• PROLOGUE •
It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.
I rush out of our apartment at about 8:30 a.m., annoyed to be running so late but glad, after the turmoil of the previous night, to be on my way to work.
Normally I would be out the door by 8:00 a.m., but just as I was about to leave I received a call from Mari Fitzpatrick, the caretaker at our weekend home in Pine Plains, New York. A real estate appraisal of the house is scheduled for later today, but the key for the appraiser has disappeared. Our summer renters had dropped it off earlier this morning, putting it in an envelope taped to a shopping bag that carried a freshly baked apple pie. They'd hung the bag from the knob of Mari's back door, but Maggie, Mari's free-ranging black lab, had found the pie and wolfed it down, and the key was nowhere to be found among the crumbs. Fortunately, I was able to reach Billie Woods, a friend and realtor who also has a spare key and who lives nearby in Rhinebeck, and she agreed to be there to open the house.
Now, after a kiss for my son, Tyler, a quick hello to Joyce, his babysitter, and a barely grumbled good-bye to my husband, Greg, I am finally on my way. I walk up Perry Street to Washington Street, where I wait several minutes trying to hail a cab. But soon enough I am riding south, making a right on Houston Street, then left to join the morning crush of cars and trucks inching down West Street toward the World Trade Center.
I glance at my watch, and again I'm irritated by how late it is. The watch is gold and silver, an engagement gift from Greg, and for a moment I wonder if I should have worn my silver watch instead, since it might have gone better with the slate-gray silk suit I'm wearing. Across the Hudson River, the Jersey City skyline is bright and sharp against a backdrop of dazzling, pure blue sky. The river is a deep gray, its wind-driven swells crisscrossed by the wakes of morning water taxis. I grow impatient when we are caught at yet another red light, but before long we are turning left across West Street to the carport entrance to One World Trade Center.
As the taxi pulls under the clear roof of the porte cochere, I take out my wallet to pay the driver. Two cabs in front of us pull forward, and I ask my driver to move up a bit so I can get out directly in front of the building's entrance. I step out of the cab, thinking how warm it is for September, how just the week before we were still at the beach in Bridgehampton. Heading for the revolving doors, I walk past the security barriers, which are barely camouflaged as large concrete planters. As I approach the building, I look through the glass and see two women standing and talking inside. I smile at them as I push through the revolving doors. Then I move through a second set of doors and enter the lobby, where I am jarred by an incredibly loud, piercing whistle.
I hesitate for a moment before attributing the noise to some nearby construction project and continuing toward the elevators.
Directly ahead, elevator banks serve floors 1 through 43, and a central freight elevator serves every floor from 1 through 107. To my right, two elevators on the lobby's south side go straight to Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor. These two are flanked by eight more that go to a sky lobby on the 44th floor. To my left, on the north side of the lobby, twelve express elevators serve the 78th floor sky lobby, where I will catch a second elevator to reach my 105th-floor office at Cantor Fitzgerald.
As I veer left toward my elevators, I suddenly feel an incredible sense of otherworldliness. It's an odd, tremendous, quaking feeling, and everything . . . moves. The entire 110-story tower is trembling.
Then I hear a huge, whistling rush of air, an incredibly loud sound: shshooooooooooooo. My adversary is racing toward me, howling in fury at its containment as it plummets to meet me from above the 90th floor.
This is the moment and place of our introduction.
With an enormous, screeching exhalation, the fire explodes from the elevator banks into the lobby and engulfs me, its tentacles of flame hungrily latching on. An immense weight pushes down on me, and I can barely breathe. I am whipped around. Looking to my right toward where the two women were talking, I see people lying on the floor covered in flames, burning alive.
Like them, I am on fire.
God asks us to speak, to record the memories that mark our lives. This is the living testament, then, of the times and places and things I have done that mark my days on Earth.
Since 9/11, I have often been asked to share my story, but it is always with a certain awkwardness that I talk about myself or my personal feelings. I am much more comfortable telling a joke, chatting about the headline of the moment, or drawing others in by asking about their lives. Rarely will I turn the conversation in my own direction. My parents frowned on self-congratulation, and so even when my siblings and I had a right to be proud of our accomplishments, we were told to be humble. Alongside hard work, the trait my parents seemed to value the most was humility. So telling my story has its challenges.
