Memorial in Sydney, Australia outside of the U.S. consulate from "When Words Fail Us," a collection of images. Click here.
I remember the conversation with my husband like it was yesterday. He and I were talking about our future, our options, and to me, the future did not look bright living in Sydney for what my husband wanted to achieve. Sure, Sydney is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and for almost a decade yours truly lived a wonderful life there but yet....I was bored. The tyranny of distance kept me from sharing my fabulous experiences with all but a few friends and family and opportunities were just not as plentiful as in the heavily populated United States. How could a city of three million people compare to the United States' population of almost 300 million? To me, more people, meant more jobs and more chances to reach our goals. After Felix spilled his hopes and dreams to me, I knew Sydney would not provide enough opportunity for him to realize them. We needed to get to Los Angeles, the City of Angels, a place that boasted more events, bigger budgets, creative people and jobs that Sydney could never deliver.
I was told by the U.S. consulate that the process of getting residency in the United States could take up to a year, so we decided the plan of action was to get married in a civil ceremony in order to get the proper papers filed in time for us to move within twelve months. At the end of October, we decided we would have a "real" wedding and celebrate with all of our friends and family. On September 1, 2001, we got married in a city office downtown and with a few friends and family, we celebrated our nuptials with cocktails at the penthouse bar at the ANA hotel at Circular Quay and then seafood at Golden Century Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Our new life had begun and I had an appointment at the United States consulate on September 13.
On the night of September 11, 2001, Felix jumped out of bed with a start, waking me up from a deep sleep. "What's wrong?" I asked. "Shhh, I hear something, be right back." It was almost midnight, and he began to search for intruders. He had heard noises and thought our house had been broken into. Finding nothing out of order, he came back to bed and as he crawled in, the phone rang. Who could be calling at this hour? We listened to the message, my co-worker Sarah, was crying and saying, "America is getting bombed! We are under attack! Wake up, Laura, wake up!"
What. The. Hell? I leaped out of bed and grabbed the phone. Sarah was the editor of the beauty magazine I worked on, we sat next to each other every day and were close friends. Her sister was living in L.A. and Sarah was a true Americanophile, always telling me her tales of wonderful times visiting the States. Sobbing, she told me to turn on the TV, I went into the living room and did as I was told. With the phone still in my hand and Sarah on the line, Felix and I watched the news of how a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers. At this point, no one knew it was a terrorist attack.
Horrified, we stayed glued to the TV, trying to find out exactly how this happened? And then before our eyes, we saw the first tower fall. And not long after that, the second tower fell. I knew I had just witnessed people dying right in front of me. It was one of the most dreadful feelings I have ever experienced. We stayed up late, watching as more news poured in. The United States was under attack and now news of other terrorist attacks came on TV. We were both in a state of shock and disbelief. We watched all night, while a feeling of helplessness and guilt crept over me. I felt for my fellow countrymen and wanted to be there, for some reason. I called my friend Bobby, who was living in New York, fearing for his safety. I found that he had just flown in on a flight into New York and had managed to get into the city from the airport before everything got closed down. He was okay, we spoke briefly and then hung up. And then the cell phone network went haywire and people could not contact loved ones in the city.
I didn't go to work the next day. I didn't call in. I was American. No one expected me to, it was understood.
On September 13, I got out of the Martin Place train station in downtown Sydney and made my way to the United States Consulate. The doors were on a mezzanine level and escalators lead up to the first floor. All up the sides of the escalator and around the entrance memorial items were laid out, including flowers, candles, flags and a firemen's hat. Looking at the multitude of sentimental mementos, I gasped, caught my breath and pushed back the tears and made my way up to the consulate office. Security was tough, I went through a metal detector and put my belongings on a belt to be x-rayed, then after a brief wait, was called to the window of the woman who would be interviewing me. She asked all the predictable questions about my husband, our life and why we wanted to go to America? I told her that my husband was seeking opportunities not available to him in Australia and how I wanted to be with my family again, but it was more than that, much more. For reasons I didn't understand, I felt a NEED to get back home. Now, more than ever, I HAD to get back. The interviewer smiled at me and told me that we'd get their decision within six months, the process had begun.
Now that the interview was over, I could take my time looking at the memorial offerings and made my way to the street level. "We love you America" was written on a blanket. Bouquets of flowers with sympathetic greetings were every where. And there was the fireman's hat. I lost it and began to sob uncontrollably. A plump older woman came up to me and with an English accent said, "Are you American, dear?" I managed to get out a weak "yes." "Come here," and she extended her arms out and then pulled me to her ample bosom, hugging me, while I continued crying. I did not know this woman but her kindness and sympathy were just what I needed. I composed myself and pulled away while she told me that it "was horrible what had happened." I told her that my new husband and I were making plans to move to the States and how horrific this all was but I refused to change our plans. She wished us all the best, agreed that we should move forward and to "be strong." She told me she was headed to St. Mary's church to pray for me. I thanked her profusely and took the train home, comforted to a degree and amazed at how kind people can be to a stranger during times of conflict.
