I was twenty-six years old on September 11, 2001, living about fifteen minutes from Manhattan. I went for a run that perfect morning through crisp air and sunshine. After my run, I flipped on CNN. The first plane had hit. I thought it was a small plane, a Cessna. I didn’t yet understand. My ex-wife was a month away from having our first child, and I called her in from the kitchen to take a look. The other plane hit. The world changed. A perfect September morning etched itself into the collective memory.
An hour later, I drove to work, listening to Howard Stern, who somehow managed to continue broadcasting from downtown NYC. The first tower collapsed while I was driving. I didn’t believe it, because, you know, Howard Stern, who, though my opinion of him would soon change for the better, at the time wasn’t exactly a pillar of journalistic integrity. What I remember most about that drive was staring at the faces of other drivers. We were all zombies. Eyes straight ahead, minds overwhelmed.
My coworkers knew friends and family at the WTC. Our phones didn’t work. Communication was impossible. They were justifiably worried. When we couldn’t stare at the television any longer, we went to the building’s rooftop to see smoke drifting across the bay.
For me, the most intimate tragedy came two weeks later when we returned to our pregnancy/Lamaze class. Several families failed to appear. We knew at least two of them worked at the WTC, and their chairs remained empty, their voices silent.
Some things you never forget. You may not remember your exact thoughts, but you certainly remember those feelings and emotions and that disbelieving tingle that says, “What the fuck is happening?”
We must not forget that tingle. Nor should we think it is unique to us.
That September morning was our own national tragedy, but others suffer in similar ways every day. National pride is a powerful force, but it mustn’t blind us to realities beyond our borders where the suffering is no less severe. In too many places, for too many people, the suffering is far more real and immediate than our “watched-from-a-distance” reaction to 9/11. They run from terror, from genocide, from extremism. They are oppressed, intimidated, driven from their homes by violence or starvation. They run to survive, and they fight to protect what they love most. When you see refugees fleeing their own horrors, do not look upon them with scorn. Remember the way we cried that awful September day, the way we trembled. The fear. The fury. The hatred. Use it to find sympathy. Empathy.
I remember conversations from the years preceding that September morning about how our generation had no “Where were you when…” moment. For my parents, it was, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” We thought ours was the day the Challenger exploded. Then it became the day Diana died and the world mourned. Now we know it was 9/11.
My oldest daughter was born a month later, just outside Manhattan. Every October, as she turns another year older, I remember that Lamaze class and the families who didn’t return. I wonder if they survived. I wonder if their babies are getting older. And I’m thankful for my healthy girl and all the memories we’ve shared. She’ll get her driver’s license in a year or two, then be off to college. Every milestone carries with it the shadow of those families who sat in the same classroom as us, practicing their breathing, nervous, excited, and eager for a future they would never know.
When we strive to ensure our children never have their own “where were you when…” moment, we must remember to look beyond our own children, beyond our own experiences, beyond our own borders, to include everyone. Make your wish for every child in every country, for every human on planet earth. Our borders are imaginary lines drawn by warring factions. They divide us on paper and in our minds, but we’re all human. Twins living on opposite sides of an imaginary line are still twins. Emotions pay no heed to borders.
Remember your emotions that September day, and strive to ensure no human being must ever again suffer that confusion, anger, and fear. I have no delusions that any of us will be so lucky, but I see no reason to exclude anyone from hope.
I found the image used for this post on Google, but I couldn’t find a source. If anyone has attribution details, let me know and I’ll include them here. It’s certainly not my photo, and someone deserves credit.