How a 9:11 victim helped me find my voice
I know, I know, I’ve been a naughty girl. I haven’t been blogging. I haven’t even been writing, well, apart from work writing which categorically doesn’t count.
I’ve been a tad distracted, you see. The work thing (a tricky, time consuming project). Family stuff. Stuff stuff. Frankly, I’ve lost my mojo and for a while there I couldn’t even be bothered to look for it. Then yesterday the date gripped me by the throat and started to choke me. The eleventh of September. 9:11. A momentous date for the world and a personally significant one for me too. On 11th September 2002 I started to write. Well, write for myself. I’d been writing for years for other people: first teachers, then lecturers, then clients. But on that day, like a nervous little kitten, I attended my first creative writing class. I loved it. The exercises we were given during the session were challenging, fun and invigorating. This is grand, I thought, I can do this.
But then we were given homework and I thought, okay, maybe I can’t.
We had to write a letter. It could be to anyone, about anything. Great, I thought. Brilliant. Excellent guidelines. Not. There was a brief discussion amongst the group about who they might write to and the general consensus was a family member or a close friend. But that didn’t sit well with me. I couldn’t choose one over another to write to, and anyway, what would I say? I cringed with embarrassment at the very thought of exposing anything remotely resembling an honest emotion.
I returned home confused. I’d enjoyed the session, tremendously, but I didn’t see how I could possibly complete the assignment. And if I couldn’t do it, then, obviously I couldn’t go back. Stupid idea anyway, this notion of writing ‘creatively’. Stick to what you know. Concentrate on focusing on your clients voices and forget about trying to find your own.
I switched the television on and started to watch the memorial service for the first anniversary of 9:11, and my tears soon washed away my selfish frustrations. Of all the names I heard that day, one stuck with me and has been with me ever since. Igor Zukelman, the last name on the list. I didn’t get his name right to begin with, but I know it now. I wrote my letter to Igor, and went back to class the following week, and the rest is my own little personal history.
So thank you, Mr Zukelman, for helping me to find my voice – both then, and now. It’s a little stronger these days than that shaky, innocent, indulgent tone of a decade ago, and I’m still learning how to use it. If I’d written this letter yesterday the structure might be better, the words more carefully arranged; but the sentiment would remain exactly the same.
A Letter to Igor
September 15 2002
Dear Igor Zuckerman
Please excuse me if I haven’t quite got your name right. It’s been running around in my head for the past few days, haunting me almost, but I’m not quite sure if it’s Zuckerman or Ziberman. Or maybe it’s Zuckleman. I do remember though, quite clearly, that your surname began with a Z. Apart from that I know nothing at all about you; except that you lost your life a year ago, on September 11 2001. You see yours was the very last name on the list of almost 3,000 people who died with you on that beautiful sunny morning to be read out at the memorial service on Wednesday. I didn’t hear all of the names, but of those I did catch, yours has particularly affected me; probably because it took over two and a half hours to get to you. Two and a half hours of dead people. Two and a half hours before your friends and family heard someone they probably didn’t know confirm to the world that you were gone.
I’ve been wondering how you died, Igor. I know it sounds morbid, but since I heard your name, the last name, I’ve become somewhat obsessed by your death. Were you in one of the towers, or on a plane or at the Pentagon? If you were in a tower, which one was it? What floor were you on? Why were you there? Were you a businessman, a janitor, a tourist, a fireman? Did you go there every day, or was there a special reason for your visit that morning? Did you know what was happening? Did you realise that you weren’t going to get out, or were you confident that you would? Did you manage, like hundreds of others, to make contact with your loved ones? Did your death come in a lift, on the stairwell, by your desk? Or did you jump?
Perhaps you were a passenger on one of the planes. That bothers me even more, Igor. Everyone has their own personal horror of that day – a moment, a memory, a story, a name, an image that will haunt them forever and flash before them for years to come when they think about that date. 9:11, a date which started off as a normal day and ended as one the world will never forget, embedded forever in history. My demon, the one that still visits me every time I see a jumbo jet soaring high above in a clear blue sky, is the image of the planes crashing into the towers. As a nervous flyer, the thought of the innocent people on all four of the planes involved in the attacks will distress me for the rest of my life. And, as a mother, the fact that there were children on board some of the flights has made me howl with rage.