On October 27, 2001, as planned, we had a beautiful ceremony in the Rhododendron Garden in the Village of Blackheath, in the Blue Mountains. We shared the day with forty of our dear friends and family. The next day we went on our honeymoon on Hamilton Island near the Great Barrier Reef, and we had the most relaxing, beautiful time. We snorkeled, we sailed and ate out each night at fancy restaurants. We met some Americans staying at our hotel and the events of 9/11 was the hot topic of conversation. It was on the news daily, nightly, any time you turned the TV on, you would likely find coverage. One American tourist was so obsessed with the events, that he watched TV his entire honeymoon and gave us a bottle of Dom Perignon, as he felt he could not enjoy it. I felt bad for his new wife and was glad that we had the ability to "look away" and be present. In spite of the tragedy, we believed our careers would be better served with a future living in the U.S. and we forged ahead with our plans.
It was a beautiful Indian Summer day on September 11, 2002 and I was headed to Detroit Metropolitan airport. I was flying into to New York City, a year to the day, from the terrorist attacks. A lot had happened in the last year. I remember telling a distant cousin living in Michigan that we were moving back to the States and her reply was, "Why would you want to live here, it's so dangerous?" I was aghast at her weak reply. Too dangerous? My own country? HELL NO. No terrorist or FEAR of terrorism was going to stop me from living back in my own country as a proud American, in America, the land of opportunity, the land of the FREE. Besides, I always felt that no matter what lengths the government does to "protect" its citizens, there are no guarantees we will ever be completely safe. No one could ever guarantee that sort of safety. Ironically, in October 2002, there was an Al Qaeda attack in a popular tourist area in Bali, a known holiday spot for Australian tourists. Australians had felt the bite of terrorism as well and I realized that no country would ever be completely immune to it.
Back in May 2002 the United States government granted my husband permanent residence status and gave him a green card. We had been interviewed and processed, we could move to America and he could legally work, we were good to go. In August of that year, I had planned a series of trips around the United States, visiting friends and places I had not seen in ten years. And more than anything, I wanted to spend time with my family. I would base myself in Detroit, at my dad's house, and from there I would travel to New York City, Chicago and Florida. I had quit my job, sold my car, paid off my bills and left my husband behind to settle his affairs back in Australia. For the first time in years, I was truly free. I didn't even have a set of keys.
That night, lying in bed at my dad's house in a Detroit suburb, I dreamed of flying high across the earth. As I was flying, I was looking down at palm trees and lawns but everything was sparkly and white. The trees and grass were white and glittering in the sun, and I remember smiling as I flew over, feeling blissful and happy. It was the best dream I ever had.
The next morning when I walked into the airport in Detroit on September 11, 2001, I was handed a small black metal pin in the shape of a ribbon at the door. It was a remembrance pin and the airport worker thanked me for flying that day. The airport was deserted. The numbers were so small for the flight to New York that the plane we boarded was much smaller than a DC 10 or even a DC9, I don't believe there was more than twenty people on that flight. People told me I was crazy to fly to New York that day, "What if we are attacked again?" But logic told me that there would be no attacks that day. That was not how the terrorists worked, there would be no element of surprise. We landed without incident and I made my way to my friend Bobby's apartment in Chelsea.
It was about 2 am and the streets of the lower east side were crowded, people were everywhere. Dressed in kitten heels and a skirt, I walked the streets without purpose and a friendly cop warned me to "be careful." After heading north, I found myself at St. Vincents on 12th St. The medical center's wall was filled with posters of people who'd gone missing during the attack on September 11. A dozen people were reading the fliers and crying, there were candles everywhere. A sense of camaraderie came over all of us as we spoke about where we were that day. It was another episode of strangers coming together to grieve and commiserate. Throughout my visit to New York, I came across memorials at fire stations and parks. I would not go to the site of the bombing though. And I refused to call it Ground Zero. I found the military term insulting to the memory of those that had passed, and I honestly don't know why.
In that year, I realized that I could never live in fear. I would not let the actions of terrorists dictate the terms of my life. I will go where I want, when I want, without trepidation. I didn't feel changed by what happened, although when I got back to my country, I felt America had changed. There was a sense of unease and uncertainty, like Americans had no control over their lives, it was hard for me to explain or comprehend. Where were all the tough fighters? Why were some people living on their knees? The media, the President and politicians did their best to keep people in a state of perpetual fear, while I only got angry.
Moving back to America was not easy, at times, downright difficult. My Yank-loving husband took to living here like a duck to water, while I had a hard time adjusting. Because the America I knew no longer existed. Nine years later, I have no regrets. This country STILL provides ample opportunity for those that go out and seek it. My husband's career is thriving, he goes from strength to strength and is now officially an American citizen. I am American and this is my country, love it or hate it, warts and all. I am back home and we are still going strong.