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Robyn B Donati

September 11th, 2001 began just like any other day. It was a sunny summer morning as I prepared my daughter for school and myself for work. In the middle of a difficult divorce, I was glad that my then husband had moved out and the tension in the house was gone. The “Today Show” was playing in the living room.

Totally unprepared for what happened next, I saw plane after plane hit the World Trade Center towers. I learned later that it was just two planes, but because it was shown repeatedly from every camera angle, I had been confused. My mother, Roberta Bernstein Heber worked for Marsh & McLennan, which occupied several floors of the North Tower. She was an assistant vice president and was so proud of her achievement. I couldn’t reach my stepdad or my sister in Manhattan, but I was able to reach my brother in Tennessee, who had no idea what had just happened, and one of my colleagues.

Unsure what to do or what to believe, I went to see the first client of the day in my music therapy practice. I just sat there with other team members, and then decided to go home. When I got there, a colleague was waiting for me. He sat with me all morning as I began to suspect that my mother would not be among the wounded, the burn victims or those wandering around Manhattan with amnesia. Although not an identified New Yorker, I also wondered what was going on in “my city.”

For two weeks my sister Melissa and my stepfather Jack Heber kept vigil in their upper East Side apartment, waiting for news of my mother. My stepsister Lorrain posted pictures of my mother all over lower Manhattan, asking for information. One of my friends in New Jersey called all of the metropolitan New York and New Jersey hospitals daily, looking for her. Meanwhile, my brother was home in Tennessee with his then wife, awaiting the imminent birth of their first child. My friends working in Massachusetts hospitals prepared for numbers of burn victims who never arrived because they were incinerated.

The Jewish High Holidays were also a factor. They occur each year between late summer and early fall. In 2001, Rosh Hashanah fell in late September and Yom Kippur occurred eight days later. They were followed by Sukkot for eight days, and then Simchat Torah for one. The proximity of these holidays to September 11th greatly complicated the mourning process. One cannot “officially” grieve until the status of the deceased is proven, and this took weeks to establish. In addition, according to Jewish law one can neither hold a funeral on the aforementioned holidays or on the Sabbath, nor is one permitted to grieve formally, or to “sit Shiva.” So although my mother died on September 11th, grieving and sitting Shiva could not begin until sometime in October. So, after unofficially grieving and returning to work, the process had to start again.

There were other complications as well. No memorial service would be held until my brother could arrive. We waited to have the service until my brother, his then wife and their new baby were permitted to travel. The whole awful situation was emotionally overwhelming.

Over the next few months I joined a support group for parents and children who lost a family member on September 11th run by a grief counselor from “The Circle.” It helped my daughter and me a lot. The world was the same and it was different, forever changed. Logically, I knew that we were no more unsafe than before, only more aware of it.

Sometimes I wondered how much one could be expected to handle. In the first few post- September 11th years my divorce became final, I lost my two cats and both of my grandmothers. I constantly felt that I had to protect myself from too much information, too often, in the media. At the same time I had to maintain strong boundaries when it came to some people who alleged I was surely hiding large quantities of money I had received after 9/11. It just wasn’t true. Sometimes I was disgusted and overwhelmed by how petty people could be. So, I made some adjustments.

One adjustment was my avoiding all news media. Being constantly flooded by reports of al-Qaeda, bin Laden, etc. was more than I could bear on a day-to-day basis. I knew that if something terrible were to happen, someone in my circle would let me know.

I do not believe the actions that my country took after September 11th represent me or reflect my wishes, nor do not represent the ideas of many of the people I know. Despite my mother’s murder, I never wanted revenge or retribution. I never got angry, only profoundly sad. No force of nature can bring my mother back, or restore the world as it used to be.

I heard about September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows through the internet. When I read about them, I thought that this was a group of people that reflected my beliefs. I did not want my country to use September 11th as an excuse to commit acts of violence against others. I did not want others to experience the same senseless misery. I did not want to see the events of September 11th used as a backdrop for the Republican National Convention. Peace would come to the world through compassion, empathy and understanding.

Becoming a member around 2003, I liked what September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows stood for. After getting a letter from member Loretta Filipov, I began to be more active in the group. I met others at the annual member’s retreat, at the International Conference for Peace and at other events. I joined the group’s steering committee in 2009. I feel privileged to be part of such a right thinking, committed group of people. I am so grateful that September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows exists.

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September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is a project of Tides Center.

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