Here is the simple version of what happened: I went to work one morning and was engulfed by the fires that would bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I fled the building in flames, so terribly injured that almost no one held out any hope for me. Yet in the weeks and months that followed, I battled back from the edge of death to hold my child in my arms and intertwine my husband's fingers with what was left of my own. In almost every way, this is the story of a miracle.
I will never know how many others were gravely wounded along with me during the attacks' first moments. The places where my fellow victims stood, more than a thousand feet in the air, have disappeared forever. When the buildings collapsed, they took with them thousands of lives, among them too many of my friends and colleagues. By the smallest of margins, I was given a chance to survive, and I decided, early that morning, that I would never give up the fight to live. I would never surrender.
The tale I have to tell is full of adventure, though not in the conventional sense. I did not need to travel to the ends of the earth, scale prodigious mountains, or challenge vast oceans to find the ultimate tests of endurance. I faced death every day for almost three months, armed only with the breath in my lungs and the strength in my heart. After I emerged from weeks of darkness, I discovered that the simplest of tasks were beyond my ability, and that accomplishing them would require equal measures of defiance and will. It took months to learn to breathe on my own again, to recover the ability to speak, to relearn how to walk. It took years to recover the most basic semblance of a normal life.
I was blessed by the support and comfort provided by my loved ones, and strengthened by the belief from within that I could reclaim my life. The guardians of my heart—my husband, my son, and the rest of my family—cradled me. An enormous outpouring of letters and prayers, messages and gifts from around the world flooded our lives with a happiness that lifted me in my darkest moments, and a hope that helped fuel my survival.
Yet while I was surrounded by love, the journey through a harsh and unforgiving landscape of pain and disability was mine alone to make. That I lived, that I narrowly escaped the fate of so many others that day, is a humbling reminder of both the extreme fragility and the surprising courage that exist within all of us. What I know for certain is that there would be no story at all if I hadn't somehow held a deep faith in myself or understood the beauty and power of a simple word: commitment. Commitment to all that is worthwhile in life: to the people who are most important to us; to the endeavors that will yield the most good; to the acts of kindness or courage that reflect our deepest values. Commitment, I've learned, brings focus and direction, an innate sense that guides us from within, providing a compass for our lives. It also brings responsibility, most especially the requirement that we keep our word and always give our best.
Before I was injured, I had committed to any number of things. To relationships, friends, family. To hard work and a successful career. To commonplace hopes and deepest desires. Generally I had done this by relying on a quiet confidence that I could make good things happen. But the truth is, I sometimes wasn't able to do so. On occasion, I felt strangely paralyzed by the thought of achieving my goals. At other times, the effort to reach a desired destination proved so difficult that my vision of it dimmed, and eventually I moved on to new dreams.
But when 9/11 brought me to the border between life and death, and then face-to-face with monumental challenges, I understood that no matter how painful the task before me, I could not turn away. I had to make the most important commitment of all: a commitment to life itself.
It's now been a decade since that day, and sometimes I look back and wonder, Have I accomplished anything of note or great worth? People have called me a hero, but I can only say that I did what I needed to do. I was not the agent of my own adversity. Pain and suffering were imposed on me; they invaded and overwhelmed my body and threatened to crush my soul. Once I opened my eyes after a long climb out of the darkness, I knew that every day, I had a choice. Every day I had to fully commit to outlasting my enemies—those cowards who covered their faces from the light and screamed toward us in their metal daggers. Would I let their act of terror beat me into submission? Would I let them win? Would I let them steal my will to live, having failed to extinguish my life itself? Every day, I had to reach deep inside and find an as yet unmeasured strength that made it possible to carry on.
As I encountered and then overcame one obstacle after another, what mattered most was that I was loved. I had a husband who thought I was beautiful, even though so much of my body had been burned. I had a son who was always thrilled to see me. And luck? I had that, too. Pure luck, blind luck, and bad luck—on 9/11, I ended up with all three.
So yes, this is a story about what happened to me on September 11. But it's also about November 11, the day I first spoke again, and it's about June 11, the first time I danced again with my beautiful boy Tyler. It's about September 11, 2002, when I cheered for the glory of my lost colleagues. And it's about every day afterward.
This is the story of how I learned to live again.
• 1 •
The vision that you glorify in your mind, the ideal that you enthrone in your heart, this you will build your life by, and this you will become.
