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Macon County resident reflects on impact of 9/11 21 years later

Written by Rebecca Wilcox Bilbrey

On September 11, 2001, our lives in America were reshaped forever. I remember exactly where I was and what I was wearing as I watched the second plane hit Tower 2 at 9:03 AM. Before that moment, it was still a tragic accident in most of our minds. But that was immediately replaced by what would become our new reality. Like those amazing towers of strength and fortitude the world seemed to crumble around us. Even from almost 1200 miles away in Minneapolis I felt transported to where it was all happening. I could not explain how or why I felt such an intense connection as no one I knew worked at The World Trade Center. A few short years later all would be revealed. I had no idea then how incredibly impacted and forever altered my own small existence was to become.

After living in Minneapolis and then back home in Jacksonville for a few years I moved to NYC on May 10, 2004. I have always had an unexplainable connection with this city after spending 3 months in Manhattan the summer of 1995. I knew I wanted to plant sustainable roots here. It had always been my goal. After a few months of getting re-acclimated and settled in with my job I started to explore my city. It was Saturday, September 11, 2004 and I knew that Ground Zero was where I needed to be. The three years that had gone by since that fateful day had not diminished my intense feelings or this strange connection that I could not translate.

I arrived alone in the early evening after most of the usual masses had paid their respects. It was quiet and almost eerily peaceful. The site, which was completely surrounded by a huge chain link fence, was still just a huge pit filled with over-sized cranes, dump trucks and piles of who knew what. But the most profound visuals were the pictures, candles, teddy bears, and personal items that filled every spot on the gated enclosure. It was so overwhelming to behold. It was hard to focus on anything specific because there were so many tributes to so many victims. The true severity and existence of this much individual pain became shattering.

As I slowly walked along and desperately tried to take it all in I noticed a couple standing alone on the far side of the fence. I could not unravel the reason but I was immediately drawn to them. I could see they were painstakingly tying a rose next to a loved one’s picture. Their silent sorrow was palpable. As much as I tried to leave them be I felt drawn to them in an inexplicable manner. I was unable to resist. As I approached they finished their task and slowly moved away. I stepped forward, viewed the photo before me, and glanced at the inscription: Andrea Lyn Haberman 2/2/76 – 9/11/01 “We Love you Andrea, We Will Never Forget.”

My birthday is 2/2/76. This woman, this face among thousands, that I had been drawn to was born on the exact same day as me. I began to shake. I swiftly turned around to the couple walking away in the distance and cried out, “I’m so sorry to bother you, I’m so sorry, is Andrea your daughter?” A soft spoken gentle woman turned around and replied “No, she is my Niece.” “I am so sorry to interrupt!” I said, “But she and I have the exact same Birthday!” The woman seemed to immediately recognize the enormity of what I was saying. She asked if I would please come and meet Andrea’s Father. Introductions were made but I was completely incoherent. I was sobbing, expressing my sorrow for their loss. They began comforting ME which broke me down even further. I know we exchanged other details but I was beyond retention. We hugged, said God Bless and went our separate ways.

The happenstance of this meeting was not lost on me. The weight of it surrounded me like a thick blanket. I spoke about it to family members, friends, anyone who would listen. I privately pondered it and its possible reasoning. It became for me the most profound thing I had experienced in my twenty-eight years. I could not accept that it was a random occurrence.

The following year on 9/11/05 I once again visited the site with hopeful intent of seeing these vague faces that I could only remember through a blur of tears. My arrival was much earlier this year and the site was overflowing with mourners. I knew it was unlikely that we would reconnect. I had no idea if they were even there. After a few hours of gazing quickly at random faces for a light of recognition I went home. Once again with great value for our chance meeting I accepted that I would not see them again and went about my daily life. Then a random Sunday in October occurred and truly changed everything.

My dear friend Andy who I have known for many years was visiting. I had only just recently told him about my encounter down at Ground Zero and the acute effect it had on me. He wanted to visit the site and see it all for himself. We were joined by my boyfriend (now husband) Ryan and we all arrived on an early Sunday afternoon in mid-October. I was immediately taken aback by the immense crowd that was present. I had only seen it in this manner on 9/11. It turned out that we had chosen to visit on a day that the city was dedicating a bell in honor of the victims.

Almost immediately after arriving, I noticed the man with Andrea’s picture on the lapel of his suit. This man I had never met stood in confusion and maybe a little concern while I began pointing at him exclaiming “That’s her, that’s Andrea! That’s the girl I was telling you about!” This photo, not much bigger than the size of a business card, had caught my eye on the jacket of man in a sea of strangers. I was overcome. He approached me, asked if I was okay and how I knew Andrea. I quickly, and with a hysterical flare explained my chance meeting with the Aunt and Father whose names I could not for the life of me remember. He then explained that the family lived in Wisconsin.

This man, who introduced himself as Larry, was a local who had met the family in the early days of search and rescue. He had become their representative for the occasions that they could not be present. I told him that I thought of them all the time and if they ever wanted to reach out I would love to connect. With a very unsteady hand, I wrote down my email address for him to pass along. I clearly remember Ryan telling me to calm down and take a deep breath. He knew at length what this meant to me and I’m sure I was coming across a little wacko. After exchanging goodbyes and well wishes, I once again walked away from this insane, crazy chance meeting with a feeling of sheer awe.

