When strangers ask Theresa Mullan about her son Michael, she hands them the programs from his memorial services.
They show a 34-year-old New York firefighter with smiling Irish eyes, a square jaw and a passion for life. They also explain how Michael escaped from the World Trade Center's crumbling Marriott Hotel last Sept. 11 but went back to guide fellow firefighters to safety. His body was found three weeks later.
Theresa Mullan needs no reminders her son is dead. Today's anniversary of the terrorist attacks will simply, and finally, confirm her loss, she said.
"You know it wasn't just a nightmare. You're not going to wake up and find it didn't happen," Mullan said, her voice teetering. "You know Michael's not going to bounce through the door with a big laugh and a joke to tell you. For me, that's where the sadness comes in."
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Mullan and her family are among the many New Yorkers who will greet today's anniversary with a mixture of anguish, exhaustion and apprehension.
When the day's last memorial service is over, when the newspapers and TV shows cease the crush of coverage, when the fear of a repeat attack subsides, many will be profoundly relieved.
"A lot of us, and I'm certainly not shy about saying I'm one of them, are going to be so glad when it's behind us," said Phyllis Halliday, who moved to New York after graduating from the University of Puget Sound Law School in 1981.
Halliday said she was impressed how quickly New York's metropolitan rhythms returned after the attacks. That back-to-normal pace has been disrupted as the world again turns its attention to Lower Manhattan and the city pauses to remember the roughly 2,800 people who died when the twin towers collapsed.
Halliday said she will be happy when New York once again looks forward instead of back.
"I was so proud of New Yorkers. It was like, 'Back to business.' We gotta do what we gotta do, and they can't stop us," Halliday said. "The one-year anniversary allows us now to kind of get on with it and stop dwelling on it. I will be so glad when it's over."
Rockefeller Center electrician Bill Abbate also will be happy when the anniversary is over. Abbate, who watched the events of Sept. 11 unfold from the 70th floor of Manhattan's General Electric Building, said he feels both empathy and anger when he remembers the attacks.
"There's the good part of you, but there's also the part of you that wants revenge," Abbate said. "And I don't like that feeling - wanting revenge."
New Yorkers also seem to be growing tired of commemorative coverage of an event that most need no help remembering. For many, the recent barrage of stories and TV specials reopened emotional wounds.
"If you were here and you lived through it and you saw those towers every day, you'll never forget," said B.B. Reis, who lives and works in downtown Manhattan. "It took a long time not to cry every day."
Longtime Upper East Side resident Jim Watkins, a regular among the chess players in Central Park, compares today's focus on Sept. 11 to the time in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and his funeral was held in Washington.
"You were glad when the pageantry was finished," Watkins said.
Watkins will not be among the thousands who gather today near the World Trade Center site. Like the majority of New Yorkers, he has never visited ground zero, just a 10-minute subway ride from his home.
"I wouldn't go if the mayor offered to drive me down there in a chauffeured limousine with a bar in the back," Watkins said. "It's just something I don't want to see - the devastation, the deaths it represents, the ugliness of it.
"I can't do anybody any good. I would just be harming myself."
Others are likewise content to avoid the Financial District today. They plan to leave the commemorations to the victims' families and the tourists who have arrived to mark the day.
"Most people I talk to aren't going to do anything special," said Art Levy, a corporate attorney who works in Midtown Manhattan. "After work, I'm going to go to the pub I went to that day - or that morning - and have a pint there and try to avoid all the coverage."
Levy hopes he won't have to face reminders of the attacks every Sept. 11.
"I never want to see a Sept. 11 sale," he said.
Not all agree. Ashkhen Gevorkian, a Rolex employee, said she would like to see Sept. 11 become a day of remembrance similar to Genocide Day in her native Armenia. The April 24 holiday marks a slaughter that occurred in 1915.
Gevorkian and many of her fellow New Yorkers fear terrorists may strike again.
"It's getting difficult. And we're getting scared," she said. "You never know. Something may happen. You never know what they planned."
Federal officials also feel something may be up. Monday, the FBI warned New Yorkers that a fresh stream of threats had mentioned attacks on transportation networks, power plants and banks.
Manhattan office worker Gigi Abesamis said she plans to avoid places terrorists might consider targets.
"I don't want to be near anyplace crowded, like Penn Station," Abesamis said. "You never know. Maybe they're planning something else."
Naya Tabia, who lives in Manhattan but faces a one-hour subway commute to her job in Brooklyn, plans to stay home today. Tabia said she doesn't want to ride on the vulnerable subway that long.
"Not that I try to give in to that attitude that anything can happen," she said. "But I wouldn't push it, either."
Many New Yorkers say they have been on edge all year.
"Before Sept. 11, you could be walking around on fire in New York, and no one would notice," said Grace Bafna, an advertising saleswoman for the Bravo television network. "Now, people whip out cell phones and call whenever they see helicopters hovering overhead, which happens all the time."
Yet, the fear of a repeat attack clearly seemed to be reaching a crescendo as the anniversary approached. Calls to the Project Liberty's free assistance line, sponsored by the Mental Health Association of New York, rose dramatically, said spokesman Norman Katz.
"Any anniversary, especially the first anniversary of a traumatic event, is going to have a trigger effect," Katz said. Most callers complain of sleeplessness, irritability, anxiety and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress, he said.
Some hope those who lost friends and relatives Sept. 11 will find strength after the anniversary of the attack is over. Among them is Mary Strickland, a resident of Westfield, N.J.
"It means you've gotten past that first birthday, that first Christmas, your first anniversary," Strickland said during a recent trip to the World Trade Center site. "You've gone through everything once, and so you know you can survive everything."
Some might call it closure. But don't use that term around Theresa Mullan.
"Every time I hear the word 'closure' I cringe," Mullan said. "There will never be closure in this. If you asked someone from the Holocaust if they ever got closure, they would just look at you, shocked.
"There's no such thing. It's just too monumental."
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