When I was very young my family moved to a small village outside Frankfurt, Germany, because my father—an executive for ITT during its heyday as an international conglomerate—had been given a new assignment. The strange country and its unfamiliar language fueled my eagerness for adventure, and I often wriggled beneath the fence that surrounded our backyard and ran off to find my friend Enga. Along with several other children in the neighborhood, we enjoyed engaging in elaborate games of hide-and-seek. But it wasn't enough to hide from each other: Enga and I liked to pretend that Herr Schmidt, the elderly man who lived next door, was an evil spirit determined to do us harm.
Not far from Herr Schmidt's backyard and his neat little vegetable garden was a small roadside storage bin. One day during a game of hide-and-seek, Enga and I pulled open the bin's hinged front doors and clambered inside, pulling the doors closed behind us. We were thrilled to have discovered the perfect hiding place; as time passed and none of our friends found us, we whispered excitedly that we had won the game. After a while we decided to peek out to see if anyone was still looking for us, but as we pushed on the bin's doors they wouldn't budge. In pulling the doors closed behind us, we had engaged their latch and trapped ourselves inside.
Suddenly the game was no longer fun. It was a warm day, and the air inside the bin was stifling. Crouching there in the hot darkness, we started to panic. We banged on both the locked doors and the top of the bin and yelled for help. We didn't know if anyone could hear us; our shouts seemed to stay inside the bin, the close walls reflecting our shrill cries and blasting them back at us. Worse, our screaming was soon overwhelmed by the deafening roar of a jet flying overhead on its approach to one of the nearby airports.
After waiting for the sound of the engines to fade, we resumed our shouting and banging. More time passed, but still no one came. Then we heard a second plane approach, and our voices were drowned out yet again. As the jet howled above us, Enga and I looked at each other in terrified silence, out of breath from the heat and the effort of screaming at the top of our lungs. When the noise of the second plane's engines finally faded, the silence seemed oddly amplified. All we could hear in the muffled dead air was our own breathing.
Gradually we became aware of the sound of boots crunching on gravel—someone was approaching. The footsteps got louder and then stopped. We heard a bang, and abruptly the top of the bin swung upward, bringing a flood of bright light and a rush of fresh air. A darkened figure with a pitchfork loomed above us; peering down, its face was invisible against the blazing sky. A hand groped toward the corner where the two of us cowered, now more scared than ever.
As the figure's head dipped down into the shadows, we saw who it was and felt both shock and relief. Our imagined archenemy, Herr Schmidt, had come to our rescue. While tending his garden, he had heard our cries for help and realized that we had locked ourselves in the bin. Miraculously, a spirit from our make-believe world of fear had saved us.
My dad, Thomas Pritchard, served in the Marines during the Korean War. After an honorable discharge he earned his degree in business and then rose through the ranks at ITT. His military bearing, baritone voice, and firm handshake commanded respect, and he left more than one teenage boyfriend of mine quaking in his sneakers.
He tolerated no laziness, physical or mental. He was extremely well read, especially in history and science. He expected you to learn not just how things worked, but what could be achieved through that understanding. He expected you to conduct yourself in all things with a sense of duty and honor. When you agreed to something, it was a contract, and he expected you to fulfill it. He expected you to get things done and get them done right.
Away from the workplace, he valued physical activity and intellectual curiosity. He loved maintaining his home and property. He could have paid someone else to do it, but he wanted to do it himself, and he could do it better than most. This was true whether he was building a deck, solving a plumbing problem, or wiring a new light fixture. He was a skilled golfer, and if he liked the way you hit the ball out of a particularly difficult lie, he would offer his highest praise: "That was a golf shot."
Joan, my mother, was as tough-minded, disciplined, and tireless as my father. She was beautiful, but at times I thought she was made of steel: no matter what happened, she was never flustered. She reacted to everything calmly and sensibly, and must have had absolute confidence that she could handle whatever came her way. She once had dreams of being a doctor, but she and my father married when she was twenty-two, beginning a union that still thrives almost sixty years later.
Having made the choice to be a homemaker, my mother took care of us when we were sick, mended torn clothes, sewed costumes, played ball, and bandaged our scrapes and bruises. She prepared homemade meals every night, and our house was always immaculate. A capable golfer and tennis player, she was also a gifted painter and pianist. She hosted endless dinner parties, always trying out new recipes. Before Martha Stewart, there was Joan Pritchard.