Months passed, no word. I began to feel silly. Maybe this family didn’t want to speak with me. Maybe it was too weird, too uncomfortable that I shared Andrea’s birthday. I could see how the reminder would be too much. I just had to chalk it up to one of those unexplainable things and move on.

I arrived at work on my birthday on 2/2/06, my 30th Birthday! I took off my heavy coat and scarf, hung my bag on my chair and started up my computer. As I did first thing each morning, I checked my email. An address I did not recognize with the subject line “Happy Birthday” caught my eye at once. As I read its message I began to cry. Tears were pouring from my eyes. It was an email from Andrea’s Aunt Shelley, no longer a nameless face, wishing me a Happy Birthday! She told me how often she had thought of me and how she believed our meeting was not a coincidence. This family that I had been deeply hopeful to hear from wanted to keep in touch and get to know me better. I had no words.

Shelley and I began an old-fashioned pen-pal relationship. We emailed regularly and shared many details about our lives with each other thru letters. I got to know about Andrea and her life; her Mom Kathy, her Dad Gordon, Sister Julie, and Fiance Al. On 9/11/06 we were reunited here in NYC for the first time since that mystical night two years before. I was with my now fiance Ryan, Shelley, her husband Neil, and Andrea’s dear parents Gordon and Kathy. Being in their presence again with the acknowledgment of how we came to be there solidified for me the power and existence of the afterlife. Andrea had sent us to each other. None of us doubted that.

Then I learned about the dimes. Shelley told me how she and Andrea’s Mom Kathy had started to find random dimes in odd places. The floor in the kitchen would be clear and 5 minutes later there was a dime in the middle. I thought it was sweet and something that was probably personally consoling. I knew people needed certain things to feel connected to loved ones who were no longer here. I wasn’t about to pass judgment. Then the dimes started to show up for me, totally out of nowhere and most of the time when I needed to be reminded of something. My initial thought was that I was jumping on the crazy train; finding dimes because I had heard others had. But so many of my dimes had been far too poignant and purposeful to be coincidence…and if I’m honest, any of my belief in coincidence had been vanquished by this point.

One evening Ryan and I were coming home on the subway. We had gotten into a nasty fight. I was sitting there thinking so many negative things about my relationship and then out of nowhere I thought, “Gee, I bet Andrea would give anything to be in my shoes right now. I’m living the life that was stolen from her.” At that moment the train stopped and the man sitting across from me got up and right under his booted foot was a dime. I lost it. I knew she was telling me in that moment not to take everything so seriously, to cherish what I had. So I did.

Shortly after Ryan and I were married in 2007 we moved to LA; so far from NYC, so far from Andrea but she stuck with me. Sitting on our back porch one afternoon I was feeling hopeless over the many miscarriages I had had. I was sure that God did not want me to be a Mother and was succumbing to a deep sadness. I then looked down on the porch floor and there was a dime. I had been sitting there for 30 minutes. It was not there before.

Over the years there have been many dimes in so many places that just stop me in my tracks. The one I found on the floor of a petty cab in Savannah on our 39th Birthday 2/2/15, I will never forget. The two dimes I found in very uncommon places the week I started to build a relationship with Julie, Andrea’s sister, will forever be memorable. The dime I found on the street in front of my apartment three days ago; the week of 9/11 and the same day I began writing this story cannot be dismissed.

But the most stunning, dazzling, and deliberate dime I have ever received was last 9/11. It had been a long day of remembrance, personal reflection, and gratitude. Shelley and I began a quiet walk along the river just off where the towers once stood proudly. We walked underneath a gorgeous sheath of stunning flowers that had been designed to drape gracefully from the tree branches above. It was magical. The orderly sidewalk was stark white. As I was gazing at the beauty overhead, Shelly gasped. There at our feet at 11pm on 9/11, 11 years to the day we met was a single dime shining up at us. We tried to speak to each other but words were scarce. Shelley slowly bent down and grasped the dime in her palm. We found a bench and sat in stunned silence for what seemed like many minutes. There was not much to say. As she has always been, Andrea was with us. That was clear. But this dime that we found together was incredible!
This past February 2nd marked our 40th Birthday, 10 years since the day I received that email from Aunt Shelley; an email that would open a whole new world of love, compassion, and understanding for me. As if what I have received so far wasn’t enough, Shelley sent me “our special dime” framed for me to keep forever as a Birthday gift. It is a constant reminder of the wonder and grace that can come from something as awful as September 11th 2001.

I now understand why I felt so immediately connected to 9/11. I could not explain it then but Andrea made it clear to me. She brought me to her family and loved ones. She made me understand what happened here. It’s so much more than the pictures you see or the books you read. Her story is only one of thousands. I do not know why I was chosen to be a part of these amazing people’s lives. There are so many people Andrea has brought together. And I know we all feel fortunate and blessed.

The little bag of dimes that I keep in my bedside table is more of a comfort to me than I can explain. Every time I add a new one I feel Andrea watching over me. I truly believe she is an Angel, masterfully orchestrating what she knows will bring warmth and peace to those who need it. Because of her, I have been changed. My eyes are open and I will forever be grateful that in a city of 12 million people I found the Habermans from Wisconsin…Twice!

If you want to learn more about Andrea and her story please read “Just A Few Sleeps Away” by Mike Nichols available on Amazon.com or purchase the book from http://www.kewaskummemorial.com/ where all proceeds go to the memorial being built in Kewaskum, Wisconsin to honor all those who were taken from us on 9/11/01.

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