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The anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001 sneaks up on me almost every year. As I am going about my normal routine, doing what needs to get done, I get on my computer or turn on the television and…there it is. In one second of recognition, I recalled the strangest and most frightening day of my life.

It’s the aftermath of that day on which I choose to reflect. The time immediately following September 11th was one characterized by uncertainty and vulnerability. I had concerns about the likelihood of a repeat attack and wondered what would it take to make me feel safe again. I was reminded that life is short and I noted that some of the people who died that day were just getting started before their future was erased, specifically my friend’s son Bradley who was only 24 years old when he died. I yearned to be with my loved ones (I was in Texas at the time), especially my Aunt Pat who had survived the bombing in 1993 and the Towers falling in 2001. I appreciated the blessing of having such special people in my life.

In the next year it seemed like a change had taken place, as if everyone had rethought their priorities. I observed more parents leaving work early to participate in their children’s activities. I watched my corporate coworkers resign for more fulfilling careers or to work in non-profit organizations. I witnessed friends and acquaintances volunteering in their spare time, resolving long-standing grudges, making time to be with family. At one point I thought to myself that if we had to face such a tragedy and lose so many wonderful people from our lives at least some good had come of it. Our collective conscious had shifted away from money, status, and the acquisition of property to relationships, service, and the enjoyment of life.

For me, the realization was instant even if the course correction took time. I had spent the seven years prior to 2001 working until 9:00pm on most nights. I had lost touch with many people whose friendship I enjoyed. I had let my weight and health condition fluctuate with stress. I loved my job, but I had let it become who I was. After the shock and grief of that day, I felt resolve: something had to change. I made some initial adjustments but, like so many experiences in life, it has been a journey. At one point in 2005, I saw myself falling into the same trap where I was letting my sense of responsibility for my job overshadow my responsibility to my family and myself. I wasn’t the only one; within only a few years it was apparent that many of us, flawed humans that we are, were living our pre-2001 lives; the current financial crisis we are in is clear evidence of that.

Therefore, on each anniversary of September 11th, I first remember the people we lost – the ones who didn’t have the opportunity to finish their lives. Then I reflect on what I have done to keep my priorities straight in honor of them. Have I lived each day fully, like the gift it is? Are my family and friends a top priority and have I taken the time to connect with them regularly? Have I crafted a career for myself that I enjoy while also serving others? Am I donating time or money to those who are less fortunate than I am? Have I taken time for creative pursuits, for the sake of creativity itself? These are the promises I made to myself and every September 11th I take stock to see how I am doing with them. I am happy to report that this year I feel that I am living my promises more than ever, although I always strive to do better.

What promises did you make to yourself in the weeks and months and years following September 11, 2001? Are you following through on them? Today – in fact, every day – is a good time to think about those promises and how you can honor the victims of that tragedy by making the most of the life you have.

Above I mentioned a friend, Frank, whose son died on September 11th. He and his wife, Mary, founded and run a nonprofit organization called Voices of September 11th. This organization provides services and support to those affected by September 11th and has initiated the 9/11 Living Memorial Project to commemorate those who were lost. If you have a minute, please visit their website.

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I have felt completely stunted, creatively speaking, since the passing of my dear friend, Norman the Cat. I have been writing in a journal but I haven’t felt like composing, and by that I mean putting together a cohesive essay that has a point. I suppose that blogging is really less about composing essays and more about sharing a thought or two, so I think this entry may have to be a stream of consciousness of sorts as a way to get me back in the saddle. As I said in my first blog entry, Operation Peace and Serenity is primarily about my need to express myself and secondarily about making the readers happy – no offense – because I am a recovering people-pleaser trying to kick the habit once and for all. It is hard though; the more that people respond positively to my writing, the more I want to write entries to which they will respond positively. I suppose that is a common problem with art and creative expression, that if you let the audience influence the art it loses its authenticity, although I never thought of myself as an artist until just this second. That’s kind of cool, actually.

Since I lost Norman, it has rekindled strong feelings of previous losses, including people who died, friends who moved away, and expectations or hopes that went unfulfilled. I am not sure if this is an experience unique to me or something that others experience, but I feel like I have lost so many things all over again.

The night we put Norman down, I was lying in bed unable to sleep. My mind meandered, starting with remembering how it felt to hold Norman as he died, to reflecting on my reluctance to adopt him all those years ago, to how much I enjoyed my life back then, to the way my life turned upside down for a long time after that, to missing so many family members who died in the last ten years, to being sad that some of my best friends live so far away and I don’t see them much anymore, to thinking about mentors and coworkers I lost touch with, to wishing my Aunt Pat could have met my son and that my husband could have known my grandparents, to feeling like I lost part of my identity by not having certain people in my life any longer, to missing my old life but feeling guilty because of all of the blessings in my life now, to wishing Norman was lying on me in bed right now because the feelings of loss washing over me were making me feel so desperately melancholy and when I felt this way he was the one who comforted me by just being there.