After our two and a half years in Germany, we moved to Wayne, a leafy suburb in northern New Jersey. I was the eldest. My sister, Glynis, whom we all called Gigi, was almost two years younger, and after she came along, I wasn't very happy about sharing my parents' attention. But as we both grew older, Gigi became my pal, at least when I wasn't in the mood to boss her around. Our brother, Scot, six years younger than me, became our sidekick, and until he got bigger than us, we would pick on him mercilessly.
My parents' love for their children, though rarely expressed explicitly, was evident in the way they raised us. They considered it their job to teach us how to be good people and good citizens, and they believed that above all we needed to learn the value of discipline and hard work. Both early risers, they always made sure that everything in our home ran with clockwork precision. Every day we were given goals or chores, something tangible that needed to be done or studied. Each week we were given twenty words from the dictionary, and we were required to define and use them in sentences at the dinner table.
Though kind and generous, my parents were unyielding in their demand that we be good students and perform extra work beyond our assigned studies. They instilled in us the belief that we could accomplish whatever we set out to achieve. When helping me with a school project, my mom would always tell me, "It's going to be okay, Lauren. You'll do fine, you'll get it done." She gave me the gift of calm confidence, and in times of turmoil it has served me well.
My siblings and I were taught to think for ourselves and be responsible. When I was nine, for instance, I told my father I wanted to learn to play chess. He told me that before he would sit down with me at a board, I had to read about each piece and understand its actions. When I was a bit older, I told him that I would rather mow the lawn than help my mom in the kitchen. Fine, he said—and then he taught me how to put gas in the lawn mower, start it up, and adjust its height. I had to learn more than simply how to turn on the machine.
After our chores were done our mother would send us out the door saying, "Go outside—go amuse yourselves," trusting that we would return in one piece, which for the most part we did. During the summer, Gigi and I would wander freely, told only to come home for lunch when we heard the fire whistle at noon. As I plotted adventures in our backyard and farther afield, our uncharted time unwound like an endless spool of thread. With a group of neighborhood kids, we explored nearby woods and searched for secret places, creating games that usually featured villains to add a sense of danger.
I was fascinated by animals, and I collected frogs, salamanders, and crayfish from a nearby stream and then brought them home to keep as pets. I also spent hours lying on the grass by the garden, sketching the blossoms or simply daydreaming in the afternoon sun. On rainy days I would curl up with a book and lose myself in its imaginary realms. Part of me secretly believed in the fantasy world of nature and animals conjured in stories like Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. I reread those books over and over, sketching the characters and daydreaming of magical happenings in a universe that bent to my will. I was sure that if I believed deeply enough, what I dreamed of would come true.
My parents tolerated my somewhat dreamy nature, but they also taught me that shortcuts aren't the path to achievement, and that failure is sometimes the best way to learn a difficult lesson. I recall coming home from school one day excited about the Thanksgiving play, hoping to be cast as Pocahontas. I begged my mom to practice the part with me, and she did, over and over. I felt confident when I gave my audition, but afterward my teacher said, "You did very well, Lauren, and I am pleased to say that you will play the part of an Indian squaw." She could see that I couldn't quite believe that I'd heard her right, so in front of the class she pronounced my assignment yet again.
The part of Pocahontas went to a girl named Kathy, whose hair was always perfectly set in ponytails and tied with a different color ribbon every day. She dressed in clothes that were the height of fashion, while I wore simple dresses and jumpers, many of them hand-sewn by my mother. When the day of the play came, I stood onstage in the background, my feather slightly bent and my headband slipping down over my eyes as we sang "America the Beautiful." Nothing soothed the pain of having been rejected, but my mother—calm as always—said, "Next time, just try again."
My parents consistently encouraged me to pursue my interests, particularly in art and horseback riding. Although I excelled in both, my efforts usually seemed to fall a step short. I would participate in art competitions and in horse shows, but when I didn't come home with the blue ribbon, my instinct was to quit. Neither my mother nor my father would hear a word of it; instead, they would simply tell me to keep trying. In time, their tenacity became part of me, and all these years later I still judge myself harshly whenever I believe I haven't put forth my best effort.
