At this time of year, when the humidity drops and daytime temperatures are 25-30 degrees warmer than the overnight lows in the northeast, the sky achieves a special color blue. I’m not sure how much of it is a trick of the eye—set off against the leafy silhouettes of trees in their deepest greens and in contrast to the occasional cotton-ball cloud—and how much is an actual difference in hue, but there is something so clearly a September sky.
And while many think of September as the start of something new—the school year, autumn, the Jewish new year—for me, September will always signal an ending. It is a time of trauma—on both a personal and national scale—and that brilliant blue sky is a reminder of our vulnerability. The sky was that color blue on 9/11, when the smoke billowing out of the towers in lower Manhattan alerted me to an unknown danger, sending me scrambling to assure my kids and husband were safe. And the sky was that color blue 14 years later when I first heard about my cancer diagnosis and the unknown dangers that would portend.
Both traumas have faded over the years. The Freedom Tower was built on the ashes of the World Trade Center, with vast fountains marking the foundations of the buildings that fell. And repeat testing confirms that I have been cancer free for almost seven years. And yet, both traumas resulted in huge life changes that persist to this day.
We take so much for granted: safety in travel, expectations of a long life, freedom of movement, that sense of invulnerability. But all of these can disappear in an instant. In fact, countless aspects of daily life have been recast since that act of terrorism that killed 3,000 people on the spot. It’s not just the increase in security inconveniences when traveling, but the aftermath rocked the confidence of the nation, bringing with it political transformations and increases in divisiveness, a reframing of global trade and economics, and agitating a nation that had seen many years of relative cohesiveness and calm.
Similarly, so many facets of my own life, my own expectations, my own health have changed in the aftermath of my diagnosis. I was always healthy, but now I live with a life-threatening disease hanging over my head. I was certain I would have time to do what I wanted with the next third of my life. Now, between cancer and COVID restrictions, who can say? And though my doctor assures me there is no evidence of disease, the fallout of cancer and its treatment is something I feel every day, from frequent intestinal distress to numbness in my fingers and toes, to the different texture of my re-grown hair.
Over the years, my PTSD from both events has eased. I no longer jump from every loud noise as I did right after the towers came down, and I no longer feel anxious about every medical test, confident that there will be no return of my cancer. With time, I’ve come to accept a certain degree of vulnerability that was always there, even if I haven’t always been willing to acknowledge it.
Enjoy Every Sandwich
But the insight that came from each of those traumas has remained sharp. Now I fully understand what wiser folks have always said—we are not really in control. Plans have a way of changing. The life we enjoy today will be different in the future. Don’t count on your expectations turning into reality. Uncertainty is a constant, certainty only an illusion.
People have always endured loss. As a species, we have suffered through war, famine, drought, disease and so many hardships as individuals and as groups for millennia. I heard on the news this morning that California is experiencing the worst drought in 1200 years, Pakistan the worst floods in a similar expanse of time. That means people have been through this particular climate horror before, just as others have coped with the horrors of cancer before me. Loss is a part of life. But we feel it so much more acutely when it is our own.
So, while acknowledging my own very real losses, I try to maintain some perspective. Not only is my loss just a single stitch in the human quilt of loss, it is interwoven with the many gifts that life has provided. For the moment, I am grateful for excellent medical care, a loving family, a devoted puppy, supportive friends, financial security—even if it all could disappear in an instant. And I remind myself to cherish this and every moment, every friend, every hour on the tennis court, every hug. “Life is short, eat dessert first” is more than just a t-shirt slogan. It’s a daily reminder to be grateful for those gorgeous blue skies overhead. You never know when they could be a harbinger of a storm yet to come.