Five years ago today, I was three days away from my eighth and last (or so I thought) round of chemo. That made it Week 3, which meant that I was feeling pretty good.
It was a gorgeous day, with an improbably blue sky. I had an early-morning follow-up appointment with my plastic surgeon, and I had taken the bus across town to her office. By 8:45 a.m., I was sitting in an exam room, waiting for her to come in.
I had long ago given up on wearing a gown at the surgeon's office. It seemed ridiculous to put it on, only to take it off the second she walked in. Months before, I'd asked her if the gown was for my benefit or hers. I think she was surprised by the question, but I meant it in earnest. For all I knew, she was shy and needed the gown to provide the fiction of privacy between us.
She wasn't shy. It was for my benefit, she told me.
I told her that since half the free world had seen my breasts at that point, and the other half had examined them, any modesty I'd had was long gone. By then, wearing a gown felt like an exercise in futility—it did nothing for me and just created extra laundry for somebody else.
So I used to sit on the examining table, naked from the waist up, waiting for her to walk in. I'd kill time by reading a magazine or the newspaper, so I actually looked like a sight gag you'd see in a slapstick comedy, as if the magazine or paper had been strategically placed to titillate (yes, I know) without triggering an R rating.
And there I sat, indecently attired, reading I can't remember what. Music from a local station was, as usual, being piped into the room through a speaker in the wall. I don't know what song was playing—I was focused on whatever I was reading, and the music didn't register. But after a few minutes, the song became an agitated voice as the earliest reports of the first plane started coming in.
The enormity of the situation wasn't clear at first. I don't remember exactly what the announcer said, but I had the impression that a small plane had gone off course and hit the building—not a good thing, of course, but not a cataclysm, and certainly nothing sinister.
I remember what happened in those next few minutes and hours, but not the exact order: reports of a second plane and of another striking the Pentagon, hastily throwing my clothes back on and walking purposefully out to the reception area, seeing the receptionist panic because her fiancé was—or might have been—in one of the towers, hearing that the bridges and tunnels were closed to traffic, calling Zach and telling him to turn on the television, hearing the surgeon tell of a woman in New Jersey who called to say that she was coming in for her nose job or face lift or tummy tuck no matter what, being examined by the doctor after all, learning that the receptionist had reached her fiancé as I walked out the door, getting onto the crosstown bus and realizing that some people had not yet heard what had happened, stopping on my way home to pick up provisions because I didn't know what else to do or how long we might be instructed to stay at home, calling the office and finding out that a colleague's brother was at a meeting at Windows on the World that morning, walking into our apartment and hearing for the first time that the planes were hijacked jets with hundreds of passengers on board and that the first tower had fallen and being completely unable to comprehend the horror of it all, clutching Zach in desperation, trying to call my parents and sister to assure them that we were safe, sending out a mass e-mail with the subject line "we are OK,"and watching it all unfold on television for hours and hours on end.
Three days later, I called the cancer center to see if I should still come in for my last chemo treatment. I had heard on the news that the main hospital was designated as a trauma center for those injured in the attacks, and I thought that they might have shut down all of the non-emergency operations.
I was wrong—the center was open, and I was told to come in as scheduled.
MOSWO told me that on that Tuesday morning, they'd had dozens of doctors and nurses and gurneys all lined up to receive the wounded, but there were hardly any patients to treat. People had gotten out of the buildings in time, or they hadn't. There was really no in between.