Every summer our parents took us on vacations lasting three to four weeks that allowed all of us to explore and learn about the world around us. They always made sure that we had plenty of fun, but the trips—in both the United States and Europe—were also meant to be educational. My mother's job was to keep us organized and then shepherd us behind our father, who was always charging ahead to the next adventure. We practically had to chase after him as he showed us something new or choreographed a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When I was twelve, Gigi and Scot and I traveled with my parents to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and stood on the ridge of Cemetery Hill. Earlier that day, we had walked the famous battlefields, past the x-frame farm fences and along the roads, tracing the lines of battle. Now, with the broad, open fields stretching before us, my dad told us stories about valor and sacrifice, and about the dangers of overconfidence. As he spoke about the bravery of the young soldiers who had fought and died in these fields, his voice occasionally broke. "You're standing where the decisive battle of the Civil War was fought," he told us. "The Union soldiers were willing to give their lives for what they believed in, and this country was saved right here."
Gazing out at the peaceful meadow, I tried to imagine the terrible battle that had taken place. I had studied the Gettysburg address and now thought of its ringing phrases, particularly those at the end: "That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Standing on Cemetery Hill, my father told us: "That is what it means to accept the honor of being an American. That is what it means to give honor and duty to a cause."
Until I became a teenager, I was a classic tomboy. I loved riding bikes at high speeds and digging under fences to gain access to forbidden territory. On Halloween, I dressed up as a hobo or pirate, never a princess. When I became older and more daring, my friends and I sometimes broke into school classrooms over the weekend and climbed onto the school's broad, flat roof, until we were chased away by the police. Despite my mother's continual prodding, I never cared to tuck in my shirt or to comb my hair more than once a day. Like many girls my age, I had Barbie and Ken dolls along with Pepper, Barbie's sidekick, and Pepper's nameless boyfriend. But my Barbie had one case for her accessories, just a couple of outfits, and she spent a lot of time riding my Breyer horses or climbing trees.
My time as tomboy came to an end when I was about fourteen. Childlike yearning for an imaginary world faded, replaced by the awkward self-consciousness of adolescence. I remember telling my mother, "I don't need or want a purse—I have nothing to put in it. And why is this training bra making it hard for me to breathe?" Nonplussed, my mother said, "You'll use the purse, and you'll get used to the bra."
Once I got my first issues of Seventeen and Glamour, my habits changed dramatically. Rather than rushing outside to play as soon as I got home from school, I would flip through those mesmerizing magazines and reread them until the pages became worn. I envisioned myself as one of the long-haired young women featured in the photographs, wearing iridescent eye shadow and sporting a pouty smile. I began scouting the Estée Lauder makeup counter at Stern's, a local department store. Finally I resolved to return and buy the little jar of sea-green mist eye shadow that sat nestled in the lower left corner of the glass case.
One afternoon my mom had some food shopping to do, so I asked her to drop me off at Stern's. I was dressed in a classic 1970s uniform: a blouse of white polyester crepe dotted with small green flowers, brown corduroy Levi's, and a pair of light brown Wallabees. As I walked inside, I breathed a sigh of relief—the smell of department stores had the peculiar effect of relaxing me. I approached the counter and with carefully rehearsed nonchalance pointed to the coveted jar of eye shadow. Once I'd paid for it, the salesperson smiled as she handed me the shopping bag. I don't think I fooled her one bit. She knew this was my first time buying makeup.
As soon as I got home I went straight to the bathroom—that favorite teenage hangout—and shut the door. My hands trembled as I removed the small glass jar from its box and unscrewed the top. After carefully dipping my finger in the eye shadow, I passed it over each lid. The effect was startling: my dark blue eyes were now punctuated with silver-flecked green. Drawing back to take a better look in the mirror, it occurred to me that the two stripes above my eyes made me look a bit like a tribal warrior, so I opened the medicine cabinet and dabbed some Vaseline on my lips. Puckering my mouth, I looked in the mirror again and decided that, yes, I did look at least a little more like those young women in the beauty magazines.
I walked out and proudly took a seat at the dinner table. No one in my family said a word about the "green teen" that night, not even my seven-year-old brother. Perhaps my makeover had rendered them speechless—or maybe they were all willing to give me a little space to grow into myself.
