Never Forget

Last year I posted a short piece on 9/11, buried near the bottom after several other topics. I was hiding it down there on purpose—the emotions are still raw after all these years, despite how little my life was affected compared to many others. But I’m going to re-post, this time with feelings front and center, and with an introduction and afterword.

I moved from NY to SF 6 years ago, and occasionally in those 6 years a conversation will turn to the topic of 911. These are not turns of conversation I participate in; these are conversations that I silently endure with the feeling of “these people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and I’m going to wait for them to shut up about it”.

I wrote the following as a response to the classic question I’ve heard and overheard many conversations about: “where were you when you heard?” Asked so innocently and discussed so innocently by people far from events, sometimes in conversations including people too young to remember at all. In a way, 911 was a moment that changed everything for the United States. But for many of us, it was not a moment. We didn’t just hear about it. We felt it, and we felt it slowly, and painfully, throughout an extraordinarily long day, and the days after, and we still feel it now.

I still feel it now. But I tend to shut up about it, and not just because I don’t like talking about my feelings. I know that, just as I instinctively feel alienated by west coasters’ real and honest feelings about seeing it on the news, there’s those closer to events who don’t want to hear about it from me. Who am I to have an opinion, hearing about it and smelling it and seeing the smoke from my comfy position on Long Island, having only ever visited the towers as a tourist, not personally knowing anyone who didn’t make it out? I know people closer to events, and they don’t want to talk about it any more than I do.

But I want to talk about it just a little, because these things change us, and through us, they change policy and government and the world.

The bulk of my family lives in North Carolina, and so while I was in the state, last night we had dinner together. Given the date, we got to remembering 9/11. Where we were when we heard, what our day was like, and of course, the family stories, which are not mine to tell.

As I was telling my own recollections of the day, which I haven’t thought about in many years, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in technology and communication between then and now. I was in school, and this was back when kids generally didn’t have cell phones, much less smart phones, much less laptops. Most classrooms didn’t have a computer, much less an internet-equipped computer. There was a loudspeaker announcement that told us about the plane crashing into the tower, and that announcement didn’t tell us why or how big the plane was or how bad the crash was and we were left to speculate, with no other way of gathering information, while the teachers were hearing the same thing we were, expected to go about the day as usual.

Oh, I should mention: this is in New York. I grew up in New York, and almost all my family lived there at the time. We have family and family friends who were in and around those towers. But by the sound of the initial announcement, it wasn’t serious, it was probably a small plane that accidentally crashed because of an instrument failure or something. So if I were to tell you where I was when I heard the news, well, I heard the news for the first time slowly, in many places, across the day, with increasing horror. I heard the news without twitter (which didn’t exist) or YouTube (which didn’t exist), I heard it without an iphone (which didn’t exist) or facebook (which didn’t exist). I heard it in bits and rumors, it was forbidden knowledge, the teachers weren’t supposed to be telling us any news, and generally the administration was trying to get the school through the day.

But our 2nd period teacher turned on the radio (a radio, an honest-to-goodness radio!) and we sat listening quietly all period. I was listening when the first tower went down, and when the second tower went down, and those of us who cried did our best to cry quietly, and then the bell rang and we went to the next classroom and tried to pretend everything was ok so that our rule-breaking teacher wouldn’t get in trouble for not keeping us in the dark.

As the day went on, in rumors and speculations not unlike twitter today, we tried to sort out what was real. The pentagon was attacked? Really? Surely that’s something a younger student made up?

It was a long school day. It ended. I went out to the pay phone and called home and finally learned that everyone was, whether by accident or skill, alive. And then at home we sat by the tv and watched the news, the same footage over and over and over and over

I learned not to obsess like that over horrific news footage ever again.

Today I’m coming home from visiting my family. I wrote this on my flight back to the west coast, and we’ll be descending back into SFO soon. In the last airport, eating a sandwich before my connecting flight, I looked up and was shocked by the sight of the footage on the tv, the smoke billowing from the tower, the clear blue sky in the background. It hit me with a visceral force.

I remember smelling that smoke for a long time after. Our perfect blue skies never quite returned.

I left a lot out of that story, but I’ll add just a couple things:

On September 11th 2001, after school on my way to the pay phone, I overheard a younger student telling his friend: “I don’t get why everyone’s making such a big deal out of this. It happened all the way in the city.”

I continued on towards the pay phone, silently judging him for not thinking about the fact that we were within commuting distance, that many of us had friends and family in those towers, that some of us were heading to the pay phone so we could find out if they were still alive, and that some of us might find out they weren’t. He didn’t know one of his classmates lost a parent.

