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Psychically speaking, the holidays are always a tender time. "But this Thanksgiving is the biggie," says Mary Courtney of New York University's Child Study Center. "Having a unifying ritual can be good, but we don't need people sitting around in a pile sobbing or starting to compare their levels of pain. But it can be hard not to. Even I call my own family back in Minnesota, and they talk about how traumatized they all are. I want to say to them, 'I've been working seven days a week on this at the center of the trauma since Sept. 11!'" Courtney and her colleagues are so worried about the looming holiday that they are posting a special primer on their website to help families get through their gatherings unscathed.
Courtney is in some ways most worried about families that have the most to be thankful for, those in which one member escaped the Sept. 11 attack and has been living in a parallel universe ever since. "It's impossible to explain to anyone who wasn't there," says Michael Serio, a freshman at Pace University in lower Manhattan whose dorm room shook when the planes crashed three blocks away. An aspiring doctor, he ran to the scene and spent the next 36 hours helping the rescue workers, setting up IVs for dehydrated fire fighters and hauling away debris and body parts. In that time, he could not get through to his mother and father outside Baltimore, Md., who feared he was dead.
Since then he's been talking to his parents and siblings several times a day; he likes to hear their voices, but they're not always speaking the same language. "I think this is what it must feel like to come back from war," he says. His father would love to see him leave the big city and finish school closer to home. "He's aged five or six years since I dropped him off at that school," his mother says. "And he has no fear; he gets on the subway and goes all around the city. And I'm so on edge that every time he calls, I think something new has happened."
For families spread out across the country, Thanksgiving may be the first reunion between those whose lives have been completely rewired and others who have had little trouble "getting back to normal." Some have already had a preview of how the nervous system evolves as you head deeper into the heartland. Dino Maniaci, 41, is a graphic designer who lives part time in lower Manhattan with his boyfriend and part time in Madison, Wis., where he runs a business; his family is still in Milwaukee, and on visits home after Sept. 11, he has sometimes felt like a veteran of a foreign war. "In New York we were strategizing about how to prepare: we need batteries, a flashlight, water. Then you go back and say, 'What are you guys doing to prepare?' and they say, 'What do you mean?' And it doesn't feel as important there. It does seem a little neurotic and fatalistic to have the same code of conduct there as I have here. Then I come back and there's anthrax, and it's all real again."