Memory is a curious thing, serving different people in different ways. Some people have a great memory for numbers, others dates, and still others names. My memory is pretty esoteric. I can tell you the name of every episode of the television show The West Wing, the opening day starting lineup for nearly every Yankee team since the 1980s, and lists upon lists of ridiculous sports statistics. But my colleagues will also tell you that I have trouble remembering things they told me yesterday.
I also have vivid recollections of many of the major moments in my life. Bright, clear memories. But for most of these life memories, the recollections are images, snapshots of moments in time. It is almost like I have thousands of photographs, like a shoe box full of polaroids, stored in my brain. Images of places I have been, people I have met, things I have done.
My memory of September 11th, 2001 is entirely different. It exists not as a snapshot, or even a series of snapshots. No. For me, that day is like a full length movie, each memory a scene rather than a snapshot, one after another, like a constantly rolling horror film.
I remember literally everything about that day, starting at about 9:00am. I remember where I was every moment… how I first heard the news of what was happening… the tiny little television that my then colleagues and I were crowding around trying to understand what was going on… exactly when my boss sent everyone home… who I called from the car first, second, and third… what news station I was listening to on the drive home… which gas station I stopped at… the history students that my wife Emily had convened in our apartment to watch the news… and that I ended up watching the news coverage until near dawn. Other than a few key personal moments — like my wedding day, and the births of our two kids — I remember that day as clearly as any other in my life.
That day still haunts me. I think about it every year around this time, starting around September 1st. Every year, I find myself staying up late, watching some retrospective documentary on what happened. And I never sleep at all, barely a wink, on the night of September 11th. I just can’t settle my mind.
But this year, my struggle with this date has been deeper. The emotions have been bigger. Perhaps that is because of the milestone anniversary, and maybe a bit of a “wow that happened fast” reaction to the passage of time. I am really not sure. But the reactions have been so strong that I decided two weeks ago to write something here to mark this anniversary — which is not my normal writing behavior, by the way. I never plan my short-form writing. I read a lot, usually before bed, and then wake up the next morning with a blog post pouring out of me. My writing style, at least for this blog, is very reactive and often emotional, and is always based on an early morning thought that had been percolating over night. My typical blog post takes me about five minutes to write. (No exaggeration.) So for me to circle a day on the calendar, and decide on a topic two weeks out is completely unusual behavior.
And yet, every morning for the last two weeks, I have stared at a blank screen, completely unable to even determine where to begin. Several of my early morning writing sessions these last two weeks have ended with my forehead literally on my desk, cursor blinking on a totally blank screen in front of me. Nothing.
Finally, last night, I did what I always do when I am stuck… I talked it out with Emily. I explained to her how I was feeling, in great depth, and yet somehow totally devoid of details. And I kept coming back to an inability to know what to say. And that, Emily pointed out, was a completely valuable and poignant message. That even now, twenty years later, that day remains beyond words. Beyond comprehension. You can’t put something that is beyond context into any logical context. No writer can. Or at least I don’t think I can. Two weeks into this writing effort, and I have not figured it out yet.
What, exactly, haunts me? I am haunted by the prospect of ever having to make, or (far, far worse) having to receive, a phone call like the ones made by people at the top of those towers or on those planes. I am haunted by what I would have done, or not done. I am haunted by having someone I love beyond reach and beyond help, knowing that no matter how much I wanted to switch places with them and save them from the horror, I was not able to. I feel those emotions, viscerally, every year. Time heals all wounds, we like to tell each other. Well, it might heal the small ones. But the big ones never fully heal. This one hasn’t, at least for me. Twenty years later, and what we all witnessed that day remains an unhealed wound in my mind, a movie that won’t stop playing.
I wish I had a perspective that might be helpful to you, some great insight or thought that might be comforting. But I don’t. Because twenty years after the fact, I am still trying to understand my feelings about that day. The only thing I know for sure is that I will choose to keep things simple. I will continue to choose to ignore the ancillary conversations that often get attached to the September 11th narrative — the ones about politics, foreign policy, bigotry, or patriotism. When those conversations get attached to a 9/11 discussion, I exit, stage left. Instead, I choose to keep my focus on never forgetting the people who got up that morning, went to work or boarded a flight, and never made it home.
I really wish I had something more poignant to offer than that. But I really don’t.
Please consider supporting the memories of the victims of September 11th, 2001, by making a donation to the 9/11 museum in New York City. https://www.911memorial.org/
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