But I’ve also been thinking about your life, Igor. What age were you? Where did you come from? Where did you live? Did you have a wife, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a dog? Were you a father? A brother? An uncle? What were your passions? Your favourite film? Your favourite food? Was there a book you re-read time and time again? Were you a sportsman, Igor, or an artist; or both? Did you like to cook? Sing? Dance? Run? Were you smiling on your way to wherever you were going that morning, happy to be doing whatever you were doing? Did you look up at the deep blue sky and feel glad to be alive on such a beautiful autumn day?
And your family, Igor. Your family. I’ve been thinking about them too. Did they walk the streets of Manhattan for days with your photograph? Did they get to bury your body? How long did they have to wait before they knew you were never coming home? And how are they now; one shockingly short but painfully long year on?
I’ve been wondering what you would have made of your death, of all the deaths, and the aftermath of that catastrophic and grotesquely historic couple of hours. I come from a place that has been tarnished by terrorism for over 30 years. My country has lived with death, hatred and evil for almost as long as I can remember, and many of the atrocities we have witnessed have left wounds that for some will never heal. Perhaps the saddest thing that I have learnt from living here is that hate breeds hate, ignorance breeds intolerance and, for those who are locked in their insular beliefs, forgiveness is not an option.
Some people here have been cross at the exposure of 9:11 and many didn’t want to be reminded about it last week when most of the world mourned the first anniversary. ‘What about our dead?’ they shouted. ‘What about us?’ But they’re so wrapped up in their own self pity that they’re missing the point: the dead of 9:11 are our dead. This wasn’t just an attack on the USA; it wasn’t only meant to harm Americans, rock the US administration, threaten the land of the free. It was a message to the world. It was meant to hurt us all. It was the most obvious and orchestrated single act of terrorism the human race has ever witnessed; because that is exactly what happened – the world witnessed it, with bewildered and disbelieving horror.
But perhaps that same world can turn it around, recycle the shock and fear and grief and anger to produce a global climate of trust, friendship, tolerance and respect. Wouldn’t it be great if, after that cataclysmic day, the world had said ‘stop’, ‘enough’, ‘no more’? If the terrorists themselves had become the terrified, frightened that their ultimate objective had failed? If people who hate had started to love and blame became forgiveness, and intolerance became compassion? Do you think that’s possible, Igor, my fantasy vision of a fairy tale future? It certainly doesn’t look like it right now. War is a frightening possibility, looming closer every day, and world peace seems further away than ever. I don’t know what our future holds, Igor, but I do know it’s different than the one that was lining up for us on the morning last September when you made your way towards your death under a bright blue sky.
I plan to visit New York for the second time next summer. On my first trip to the city, almost four years ago, my favourite place, the only ‘tourist attraction’ I went to twice, was the World Trade Centre. I had lunch in Windows on the World and it was honestly one of those rare ‘wow’ moments that stay with you forever. I vividly remember looking out at the myriad of buildings and bridges across Manhattan thinking: ‘it’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m here in New York drinking wine and having the time of my life.’ I literally felt on top of the world. There was something surreal and altogether magical about being there, and after that trip I always told friends who were visiting the city to go to Windows. It was my number one tip.
When I return, I will go to Ground Zero, and pay my respects to everyone who died. And I’ll whisper your name Igor, and hope the wind will carry my blessing to you.
Wherever you are now, I hope you are at peace.
I subsequently discovered that Igor Zukelman was just 29 when he died in the South Tower on September 11 2001. He was born in the Ukraine in 1972 and immigrated to the US in 1992 to make a better life for himself, finally becoming an American citizen just a few months before his death. Igor worked as a computer analyst for the Fiduciary Trust Company, on the 97th floor of 2 World Trade Center. He was married with a three year old son.
I have returned to New York twice in the intervening years and on both occasions went to Ground Zero to whisper Igor’s name – say to him; ‘I’m sorry, Igor, but the world is not a better place. There was a war. There is still a war. There will always be a war. Somewhere.’