A vacant spot
Alum hopes to honor uncle who died in terrorist attacks
September 14, 2016
Leah Crenshaw is thirsty.
So she groggily gets herself out of bed and shakes the sleep from her eyes. She makes her way to the stairs and inches down them slowly, carefully, trying not to wake anybody up.
Except her mother is already up, sitting on the couch in front of the TV. Ghostly blue light plays over her curled body, illuminating the blanket she is clenching tight, the tears slipping noiselessly from her eyes.
Silently, Leah joins her mother and they watch as the Twin Towers collapse to the ground in painfully, heartbreakingly slow motion.
When Crenshaw, who graduated last year, was four years old, her uncle Michael Morgan Taylor died in the September 11, 2001 attack. Taylor was a stock trader for Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services firm that was headquartered in the World Trade Center, occupying floors 105-109 in the North Tower.
“I never was super close with my uncle,” Crenshaw said. “He lived super far away and I was really young. So I have only really, really vague memories of him, stuff like riding around in his car and spilling ice cream in his Porsche but I don’t have like a detailed memory of him.”
Taylor lived and worked in New York City, but maintained close familial ties with his sister, Crenshaw’s mother.
“What I do remember very very well was growing up in a family where there was very clearly a vacancy, where there was supposed to be a person, but that person wasn’t there,” Crenshaw said. “And even though I wasn’t alive long enough to have known the person that was supposed to be there, growing up I became very familiar with this invisible ghost of a person, a black hole of a person.”
The events of that day are foggy to her, but Crenshaw can remember vaguely what happened, as well as the following weeks.
“She pulled me out of school and we were at home watching the news,” Crenshaw said. “I wound up with a set of grandparents while my mom, dad, uncle and aunt all went to New York. It took them quite some time to enter the city. They got into his apartment and were going around with posters with his photographs, trying to find him and eventually his remains were found and identified. They didn’t want to make my grandparents handle all that. So it fell on my parents to handle the funeral and everything.”
Sadly, Taylor’s body was not recovered in full immediately.
“Falling a 104 floors is a ridiculous amount of feet,” Crenshaw said. “And also between the fire and the destruction, he wasn’t in one piece, so at first we kept getting letters from people saying they had found and identified partial remains. To quote my mom, opening those was kind of like experiencing his death over and over again, so eventually they just stopped contacting us about it.”
Throughout childhood and adolescence, her uncle was never a taboo subject, Crenshaw says. He was brought up frequently, enough for her to create a clear picture of what he was like.
“Growing up, it came up a lot,” Crenshaw said. “We’d talk about him like he was still alive, not in a creepy way, but as in something comes up and it was like, ‘Mike loved that’, or ‘Oh, Mike told me that joke one time’.”
What affects her the most is the thought of her family–her mother, in particular–suffering.
“I’m so upset over the fact that it happened to my family, the people that I love, the man I would’ve loved,” Crenshaw said. “The first thing I thought about was what it must’ve felt like for my mom and dad, whom I love more than anybody in this world, wandering around in that giant city trying to figure out if their brother was dead, trying to figure out what happened to him, trying to figure out if he was in pain.”
In part because of the highly prolific nature of Taylor’s death, Crenshaw has never been able to shy away from her family’s loss.
“It’s such a giant piece of American history that it’s hard not to hear about it in people’s day to day lives,” Crenshaw said. “For most people, when someone near them dies, they are not going to be scrolling through TV one day and see a four hour documentary on exactly how it happened. But I think part of the reason why I’m comfortable talking about it is because every time 9/11 comes up in school we watch a documentary in school or something. It’s so prominent, it’s just everywhere, you know?”
She also seeks to learn more about both his death and his life, seeing it as the best way to remember him.
“A lot of times over the past 15 years I’ve walked downstairs in the middle of the night and I’ve found my mom there, watching 9/11 footage,” Crenshaw said. ”And sometimes I’ll stay and sometimes I won’t but in the course of my lifetime, I feel like it’s my duty to honor him by understanding what happened that day.”
Crenshaw has struggled with the feelings of guilt that come over grieving for someone she sometimes felt like she had no right to mourn.
“It’s been frustrating to have such strong emotions over someone I feel like I don’t have the right to grieve,” Crenshaw said. “Yes, he died, but other people lost spouses, parents, and I barely knew him.”
But her loss is real, and Crenshaw doesn’t apologize for it, for she has to live with the missed opportunity of knowing a significant member of her family–a man who, by all accounts, she would’ve loved fiercely.
“I never really did know him but regardless of whether or not I could tell you his favorite color, the feelings I have are still there,” Crenshaw said. “The grief, the feeling of regret, all of it. Grief doesn’t work like ‘Oh it’s weird for you to be feeling like this right now,’ it works like ‘you feel terrible’. It’s weird, I didn’t lose him, but I lost the opportunity to know him, and I’ve been really resentful about that.”