Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why I'd love to forget 9/11, but I doubt I ever will

Okay so here's the thing: I know today is September 11. Believe me - I know. It's a date that's been staring back at me from the calendar ever since I tore off August two weeks ago. When my husband scheduled a football trip with this weekend, I quietly cringed and lamented that he'd be away and I'd be alone.

But I convinced myself that I would be fine. That I was fine. That I wasn't going to allow my memories from 15 years ago to drown me in grief and anxiety and panic. That I wasn't going to repeat 2008 and get bogged down in the fact that it's an election year and there is so SO much at stake. That I was going to have a nice night out on Saturday with a girlfriend I rarely get to see, enjoy a kid-free Sunday morning (thanks to my sister-in-law agreeing to a double sleepover with the kiddos) by sleeping in (well until 8am, at least) and then go to my weekly yoga class.

And then I made the mistake of going online and was immediately hit with a barrage of images: pictures of the Twin Towers pre-9/11, illuminated tributes of where the Towers previously stood from cities across the world, countless takes on crosses and American flags cobbled together into religious/patriotic imagery, and, undoubtedly, photographs of the Towers as plumes of fire and smoke poured into the sky. These images are always punctuated with the reminder to "Never Forget."

Almost immediately, I'm 20 years old again. Standing in Washington Square Park. Talking with the man how walked down from his office in the Empire State Building after watching the second plane fly past his window. Wondering if I was an idiot for standing in such a large crowd so soon after something so inexplicably horrible had happened. Listening to reports that came in from other bystanders about the attack on the Pentagon. And cursing my bad luck for cancelling my cell phone plan the previous day (not that it would have worked at that point) and worrying how I was going to get in touch with my mother who was understandably in a panic (particularly since my last communication with her was through Instant Messenger: "I'm going outside." Incidentally, she printed out the subsequent conversations we had and included them in a scrapbook she made of my NYU years. She used a binder clip to secure those pages so I wouldn't have to see them if I didn't want to. I've never looked at them.)

364 days of the year, September 11, 2001 is an enigma to me: simultaneously it feels like just yesterday, but also like ten lifetimes ago. There are times when all I want to do is talk about it and there are times where the mere mention brings me to tears. I have vivid memories of specific random details (the complete emptiness of Broadway until the people who worked on Wall Street appeared, walking and holding paper masks to their mouths and the inky chemical smell that lingered in the air for weeks), but I have no recollection of my emotions. It's like I'm remembering things that happened to someone else, but not even because I don't even feel empathy for that person. It's a sterile, clinical account of my movements and conversations - like I'm reading a police report. Just the facts, ma'am. I must have been terrified; of course, I was terrified. But I don't remember.

And then for 14 days out of the last 5,475, it's everywhere. Everywhere. Something about today - the anniversary - always hits me harder than other days. Maybe because this is the day that everyone else wants to talk about it - to remember - that makes it the one day that I want most to suppress my memories because they're too real. They're too raw and because I was practically still a child I didn't (and still don't) know how to process them. So this year I'm going to try something different. This year I'm going to talk - well, write - about my experience on September 11, 2001. Maybe it'll help. Maybe it won't but obviously what I've been doing the last 15 years isn't working so it's time for a new approach.

September 11, 2001:

It was a Tuesday. I'll never forget that because it meant that I wasn't on my way to class. On Tuesdays, my first class was at 2pm (Political Theory, Professor Manin) so I'd typically wake up around 8am, watch the Golden Girls on Lifetime while I ate breakfast and then go to the gym. That morning as I was mid-routine, my phone rang. It was my then-boyfriend Dan. He told me to put on the news. That he was walking to class and something had happened to the World Trade Center building. It was smoking. I quickly switched from Lifetime to NBC just as Dan started to panic. He shouted that a plane was flying overhead and he watched at it crashed into the second tower. I watched in horror simultaneously on the Today Show. He was understandably upset at that point so I told him I'd come meet him. That's when I sent the IM to my mom. Paraphrased, I said: "A plane just hit the World Trade Center. Dan said he saw fighter jets flying down 5th Avenue. I'm going outside."

(There was never any mention of fighter jets that morning in any subsequent news report or account that I ever read. I wasn't outside that morning and didn't see them myself but was merely reporting what Dan had told me.)

I rushed outside with no idea where Dan might be other than a general idea of which route he took to class. I found him standing near a big Hummer-style vehicle that was parked on 8th Street. The owner had the engine running so everyone nearby could listen to his radio. At some point we decided to go to Washington Square Park.

(This is an example of things I don't remember: I have no recollection of movement that day. Everything that took place is like a series of vignettes (now we're in the Park, now we're on Broadway): I could have floated there for all I know, but I simply don't recall.)

The Park was crowded, but surprisingly unchaotic. Everyone was standing, facing South, watching in disbelief. There were occasional conversations (the aforementioned man from the Empire State Building and folks with cell phones reporting on the Pentagon) and more than once we speculated if we should be out in the open like this. Then as we watched the Towers smoking, something looked different. "It looks like it's falling," I commented to a few people standing nearby. They shook their heads no but then seconds later, we all realized that, yes, in fact, the Tower was falling. I'll never forget what it looked like: the smoke was nearly completely white and for a split-second it held the shape of the building and then it just got shorter and shorter. It was gone.