Untroubled childhood gradually yielded to the harsher reality of emerging adulthood, and my teenage years were filled with periodic rebellion, experimentation, and first love. Books became even more important to me, and my treasured stereo spun nonstop. I listened to countless hours of music from my favorite artists, and only my parents' gift of headphones permitted all of us to coexist in the same house.
Like most of my peers, I reserved my most biting criticism for my looks. Gazing at my face in the mirror, I found fault with every feature, and as my body changed, I liked almost nothing about it. For most of my teenage years, I always wore clothing that covered my arms and legs. I never wore anything backless because I didn't think I looked good.
I remember the first time I believed I might be pretty. I was eighteen; sitting on my bed looking into a small handheld mirror, I saw a young woman looking back at me with strawberry blond hair, full lips, a dimpled chin, and serious blue eyes. Something clicked, and in a rare moment of objectivity I saw that although my face hardly conformed to the golden ratio, I didn't look half bad. But once this moment of recognition passed, I returned to fretting over my appearance. Like many women, I suppose, I never quite shook that gnawing sense that I could always look better.
Though being female—let alone a decent-looking female—would prove both an asset and a burden in my professional life, both my upbringing and my days as a tomboy would ultimately serve me well. By the time I graduated from college with a BA in economics, I had come to share my parents' fervent belief in the importance of hard work, and I also knew that I wanted to work on Wall Street. In 1985, I joined the Lehman Brothers training program and went to work in its Private Client Group at 660 Madison Avenue, led by the legendary Marty Shafiroff. I earned a relatively modest salary my first year—$16,000—but I was hooked.
I loved the financial services business right from the start. Working in capital markets meant that I was involved in strengthening the underpinning of our entire economy. I wasn't just shuffling paper; I was helping create and generate transactions that would build corporations, fund new businesses, finance the construction of transit systems, and support public and private research. Working at the nexus of the country's debt-trading machinery, I was doing my part to provide the financing that fueled the growth and prosperity of our nation. This was capitalism at its purest, and though it might sound hokey to others, it happened to be true. To me it seemed as if I had found my way to the center of the universe.
The trading floors were literal pits surrounded by rings of desks. When major economic data came out—whether the Gross National Product, the Consumer Price Index, or any key indicator of economic performance—trading would instantly surge as brokers and traders transacted millions of dollars in a frenzy of hand signals and shouted nicknames. Like so many others in my business, I found it spine-tingling to witness the intense drama of billions of dollars being turned over in just a couple of minutes.
Success was driven entirely by results. You were judged by the business you brought in and the amount of revenue you generated. But when the year came to an end, the slate was wiped clean. No matter how good you were yesterday, you had to prove yourself again today. It was a continuous and very competitive battle, everyone fighting to take, build, or enlarge a fiefdom. And the push to grow your bottom line never stopped. When the end of the day came in New York, the action would roll to Tokyo, then to London, and back to Wall Street the next morning.
As my career blossomed in the 1980s, so did my personal life. A serial monogamist, I had moved from one boyfriend to another through the years; then, after one near-engagement, I met a tall, handsome man named Kenneth DeMille Butler. Steady and hardworking, Ken dressed well and had a sharp sense of humor.
We dated for three years, and one beautiful night in October of 1989 he took me to dinner at the Plaza Hotel. In the hotel's elegant Edwardian Room, with "Moon River" playing softly in the background, Ken got down on one knee and asked me to be his wife. I said yes, and afterward, as we meandered down Fifth Avenue, I couldn't stop gazing at the sparkling jewel on my hand. As we passed Tiffany's I felt as if I had turned into Holly Golightly. The night felt like a dream plucked from one of my childhood storybooks; giddy with delight, I thought, This is the beginning of my charmed life.
In the life I had scripted for myself, my marriage would be a modern variation of my parents'. Like my mother and father, Ken and I would be partners in the all-important work of raising our children, but unlike my parents we would be economic equals as well. We would both have successful careers, and we would also share the household chores. Being a full-time homemaker may have been the zenith of female achievement for my mother and her generation, but not for me or mine.
My father had been the hard-charging executive, my mother the homemaker and ideal wife. She seemed to love being a full-time mother. As a teenager and burgeoning feminist, I made sure to punish her for it. At a time when more women than ever before were entering the workforce and building careers, I couldn't understand why she wasn't out working and helping the family financially. Sometimes I would confront her and ask why she didn't have a career, but she would inevitably meet my challenge with a calm rejoinder. "You just wait until you have your own marriage and your own family, then you'll realize what is best for you."
