In a September column, I remembered the American lives lost during the national tragedy that was Sept. 11, 2001. None of us need to be reminded. It was the day a gang of terrorists commandeered four U.S. jetliners before they were crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field. Remembered now simply as 9/11, it shocked the world.
The 20th anniversary of that infamous day is locked in my mind along with another that happened less than two months later, Nov. 4. It was the day my mother called her “own 9/11.”
Twenty years ago today, Nov. 4, 2001, a lone "terrorist" much closer to home tried to end my life. Not in New York City or Washington, DC. It was just down the road in New Orleans. I don't revisit the day often but on this "anniversary," I thought I would.
We Hattiesburgers are fortunate to live barely a 90-minute drive from what my friend from New York City calls the most unique city in America. I visited my friend annually in Manhattan and we've met up in New Orleans (and Hattiesburg) a few times. In fact, I'd returned from a visit to the Big Apple to visit her only two months earlier, shortly after the 9/11 tragedy. A little wanderlust still in my blood, I was in the mood for one of my routine getaways to the Crescent City. This visit, however, would turn out to be anything but routine.
After checking into my room at one of Canal Street's high-rise hotels, I did some shopping at Canal Place and later chowed down on a shrimp po’boy at Mother’s on Poydras Street. Of course, no trip to New Orleans is complete without a night strolling Bourbon Street and the French Quarter while enjoying a libation or two. Saturday night turned into Sunday morning as I returned to my hotel and prepared for a good night's sleep before driving home. That never happened. My stay in New Orleans ended up being a lot longer than intended — five weeks longer.
As I walked into my room, someone was already inside. I kicked off my shoes and got ready to watch a little TV before turning in. I remember nothing after that.
I'm piecing together this part of my story based on the police report I read months later. I was struck in the back of the head, knocked unconscious, my wallet and watch taken. But my assailant wasn't done with me.
An undetermined object was used to beat me about the face beyond recognition and, it would appear, I was left for dead.
Later, housekeeping, ready to prepare my room for the next guest, knocked on the door calling my name, "Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones." The only response she got back was an audible groan. Alarmed, she let herself into the room, to discover me lying on the floor, bleeding to death. An ambulance was summoned and I was rushed to New Orleans' Charity Hospital where I would spend the next three weeks.
I had a number of visitors, including family members and my former boss, Richard Simmons. My friend, Linda, hearing about what had happened to me, flew immediately from New York City. Our late friend, Frank, drove from Birmingham to join her. The three of us had been in Manhattan less than two months earlier.
I was "aware" of those who visited me only because I dreamed about them. Strange dreams. My guess is that they were morphine-induced, my brain's attempt at interpreting what was going on around me through the fog of medication.
Linda painted a vivid picture of how I looked. She was there less than a week after the attempt to end my life recalling, "Elijah, it looked as if someone had taken a basketball and painted your face onto it." That's how swollen my head was. Not to mention how badly my face was beaten. Linda didn't dare tell my mother what she was thinking as she looked at me, "Even if Elijah survives, he'll never be our Elijah again."
A plastic surgeon, having to literally rebuild my face, needed a recent photo to work from. The best photo my family had was a portrait I'd taken with my former boss, Richard Simmons, while on one of his cruises.
My folks brought the photo from Hattiesburg and presented it to the surgeon. Linda, born and bred in Brooklyn, said something I'd totally expect from her. Standing with the surgeon, as my mother gave him the photo of Richard and me, she pointed to it saying, "Be sure he comes out looking like the black guy, and not the white guy." My friends and family loved me, and I'm glad they were able to laugh while remaining concerned for me despite how serious through such a horrible ordeal.
After three weeks at Charity, I was moved to Touro Hospital in the Garden District, where I'd spend another two weeks undergoing rehabilitation. Just before Christmas, I was released from the hospital, still in a mildly dreamlike state. It'd take several weeks for me to return, 100%, to my former self. The doctors said I'd suffered a brain injury, rather than brain damage — two very different things.
My most painful memory is thinking about what my mother endured after getting the news about me. She'd attended church service that Sunday and later that evening, a phone number she didn't recognize had shown up twice on her caller ID. Answering it, a woman on the other end identified herself from Charity Hospital. My mother knew I'd gone to New Orleans that weekend. When the caller began telling her about an African American male in their care, she panicked and passed the phone to my sister saying, "Here, you take this!"
My siblings rushed my mother down Interstate 59, desperate to get her to New Orleans. My brother recalled there was absolute silence in the car for the entire drive. But my mother later shared with me what she was thinking. If I would only hang on until she got there and could see her face, she knew that I would be all right. Her thoughts obviously made it down I-59 to my hospital bed. Twenty years later, I'm still here.
Lessons learned? Plenty. I hold no hatred for my unknown assailant. That person faced God's judgment. I have no fear of New Orleans. I've been back to the Crescent City more times than I can count. The most important lesson though is discovering I have so many friends who truly love me. We should all be so fortunate. There is no greater blessing.
The morning my family picked me up at Touro Hospital to bring me home, my mom was so excited. During the drive, she asked what I wanted for my first meal back home. My answer was almost immediate. I told her, "Red beans and rice." They were my favorite when I was growing up. And, Della Ruth Jones made the best red beans and rice in Hattiesburg, or New Orleans.
Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who enjoys writing. Email him: email@example.com.