At this point Dan lost it. Completely lost it. If you had asked me that morning which one of us would have been the strong one in an emergency situation, I would have said him, but, in fact, I was the one who had to pull him up off the ground. The first thing he said (which is something that hadn't even occurred to me) was, "Do you realize how many people we just watched die?" In the weeks that followed, he mentioned that same sentiment at one point, claiming he had just realized it. I told him that he had actually said that right away. He didn't remember.

Dan's dad worked at NYU. He had an office on Broadway and at that point I decided that the best thing to do was to find him there. I figured at the very least being with an adult was a good idea. Once we got to his office, we got news that the second Tower had fallen. We thought we were getting old news at first. "Yes," we told the woman, "We just watched it fall."

"No," she explained, "the other one fell too. They're both down."

Dan and his father spoke and decided that Dan would stay in the City for now. Not that he had much choice, all the bridges and tunnels were closed at that point. Because the phone lines were down and I needed to contact my parents, we left and headed to the Cantor Film Center on 8th Street, where our good friend Ryan worked. He had IM installed on his work computer and graciously allowed me to sign in and give my mother an update. Not that I had much information to provide, but at least I was able to report my safety and that I was with Dan and Ryan.

We ventured outside again. The streets were completely devoid of cars. We walked down the middle of an empty Broadway, wondering what to do next, and then we saw them. Hundreds of people, walking, in their suits and dress shoes, covered in dust and dirt and holding paper masks to their faces. We spotted a friend of Dan's who had an internship downtown. He questioned whether the paper mask was doing any good but since someone had been handing them out, he took one. He hadn't been in one of the buildings, but he hadn't been far away.

The sky was a hazy grey at that point and the air was thick and smelled pungent and strong. It burned if you breathed too much in. We speculated it was due to printer ink and toner that had been in the building combined with all the debris that was settling. Both the haze and the smell lasted weeks.

Ridiculously, NYU wanted to hold classes the following day, but Mayor Giuliani interceded and closed Lower Manhattan (14th Street and below) - this included NYU. Armed guards patrolled the crosswalks and in order to get downtown you had to present identification that you lived there. Dan went uptown a few times but I was too nervous to go. Planes patrolled overhead as well - we stood near Dan's dorm just below 14th Street and watched several go by. And then we sat in my dorm room that evening deciding what to do. Bridges and tunnels were reopening but Penn Station was evacuated, which didn't instill confidence for anyone thinking of leaving. Ryan's dad decided to drive from Pennsylvania to pick him up and offered to take me along. After discussing with my parents, we decided that I'd stay in New York. I honestly felt better staying put than I did about traveling anywhere.

A few evenings before September 11, Dan, Ryan, Phil (another friend) and I had ordered takeout and sat in my dorm room eating it. We discussed how our generation didn't have that one event - like when John F. Kennedy was assassinated - that everyone knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard. The Challenger explosion may have been mentioned but as children of the early 1980s we were a bit too young to have been impacted greatly and, while unspeakably tragic, it didn't offer the same level of life-shattering, world-changing impact that Kennedy's assassination did. What cruel irony that it was only days later that such an event occurred and we had to live through it firsthand.

A few years later, I met a man who told me that he ran towards the buildings that morning. He wasn't a fireman or trained in anyway to assist but he did know that water would be scarce so he brought down as many gallon jugs as he could carry. And then made several additional trips to bring more.

Now everyone has a story of that day. And every year when the anniversary rolls around, people mark it in different ways. After my yoga class this morning, I felt infinitely better: the difficult poses and breathing helped cleared my mind tremendously. Then as I drove out of the gym parking lot, I noticed the flag was at half-mast and I got choked up again. Tomorrow it wouldn't bother me, but today - today - it's just too much.  As I read stories to Big Boy O before quiet time, my voice became scratchy as I held back tears. He told me to clear my throat and asked if I was sad. He's only four so I told him no, but someday he'll know. Someday we'll have to tell him.

And I imagine him, 20 years old, in New York City. And I wonder how my mom resisted to urge to start walking from Virginia to New York to get to me. To find me and to protect me. And then she tells me how she carries so much emotion from the day with her. And how in her memories, she feels like she was there and when she sees images from the day in her mind's eye, they aren't framed by the television because she's seeing them how I saw them. And I suspect she feels that way because she's lessening my burden too: because if she was there then I wasn't alone and I didn't need to feel afraid because I was with my mom.

And then tomorrow I'll wake up and it'll all be back to normal. And if someone asks about it, I'll talk about it because I don't mind talking about it. But today I don't want to think about it. I don't want to talk about it. And I especially don't want to look at it. And luckily I'll have 364 days to prepare myself for next year.


  1. P.S. Two months later, in January, we took you to the airport to return to NYU after winter break. When you purchased a magazine for the flight you saw a book with the infamous photo staring you in the face at the checkout counter, you gasped and ran away. When I explained to the sales clerk that you had been in NYC on 9/11 she said, "Well, we all just have to get over it." I leaned across the counter and said, "Some of us will never get over it!" Fortunately, your flight got cancelled due to snow and we had time to regroup. Later I wrote to the Hudson News Company to complain about the placement of the book and they immediately pulled it to a back section of their news stands (which they had already been doing in their NJ and NY locations).