The Day That Changed Us

11 Sep
It’s been ten years and I still don’t have the right words.  I think we seldom do have the words for the things that change us.I see people online talking today about where they were then, and I find it both touching and somehow almost inappropriate at the same time.  As if it’s too sacred, too personal a memory to just throw out for the world to see.  Yet, they’ve all seen it already haven’t they? Haven’t they lived through the same thing as me?  Maybe it just feels like someone else’s pain that day might cheapen mine.  Make it less meaningful. And mine might feel like a slap in the face to someone who lived through it close up.  Someone who lost people they knew and adored.It’s odd, because it sort of profoundly broke us all.  All of us that were there to remember it…. it broke our hearts, it united us in this shared moment in time.  We all experienced essentially the same thing. It’s our generation’s JFK.  I wonder what other shared tragedies lie in our collective future?So, even though I’m posting this here because in the end I felt I had something to say, however in-eloquently… I wrote this just for me, so I would always remember where I was and what it felt like on that day.

September 11, 2001

I am getting ready for work in the morning when the power goes out.  Not an uncommon occurrence for me.  Most days my hairdryer is more than the breaker can handle and I have to go flip the switch.  I  am living in The Polo Club apartments off of University then, with Jeni I think.  This time however, the switch doesn’t work, the power is off everywhere and I walk out on the patio and start talking to some of the neighbors, trying to figure out what is happening, if anyone has called it in. No one outside says anything about New York or DC.  I don’t think any of them know yet.  It is still quite early in the morning in Arizona.It is my mother who calls just then. From work.  (She must have called, because I’m certain she didn’t know how to send a text message 10 years ago.  That much has changed.)She says something about a plane hitting the pentagon. And the towers. And more attacks, DC and New York, but all she has is her radio at work.  To turn on the news. That is the news at this point.  I immediately feel the numbness of panic. This is bad.  I know nothing except the power is out and the pentagon had just been attacked and my mind makes crazy leaps.  Is the government still there?  Has the white house been hit? What about Phoenix?  I think certainly the whole country must be under attack.  You forget how big the whole country is at moments like that.  I can’t turn on the TV because the power is out, so I get in the car to listen to the news and without really planning to, start driving to my parents house.  I assume the power is out there too, it just feels like the safer place to be I suppose.The radio on the way there is the news of course.  By this time a plane has hit the 2nd tower and the first one has just gone down.  So I try to picture that in my mind.  But I can’t.  I just can’t.

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.

I try to imagine some of the things they are describing.  People jumping or falling from open windows before that 2nd tower goes down, but I can’t.  I’ve never seen the towers in person, so the scale of it doesn’t quite make sense.There are updates from the pentagon.  I finally hear from someone that my uncle wasn’t there when it happened. He is safe. And I let out that breath I didn’t know I was holding.No-one knows if this is over yet.  There are threats of an attack on The White House.  Another plane down in Pennsylvania.  The world is falling apart and I don’t know if it will ever stop.  If things will ever go back to “normal” again.

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.

2 Responses to “The Day That Changed Us”

  1. Carl V. September 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    It doesn’t seem like 10 years should have passed, on one hand, and it feels like forever ago on the other. I was living in a different house then. I remember leaving my home to go to work, listening to the radio and immediately turning around to go home to watch the tv. I left and heard that the first tower fell and turned around again and went home. I should have just called in that day as I was useless.

    It all felt so unreal and impossible and looking at the images and video today it still feels that way.

    I feel inadequate to honor the men and women who lost their lives heroically that day. I am glad though that we remember them and I think the best we can all do is try to live our best lives and be our best selves every day.

    • Bex September 11, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

      That’s so true. It felt like something impossible was happening.

      And I feel the same way. Inadequate is the precise word.

      Thanks for sharing Carl!

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