September 11, 2001
It’s less than a three-minute drive to my mother’s house.
The power is on.
But the house is eerily empty.
Everyone is at work or school.
At some point I must call and say I’m not coming to work or they call and say not to come. I honestly don’t remember doing any of that. But I know I never make it to work that day.
Instead, I sit there alone at my mother’s house glued to that television all day long. I think the majority of the country does the same.
The first tower has gone down by the time I get to a television and the little footage they have to replay at this point is far off and scratchy. There is so much dust on the ground it is already hard for camera’s to get close, and so you just have the faraway shots. You have the shots from across the river of the skyline with one tower smoking and the other one gone, and you have reporters reporting what people are saying on their blogs, because that is the most reliable news source at the moment. You have people emerging from blackness covered in blood or thick gray soot, screaming or simply too stunned to speak.
And then in front of my eyes, almost in slow motion….the second tower goes down. I know there are still people inside that tower and I am bawling and even screaming at this point, clasping my hand around my mouth to keep the noises inside, but no-one is there to hear me. I realize I’ve probably been crying for a while now but I was too distraught to notice. The reporters, for once are at a loss for words. It goes like this throughout the day, but that moment, watching that second tower fall is etched so deeply into my consciousness that even now, ten years later – writing this, that image cuts at me. My fingers shake and I can hardly breathe.
People speculate about tall buildings being forever abandoned. They put alerts out for other targets. Nuclear power plants….. there’s one an hour or so away. Water treatment facilities…. there’s one literally yards from where I’m sitting.
The nation is successfully terrified that day. We go to sleep uneasy, uncertain, scarred.
But we wake up and most of us live.
A few years later I move to New York City. Ground zero remains a huge hole ripped out of the heart of downtown. I still can’t imagine the towers there. I still can’t get that scale right in my mind. I walk by it a hundred times. Each time it is impossible to do without thinking about that day. And I wonder now how many millions of people have walked that same walk.
On the 3rd anniversary of the attacks, I am there. It is beautiful. Not just the names and the stories of the individuals and their families, but the spirit of those of us watching, just a fraction of those who will never forget. There is a palpable solemness all over the city that day. People smile more, but there is a sadness behind their eyes. I wonder how many of them saw this first hand. Trying to get home that day, I am stopped for nearly an hour as a procession of motorcycles ride down the street. Thousands and thousands of them. They are fireman and policeman from all over the country who have come to honor their fallen brethren. Big tough men, in black leather who remind me of my Dad. They wear flags around their biceps or foreheads and solemn looks across their faces. They ride together, but they don’t speak. Each of them caught up in their own profound experience. Just like we all felt on that day.
Yesterday, a man on the radio said that 9/11 hadn’t actually changed anything in the US. It hadn’t really changed the way we live our lives. Yes, it takes a little longer at the airport, he relented and to get into some buildings, but it hadn’t really changed anything about the experience of being American.
If that’s true, its only because we didn’t let it. And if we didn’t let it, it’s only because the experience taught us all, individually that we were not willing to live in fear. We would not relive that day, every day for the rest of our lives. It made us each stronger, more vigilant, more connected, more determined, more brave. In short, it changed everything.
At least, I know it did for me. 9/11 forced me to grow up in many ways. It marked the beginning of me standing up for my own opinions. It changed the way I felt about my fears. It made me determined to obliterate them… a life-long process. It ultimately made me more aware of the world in general, and feel a need to understand differing points of view. It taught me that people still believed in sacrifice and compassion and doing the right thing. It helped me to move to New York, despite my fears… and to trust in the spark of goodness in the people around me.
There are still no words for the lives that were lost that day. Tragically. Heroically. Pointlessly. And I know nothing I say can ever come close to honoring that fact. But I can remember that their loss changed me. That I am a better person than I was before that day. And take comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one.