As an aside, I once met a woman who, within a half hour of meeting me, said, “I would be scared to live inside your head,” and my response was simply, “Tell me about it.”

I have always had the attitude that I needed to tough it out. I grew up on a street with all boys and if you want to play with the boys you can’t cry when you fall out of a tree and twist your ankle. I played sports and when you get hurt playing sports you walk it off, at least you did in the 70s. Somewhere along the line, I decided that being tough was critical to my identity. As an adult, that translated to acting like I didn’t care if a relationship didn’t work out or I had a disappointment at work. It manifested in catching myself if I started to weep at my grandmother’s wake because there were people around and I didn’t want them to see me crying. It made me seem easygoing and undeterred when someone did something mean to me, even though I secretly harbored a grudge. It essentially turned me into someone who couldn’t express a negative emotion; as a friend of mine once said, I had become a Stepford Daughter/Employee/Girlfriend/Fill-in-the-Blank.

This is where having a life-changing crisis comes in handy. Going through an extremely rough personal experience forced me to become vulnerable because I was too drained to keep up the facade that everything was just fine, thank you very much. I finally realized that there is a huge difference between letting things roll off my back and burying them deep inside. I also have to credit my husband, who is a very accepting person, because early in our relationship I realized that if everything was not just fine Matt loved me anyway. If I felt grumpy or tired or sad I could express it and he would not leave the room, withdraw, or be angry with me. So in the days following Norman’s last, I didn’t revert to my old habit of putting on a happy face and acting like I was handling it. Instead, I let myself feel the overwhleming sadness that came with losing my little buddy; I would sob, my shoulders heaving and strange sounds coming from deep inside my chest. In the past I wouldn’t have even let myself act like that when I was alone, much less in front of a man I loved. But Matt has created for me an environment for me in which I feel safe to express what I am feeling, no apologies necessary. And I have also stopped judging myself for working through these kinds of feelings – this time, instead of telling myself to stop being a baby, I let myself feel heartbroken.

Although I miss Norman terribly and still have moments of extreme sadness, I am in a much better place than I expected to be after only three weeks. I firmly believe that allowing myself the latitude to experience my feelings of loss has quickened my healing, even if it is still in process. This has been an important lesson for me and something I need to continue to explore.

In 1998, I moved into a one bedroom apartment by myself.  It was a big change and it was the first time I ever lived completely alone, without roommates, friends or family.  It was scary and liberating all at once, and presented the perfect opportunity to do what I had always wanted to – get myself a dog.  All my life I had wanted a dog, and I spent countless hours trying to convince my parents or my roommates to let me get one to no avail.   When I finally got my own place it seemed like a perfect opportunity, but I was responsible enough to realize that my job requirements, which included long days and a lot of travel, wouldn’t allow me to take care of a dog properly.  A dog of my own was something that I constantly pined for just as some women pine for children; it was my own warped version of a biological clock. 

On New Year’s Day, 2000, I was at breakfast with my brother, John, and my friend, Barb, after a night out on the town celebrating New Year’s Eve.  My brother had a cat that he had been trying to pawn off on me for a few weeks; his landlord wouldn’t let him keep it and he didn’t know what else to do with it.  I kept giving him advice about how to unload the cat (advertise, send an email, ask around) because I really didn’t want it.  I don’t like cats, I told him, they aren’t friendly like dogs.  He was adamant that this cat was cool and I would love him.  My friend Barb had a cat, and she helped John wear me down with comments such as:  But you can’t take care of a dog.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little friend?  Cats are the easiest pets, they take care of themselves.  A cat would fit into your lifestyle. 

Their persistence plus my hangover was more than I could take and finally I said, Fine, I’ll take the damn cat!

A few days later, my brother dropped the cat off to me.  I don’t know what I expected, but when I saw this cat I was taken aback.  He was orange, with long soft hair and a fluffy tail.  Isn’t he cute? My brother insisted.  I had to agree – the cat looked like a stuffed animal who had come to life.  His name, Norman, suited him perfectly.  I guess it was something about his whiskers and the white hair in his ears that made him seem like a “Norman.”

I didn’t know much about cats when I got Norman, but I did know some things about myself, specifically that I need attention and that I can be stubborn.  So when Norman took to hiding under the couch, I would have none of it.  Of course, I gave him a chance to get used to his new home, but after a couple of days I would find myself dragging him out from under the couch and picking him up to hug him.  Norman was very floppy, and so – as I would be hugging him around his middle – his head, front and back legs and tail would be hanging over my arms like a ragdoll.  Try to picture a thirty-year-old professional woman walking around her apartment with a miserable cat hanging from her arms.  I would say to him, I gave you a home and you will love me!  Oh, the psychoanalysis that could follow from that statement…

Nonetheless, the first few weeks of our life together consisted of Norman trying to escape from me while I hunted him down and me holding him on my lap whether he liked it or not.  Then one day something very interesting happened.  I was on the couch reading a magazine, taking a break from torturing the cat, when Norman jumped up onto the back of the couch, walked up to where I was sitting, and perched himself just above my head like a pirate’s parrot.  I was exhilarated.  That’s the big difference between cats and dogs:  Dogs come to you when you call them, they crave your attention and give affection freely; cats are a little slower to warm up, but when a cat decides to give you attention you feel special.  So there I sat, reading my magazine and feeling special because Norman decided to come and sit next to me.

