a message. My chest tightened.
Engaged in a dizzy dance with the cell phone, I staggered like a shipwrecked sailor into the bedroom. Before I flopped on the bed, I grabbed a coverlet. Curled in a fetal ball, I clutched the phone. Shattered nerves prevented me from listening to the message.
I replayed conversations Hammett shared when he’d headed the safety committee. He often conducted fire drills, equipped the offices with fire extinguishers, and made regular trips up and down the thirty-seven flights of stairs. No wonder he stayed in great physical shape. Hope flooded my thoughts.
I blew out a long sigh, pushed the button, and retrieved the only message.
“Hi, Mom, it’s Maddie. It’s about 8:37 on Tuesday morning, September 11. I don’t have to be to work at the hospital until noon today. These twenty-four-hour emergency room shifts are brutal, and I haven’t seen you guys as much as I’d like. I picked up some bagels and cream cheese at that deli you two always rave about. I’m gonna take them up to Dad’s office, and wondered if maybe you could join us.
“By the way, I got bored at work Sunday and weighed myself. Big mistake. So, before I eat these bagels, thought I’d take the stairs up to Dad’s office. If it doesn’t kill me, maybe I’ll lose five pounds by the time I get there.
“Okay, I’m about to enter the stairwell so I might lose reception but I’ll count off the steps for as long as I can. Ready?
“Two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen . . .”
Written by Amre Cortadino
(This fictional story was written to honor those fallen heroes of 9/11. We offer our heartfelt prayers for the families and friends of those who died that day, or because of injuries sustained that day. “We will never forget.”)
Please click on the title above, The Penthouse, and leave a comment below. Thank you.