I learned early on to build walls and protect myself. My childhood was defined by my parents’ major physical illnesses, and the daunting financial struggles that followed as a result of medical bills.
That fundamental insecurity taught me to control my environment to avoid pain and danger. I became an expert at making people believe I really didn’t need them and tried, in vain, to not need people.
By my late 20’s, I was a New Yorker and known as “Jenny from the Block,” like J-Lo. In the center of my social circle, I was friendly to everyone – but at an arm’s length. I was always an organizer – for instance, I created a kickball club in Central Park – to create physical connections with people even though I wouldn’t quite “let them in” emotionally. Friends would ask me questions about myself, and I would always deflect to helping them with their challenges or struggles instead.
Professionally, I was determined to stay in control. Restraint and reserve seemed to be assets in the workplace. At 21, I earned a sought-after position over 500 candidates, working with and learning from world leaders. I knew I was fortunate, but inside I felt a nagging emptiness.
While I seemed to be on an upward trajectory career-wise, my aloofness and distance were misconstrued in the workplace. I had earned a leadership spot in the workforce, but something was amiss. I later understood that the team I managed found me unapproachable because I shared so little about my personal life. But I had no idea how to fix my situation.
And then came one bright, sunny Tuesday in September 2001.
At sunrise, I ran 6 miles along Riverside Drive and by 8:30 am I was already in a meeting in midtown.
At 9:07 am, people interrupted our meeting screaming that both World Trade Center Towers had been hit by planes: a potential terrorist act.
My colleague turned to me and said, “we were supposed to be there.”
We were supposed to be at One World Trade Center on a very high floor. Only hours earlier, I was out late with colleagues watching the New York Giants lose to the Denver Broncos at an Upper West Side sports bar. Instead of traveling the extra 45 minutes to get all the way downtown during rush hour that morning, one colleague asked to shift the meeting location to midtown.
A minor, random, life-saving detail!
I had cousins and friends in the towers, including several firefighters. Not all would make it out. But feeling that loss would be postponed. The next 48 hours were spent helping set up a command center at a midtown hotel for the employees and families of a company headquartered at the World Trade Center.
On the third day, as hope waned, I looked around the hotel ballroom among the photos of loved ones missing from the towers. One caught my eye – it was the captain of my high school football team, the father of a two-year-old boy.
Over the next weeks, I helped plan the first televised memorial service for the families at Ground Zero.
I had been on autopilot since 9/11 but during the ceremony, something inside me shifted. I was confused and unnerved. All these people, who had others depending on them, were gone.
Why had I been spared? Me, mostly unattached, no children.
The emptiness of my measured and controlled life washed over me completely. I suddenly knew the life I had built wasn’t quite working. I felt a new overpowering desire to be part of a community.
Agitated and restless, every night for weeks, I gathered with others at John Lennon’s Imagine Memorial in Central Park, singing and talking. Until one evening, I didn’t go to the Memorial. I sat alone in my Upper West Side apartment and – for the first time in my adult life – I cried. I felt a deep realization: the walls I used to carefully construct isolation had prevented me from what I wanted most – to belong.
I felt loss, and I felt lost.
The Motorcycle Man
Since 1998, I have had a friend. I had never called him my boyfriend – that was against my rules. But we spent a lot of time together. We would ride his motorcycle and go on long weekends away, out of the city.
After 9/11, he called me every day to check in on me. Sometimes it would be five minutes, sometimes thirty, sometimes an hour or more.
Over time it seemed I started letting my guard down, around all people.
And then one day at work, the motorcycle man was at the reception. He took my hand, got down on one knee, and said:
“I wake up every morning thinking of you. I think of you during the day and every night before I close my eyes, you are the last voice I want to hear. Whatever days I have left, I want us to be on the same adventure together.”
I was in my early thirties, and for the second time in decades, I shed tears, again.
I was beginning to love another person and while it would be more time before I would say yes, a door had opened for me.
It is now 20 years since my journey changed course on “September 11th.” I was spared.
The lessons of that terrible day took so much away from me and so many, but it forced me to look in the mirror and unmask my fear and shame. I became a more authentic person – more open and trusting, more sincere and present.
I am able to relate to my child, husband and friends in ways I never even imagined, let alone understood as a young woman. Through that unimaginable tragedy, I became a more effective and humane leader. I can sustain both my professional and personal relationships with warmth and grace, and navigate difficulties with kindness and understanding that I simply could not access before.
WRITTEN BYJennifer Bankston