At the time I felt superior to that student because I was taking it very seriously, but I was almost as ignorant. I was thinking about immediate loss of life, and while I did not myself feel any fear, I couldn’t miss the fact that there was an organized group of people who would see me and everyone I love dead whether we live in the city or not, and it was only the inconvenience of committing mass murder in the suburbs that made us not a likely target. But I wasn’t thinking at all about the political impact. I wasn’t thinking about war. I wouldn’t have predicted that people across the country would also think New York City wasn’t all that far away, or that I’d be crying in the bathroom of an airport 15 years later.

I also couldn’t have prepared for what I would see on the news later that day when I got home, what I would watch over and over and over until I was unable to watch it ever again.

I did cry in the airport bathroom last year. After I looked up from my sandwich and saw that footage on the tv, I hid in the bathroom and cried. I held in tears as I packed up my sandwich and grabbed my bags, aware of the irony that I had to work to hold in tears for extra long because of the bags that before 9/11 I could have just left at my spot at the sandwich counter. I felt betrayed by whoever had the bright idea of playing that footage on the news, on tv, in a sandwich shop, in an airport, on 9/11. Why do they think anyone would want to see that? Did they not think anyone from New York would be here?

A year ago I would have never written that, never “admitted” that I cried in an airport bathroom stall because a picture hurt me. But it punched me right in a place I don’t know how to name, and sometimes when we don’t know how to name something we pretend it’s not real or that it doesn’t matter.

I’d avoided those images for years because they hurt, and when I saw it again it brought me right back, and I was already tired and stressed from weeks of travel, and I was going to cry, and I wasn’t going to do it in public where a well-meaning stranger would ask if I was ok, and then I would say that I’m from New York and seeing the footage upsets me, and they would be perfectly understanding, and then they would try to be nice to me, and it’d be a whole big deal or whatever, and of course it’s not a big deal, not for me really, just as so many other things are not big deals and so we don’t talk about them because then other people might act like it’s a big deal and then want to know why we’re making such a big deal out of something that’s not a big deal, as if we big dealed it by letting the fact of its existence escape from the realm of unacknowledged truths.

And I wouldn’t have written it on the internet a year ago, because I’m not interested in random stranger’s sympathy, or trolling, or armchair diagnoses. But, y’know. I’m trying to get better at practicing what I preach when it comes to feelings being ok to talk about, and that just ’cause you talk about something doesn’t mean you’re trying to make it a big deal, and if someone makes a big deal of it that’s on them, and that the reason we mark the day is so that we can safely small-deal them within appropriate parameters, and tomorrow no one will care how I feel about 9/11.

I said I wasn’t going to tell stories that are not mine to tell. I’d like, at least, to end this by saying my friends and family came out unscathed, but it’s not really true. Survivor’s guilt is a hell of a thing. Just as the dust works its way deep into lung tissue and slowly grows into a cancer that claims victims years later, the emotional damage is a wound that bleeds and bleeds, that left untreated can grow, become infected, can twist into other forms, can claim victims years later.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 did a far better job injuring us than anyone could have predicted. We talk about fear and anger and sadness, but none of those feel like the right words to me. To me it feels like an injury, mostly healed, and if I walk on it just the wrong way maybe I feel the pain for a moment, maybe suddenly and strongly enough to make me cry for a minute or two, not out of sadness or anger or fear but just because it hurts. I’d only describe it as an emotion because I can’t point to a place in my body where the injury is.

I don’t agree with everything the US government has done following the attacks, but I suppose I’m writing this partly to address a certain cynicism I sometimes see in response to 9/11 remembrances, and even to the phrase “never forget”, as if it were all about pushing political agendas and acting “patriotically correct”.

When I say “never forget”, this is not a statement of will, not a command or a purpose or a political vote. When I hear “never forget”, when I hear it from politicians or see it posted by random strangers, I don’t hear a statement of purpose, egging us on to seek revenge for the secret benefit of greedy motivations. To me, it’s an expression of this thing inside me that has no better name. I will never forget. I couldn’t if I wanted to. And I find it comforting that we have at least some expression of this particular wound that so many share.

Never forget.

I wish we had better words, better actions. I wish I were more comfortable talking about my feelings. I wish I was one of the students who cried in front of the whole class when we heard the live radio coverage, when we heard the first tower go down, and then, unbelievably, unthinkably, the 2nd. I wish I was properly grim when I heard President Obama announce they killed the fucker who did this to us. I was happy. I cheered. I’m glad he’s dead, no matter how little it solves, no matter what my brain thinks about the whole thing.

Never forget.

I understand that many experience today’s 9/11 remembrances as a politicized thing that reminds them only of the worst of what became politically possible in this country following those events. That makes a good deal of sense, and I’m angry about those things too. But cynicism is easy and impresses no one. The fastest way to make a fool of yourself is by mocking someone else’s words because you don’t understand them.

Never forget, never forget, never forget.