And that’s how the love affair began. 

Whenever I came home, Norman would be at the door waiting to greet me by rubbing against my legs.  When I made my dinner, I would give him his food and then we would both eat a bit together.  When I sat down to do work, he would come and sit on the desk, usually right on top of whichever paper I was working on at the moment.  When I sat on the couch to unwind in front of the television, he would sit next to me and eventually he started to sit in my lap.  When I got ready to go out on the town, he would curl up and sleep in the bathroom sink while I did my hair and makeup, and even though that led to the occasional cat hair stuck in my mascara for an entire evening, I thoroughly enjoyed Norman’s company. 

I am sure at this point I sound like a crazy cat lady, and there were times when I was very self-conscious that I was single, over thirty and living with a cat.  In reality, during this time I was busy with my career, having fun with friends, dating and “getting out there,” as they say.  However, when I came home to take a breath, my little buddy Norman was there to hang with me.  Over time, Norman began to feel like a roommate more than anything else, probably because he was so low maintenance and because he had his own individual way of doing things. 

I don’t know if it was because I treated Norman as the dog I never had or if it was just his style, but Norman developed some quirky aspects to his personality.  He would drop to the floor, stretching out and rolling over so I could rub his stomach.  When I was on the couch and I wanted him to sit with me, I would shout Norman! and he would come trotting up and jump on the couch and into my lap.  If I gave him a twist-tie, he would spend half an hour chasing it and pouncing on it all over the apartment while I just watched in amusement.  He always slept with me and a lot of time he slept curled up on my head.  He liked water and when I was getting out of the shower he would jump up on the edge of the tub so the drips from my hair would fall on him.

Norman was with me throughout a very turbulent period of my life.  In the time we were together, we lived in:

Hoboken, NJ
Austin, TX
Baltimore, MD
Montclair, NJ (two different houses)
Jersey City, NJ
Ocean Grove, NJ (two different houses)

If you know anything about cats, you know they don’t like change.  Yet Norman tagged along as I continually moved from place to place, trying to make myself happy.  He was with me on September 11, 2001, when I was stranded in Texas, far from my family and friends in New York and New Jersey.  Shortly after the Twin Towers fell, I was sitting in the living room, hunched over and sobbing with my hands in my head.  I looked up momentarily, and there Norman was, sitting next to me on the couch and just looking at me.  As soon as I sat up, he carefully walked into my lap and curled up there.  I remember feeling floored that he was so deliberately trying to comfort me.

In retrospect, maybe Norman was sent to take care of me in that way.  As someone who was never comfortable showing sadness to other people, I withdrew when I went through a troubled marriage and stressful divorce.  There were too many days like what I described above, when I was desperately sad and purposely isolating myself from the world.  At those times, Norman not only kept me company, but he made me feel better.  It sounds a bit wacky, but trust me that when he licked my face as I cried, it was clear that Norman was attuned to how I was feeling.

I finally got the dog I always wanted, followed by a husband and another dog (package deal), then a baby.  My husband joked that Norman was always Number One, and there is some truth to that.  I suppose spending so much time alone together allowed us to bond in a special way.  For someone who never thought she would like having a pet of the feline persuasion, I became a huge fan of Norman the Cat (his full name).

Unfortunately, at this moment I am terribly, horribly sad and I don’t have Norman here to sit on my lap and make it better.  Two days ago my husband and I made the difficult decision to put him to sleep because he was so sick from kidney failure.  It feels like ten years went by in a blink of an eye – it wasn’t enough time!  Whenever I walk into a room, I glance behind me out of habit to look for Norman following me; for the first time in a decade, he isn’t at my heels and it feels like I lost my shadow.  As I was lying in bed awake the other night, it occurred to me that it is somewhat poetic how Norman came into my life shortly before I entered a very challenging period, when I dealt with some serious personal problems; now, only six months or so since I truly feel like myself again, he has moved on.  Maybe he was a furry guardian angel. 

I only hope I was half as good to him as he was to me.  Norman the Cat will be sorely missed.

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About Me

The purpose of this blog is purely self-expression - being creative for the sake of being creative. It has evolved into a collection of non-fiction essays.

All of the anecdotes and incidents you read in this blog are completely true and not exaggerated, no matter how sad, pathetic or unbelievable they may seem.

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© Operation Peace and Serenity, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Operation Peace and Serenity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.