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Much to my wife's chagrin, I kept smoking. That stale, year-old cigarette I smoked outside the World Trade Center on 9/11 had gotten me started again. For awhile, anyway. Eventually I quit once more, but for some time after 9/11, I kept smoking. My wife wouldn't let me smoke in the apartment, however. We have parrots and she was concerned about their delicate respiratory systems. Plus, she thought I'd smoke less if I couldn't smoke in the house. And of course, she wanted me to quit again. The result was that, especially during that fateful September, I spent a lot of time sitting on the stoop in front of my building, smoking and talking to the neighbors coming and going from their apartments. That was the month I really got to know my neighbors. All I talked about was the World Trade Center. Everyone in my building heard my story. Essentially, my neighbors became my psychologists. They were sympathetic, interested, caring.

 

And they were better than the free counselors that companies all over New York City were providing for their employees. Trouble was, counselors and psychologists themselves were too traumatized to deal with other people's traumas. Plus, there weren't enough of them to go around. So companies were using people who weren't experienced in the kind of help we needed. It didn't matter to me. I didn't need a counselor. I had my neighbors.

 

Those first days after 9/11, Catherine and I watched television incessantly. When I was inside WTC II, I didn't really know what was going on. I didn't know what was happening outside. I never had contact with the outside world until I escaped.

 

What I saw that day, you'll never see in a Hollywood movie. I hate the recent Hollywood movies about 9/11. I haven't seen them. I don't have to. I know that the stories have been sanitized. They would have to be sanitized. If they weren't, people would be getting sick in theaters all over the country. I don't like that these cleaned up stories will be what is left behind, left to posterity. At least they will be augmented by the televised interviews of people who survived. I wish more people could tell their stories.

 

Unremembered things, of course, remain. Partly because the people who might have remembered them have died. Partly because some things are too terrible to be remembered.

 

I know there are things that I don't remember.

 

They sneak into my dreams and nightmares. They whisper in my ear when I least expect it. They come in flashes of images that I can't quite place. They are remembered and forgotten again, all within a second.

 

There was a moment up there in the sky, when I looked for one brief moment into a dying woman's eyes and saw something I hope to never see again, even in my nightmares. There was a moment when a calm man's death made me recognize the futility of trying to plan for the future. I still plan for the future. I still deny myself certain things so that I can have the kind of future I want. But what I want and the kind of future I plan is a little different than how I used to think of those things before 9/11. Now some part of my brain -- maybe not always the conscious part -- thinks about the point. What's the point? My life has to have a point. The point I choose is life.

 

That day in September changed my life forever. Some of those changes I know about. Some I don't. It put me on a different path than the one I was walking on 9/10. Hopefully, it's a good path.

 

I'm now a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. But I'd like to share an essay I submitted to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center that I wrote when I was about to finish nursing school. I believe this essay offers an idea of how my life changed direction and what path I'm treading these days. Here it is:

 

MEMORIAL SLOAN-KETTERING CANCER CENTER (MSKCC)/SCHOLARSHIP ESSAY:  * WHY I WOULD LIKE TO WORK IN ONCOLOGY NURSING AT MSKCC,* BY CHARLES E. CARAHER

 

I used to want to make a difference. That sounds simple. It is simple. But like a lot of people, I've just worked for the sake of survival. At least, that's what I did until 9/11. Then everything changed.

 

I was a computer analyst at Morgan Stanley on the 68th floor of the World Trade Center when it was attacked. I saw people die. I don't remember everything I saw that day, but what I do remember haunts me. I didn't make a difference on 9/11, but I survived. Survival, however, is not enough.

 

I went on working at Morgan Stanley for awhile, but I became disillusioned with the way they treated their employees. Thirty-year veterans were laid off, whole departments demolished. I began shopping for a new career.

 

Why did I choose nursing? That's hard to say. It seemed like a job that would always be needed. It seemed like it could give me a good life without requiring me to hurt other people just to keep my job. On the contrary, I'd be helping people. I would be in a position where I might be able to ease their pain. Maybe I could make a difference.

 

Why did I choose oncology? I don't know. Maybe because my sister is a breast cancer survivor. Maybe because my uncle has prostate cancer. I only know it's something that draws me in on an intellectual level. I want to learn more about it.

 

And why do I want to work at MSKCC? That's easy. It's the top cancer hospital in the country. It's the best. And if you want to learn about something, you're better off learning from the best. I want to work in a place that makes a difference in people's lives. I want to help make that difference.