In one respect, though, I was certain that my marriage would be precisely the same as my parents'. My mother and father had been married for over thirty years by then, but they simply never fought. My siblings and I heard occasional terse words, but not a bit of real arguing. Our parents moved through the day in continuous, quiet contact, and always seemed content in each other's presence. I counted on having that sort of relationship as well. I would be my husband's peer, but I would also be the ideal wife. I saw no reason why my new husband and I couldn't be perfect partners.
After the wedding Ken and I settled into a lovely apartment with a terrace, a view, and a marble bath. It seemed like exactly the right start to our lives together, yet as the novelty of married life wore off and we settled into a routine, I began to feel a low-grade anxiety. Instead of excitement I felt an ever-present and mystifying sadness. Life did not feel charmed at all. Though outwardly everything looked perfect, inside it just didn't feel right.
Was it the apartment? For a while I thought so, and before long we moved to a new one, trading the view and the terrace for a second marble bath. But when the unhappiness followed, I decided that perhaps the city wasn't the right place for us to build a family. Why not a house in the suburbs? Surely that would do the trick.
After some months of searching, we ultimately chose a sweet little colonial set amid the towering oaks and maples of Riverside, a charming neighborhood in Greenwich, Connecticut. We could walk to the train. Our neighbors welcomed us with a basket of delicious treats. Everything oozed domesticity and comfort. But unhappiness still shadowed me, and by then I was battling a bizarre stomach demon. At least once a week, my stomach would begin heaving and then attempt to destroy itself. The ritual began as an ache and quickly built to a crescendo of doubled-over pain. These attacks always lasted about two hours, and afterward it would hurt just to inhale.
Each time the demon came I broke into a cold sweat and somehow rode it out. But one day I found myself in a concourse of the mall at the World Trade Center, doubled over and vomiting. I staggered to a Chase Bank branch, where I asked someone to call a young woman who worked for me. She came downstairs and helped me get safely to Lenox Hill Hospital; by the time I arrived, I was thinking, This is it, I am dying. But the doctor couldn't find anything seriously wrong with me.
This frightening episode led me to believe that I had contracted an undetectable disease or a new strain of life-threatening virus. It simply didn't occur to me that my emotions, not a physical malfunction, might be the cause of my mysterious ailment. And now I was haunted by a nightmarish scenario: I imagined a day when an attack would leave me sprawled across a hallway at work, with people walking by and gaping at me as they rushed back to the trading floor.
By 1996 I knew I was in crisis, but I couldn't see or admit its cause: the deep connection I'd believed I had with my husband simply wasn't there. A master of reattribution, I ascribed my despondency to my inadequacies as a wife rather than to my unhappy marriage. I was sure that if I could only become a better partner, my life with Ken could still improve. Continuing its assault, my body waited for my mind to catch on.
Though we had always been close, Gigi and I were very different. She was reticent; I breezily shared an endless fount of information and opinions. We often disagreed on frivolous things. In sisterly fashion, I would chide her for being perpetually late. She would sigh and say, "Lauren, you may think otherwise, but your advice isn't always right." Back and forth we'd go, relentless in our willingness to enumerate each other's faults. But we were never mean to each other.
As adults, however, we had drawn a border around one area of our lives: neither of us would discuss our failings in love. An impenetrable wall would rise at precisely the moment when we found ourselves on the brink of achieving a much deeper and more meaningful understanding. But by this point in my life, my domineering nature had mellowed a bit, and recently I had realized that her ability to see the truth was sometimes clearer than my own.
One Saturday early in the summer of 1997, Gigi came up to Greenwich for a visit. That afternoon, as we walked down our tree-lined street, we passed a neighbor's front lawn crowded with children. The husband and wife were playing a pickup game of soccer with their kids. They were all laughing and shouting to one another as they chased the ball. Seeing us, the man waved and called out, "Do you two want to join us?"
"No thanks," I said, "we can't right now. Have fun!"
It was a small moment, but somehow it seemed significant. Why was I always rushing toward or away from something but never embracing the here and now? I seemed to have no ability to be content, to simply engage in the moment. And now my marriage was disintegrating and the rigid choreography of my life was falling away. After years of denial, I had finally begun to realize how desperately unhappy I'd become; for the first time, I saw that my life would not follow the perfect trajectory I'd imagined.
At last I was ready to speak candidly with my sister about my marriage.
"Gigi, why is this happening? Every day, I wake up sad and exhausted. I take an Actifed every night just to fall asleep."
"Your body is telling you something that maybe your mind can't right now."
"It was all supposed to be so perfect; our married life would be everything we wanted."
As we continued walking, I poured my heart out and Gigi listened. A while later, we reached Tod's Point, a peninsula in Old Greenwich that juts out into Long Island Sound. We skipped rocks and looked south across the shimmering water to the north shore of the island.
"It looks so close," I said. "You could almost reach out over the water and touch it."
The summer haze had created an optical illusion, and I couldn't help but think that I'd been living with another sort of illusion. For years, I'd believed that happiness was something concrete that I could capture with my bare hands.
Gigi listened to me for hours as I began to reckon with my true feelings. Unfairly, I had always believed that I was the strong one, that my choices were somehow better than hers. But where I had been judgmental, Gigi had let me be myself. Now, as I tried to express my profound sadness, she was once again accepting me when it mattered.
As we walked back, I turned to her and said, "Sometimes, it just doesn't turn out the way we think it should, does it?"
"It's not always perfect," Gigi replied, "but you don't have to be, either."
Soon after that wrenching conversation with Gigi, Ken and I separated. I continued living in our home, but after having made such a deep commitment to another person only to see our marriage fail, the house brought me no pleasure. Instead, I threw myself into my work with even more energy and dedication than usual. My job had always been my refuge, and now it mattered more than ever.
Four years earlier, in 1993, I had made a major professional move and joined Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the world's leading bond brokerage and trading firms. My job was to run and expand the company's business development efforts, and I loved every minute of it. Then, at the start of 1996, Cantor's CEO, Howard Lutnick, asked me if I would consider going to Market Data Corporation, a company that had been spun off from Cantor Fitzgerald in the late 1980s, to market its brokerage data. Howard told me that MDC needed someone to rebuild and run the global sales force, and after he explained why he thought I'd be perfect for the job, I agreed to make the move. Soon I began working out of two offices, one on the thirty-second floor of One World Trade Center and the other at MDC's headquarters in Rye Brook in Westchester.
Unfortunately, I was walking into a difficult situation. A few months earlier, there had been an ugly falling-out between the executives of MDC and Cantor Fitzgerald. Now, as someone who had just crossed over from the enemy camp, I often felt that I'd been caught on the wrong side of the wall. The top people at MDC did not make me feel welcome, and several of their decisions undermined my opportunity to be successful. In particular, I worked for several months to market and sell a big new software product that was supposedly ready to be launched, only to learn in the end that the company wouldn't even offer it. By the summer of 1997, relations between the two companies had become so poisonous that both sides ended up in court.
That summer brought yet more change for me, both professionally and personally. Howard was well aware of how bad the situation at MDC had become, and he asked me to return to Cantor and build an internal information business that would become the successor to MDC. After a difficult year and a half, returning to my old company and settling into a new office on the 105th floor of Tower One felt like coming home.
I also made another move: now separated, I decided to rent out my house in Connecticut and move to Greenwich Village in Manhattan, trading one Greenwich for another. With Gigi's help, I found a loft apartment in the Archive, which was essentially a professional dormitory for Wall Streeters that featured a five-minute commute by taxi.
As I was settling in, my mom and dad came by and brought me some housewarming gifts, most especially a teapot. An avid tea drinker, my mom was fond of saying, "It's always good for what ails you." At that moment, it sounded like excellent advice, and before long I found myself drinking a lot of tea. The previous months had been filled with a rush of major changes: divorce, a new job, a new home. I felt as if successive waves had swept away every anchor of stability in my life. But now I was through it; I'd finally reached calmer waters. I had a new apartment and a new job with a firm I believed in and trusted. There would be no ceiling on my success.
For company I had my adopted stray cat, Caitlin, who was old and ailing but still a darling. With Caitlin purring beside me, I would sit on my couch drinking tea and imagine the road ahead. Just when many of my friends were settling down and starting families, I was completely reinventing my life. I had long since come to understand that adversity is a great teacher, and now I believed that it was time to put the lessons I'd learned to good use. It was time to find a new way forward.