It’s weird, the things memory can do. What it decides to hold on to and what it chooses to leave behind. How you can try to hold on so tightly to the memories you want to keep, only to find them fading like old Polaroids, while the ones you would rather forget are kept in HD. How your mind can hang on so tightly to things. How just the sight of a date on a phone screen can make it feel like you’ve just stepped in icy water.
I was in third grade on September 11, 2001. I remember (or think I remember) exactly what I was wearing. I remember how perfect that morning was, a big yellow sun and a clear blue sky. The kind of day that makes you think nothing bad could ever happen.
And I remember the sight of a television screen reflecting back that bright blue sky, but this time bleeding smoke. I remember planes flying into buildings. I remember shock. I remember seeing fear – real, true, crushing fear – on the faces of adults for the first time in my life. I remember photographs and video clips of people made into ghosts by ash, of women in skirts and high heels stained with blood, of people running. I remember my heart beating. I remember asking questions no one could answer. I remember asking why and how and who, and for the first time knowing that I’d never really know the answers.
There are moments in life we can point to. We can say “that was when everything changed.”
I’m only twenty-three years old. I only have a handful of those. But September 11, 2001, was the first. The end of some sort of innocence, the realization that there is great evil in the world, that safety isn’t promised, that there is fear beyond thunderstorms and nightmares.
It changed me then, and continued to change me as I learned things I couldn’t have known in third grade: video of firefighters walking through crowds going the opposite direction, the look in their eyes that said they knew they weren’t coming back. People falling from windows. Ash-covered crowds of people fleeing Manhattan in terrified masses. I went looking for the stories at one point, trying to piece together this memory, sharper and clearer than most, that I couldn’t understand. Trying to make sense of something that couldn’t be understood. That can’t be understood.
I can remember a time before 9/11. I can remember seeing loved ones off at the airport, right up at the gate. I can remember watching their airplanes taxi down runways. And I can remember the silence of the skies in the days that followed. I grew up just minutes from a major airport. Planes flew overhead so often that eventually they became just background noise, something you didn’t notice at all. But you could almost taste that silence.
I can remember visiting the Newseum in Washington, D.C. with my high-school class in junior year. I can remember sitting in a darkened room, watching news footage I could remember seeing for the first time. I remember looking around with tears in my eyes and seeing my classmates crying, too. I remember the hush of the elevator as we left the exhibit. I realized then what I know now. We remembered. We were so young when it happened. We grew up in Western New York, seven hours by car from Manhattan. Even those of us who didn’t lose anyone, didn’t know anyone who lived in New York, were changed by this. I knew that the way I was feeling – like a fist closing on my heart, like something heavy on my chest constricting my breath – wasn’t one I was alone in.
I remember being in middle school or high school and trying to understand why it was so painful to remember. I had no connection to the events in any real way. I had never been to New York City. I had never seen the towers in person. It felt like a sadness that wasn’t mine to have, a story I was carrying that wasn’t mine at all. Like something stolen. It took me years to realize that it’s not just New York’s story, not just the story of survivors or of those who lost loved ones. It changed the whole world, changed everything. It’s the story of anyone who remembers it. And it’s the story of those who don’t remember, who were too young or born after. The ones who have never known a world before.
I started writing this at about 11am, ET. By this time in 2001, both towers had fallen. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had just ordered the evacuation of Lower Manhattan.
Everything was different.
I can’t speak for a whole generation. Nothing gives me the right to do that. But I wonder what it means for us, a meaning that runs deeper than memories of far away smoke. This event marked us, somehow. Some more than others – the ones who lost family, who lost friends, who were there. Who saw it happen. Who were in the Pentagon’s day care center, or in school in Manhattan. But the rest of us, too. The ones in upstate or Western New York, the Midwest, Southern California, everywhere else, watching newscasts and eavesdropping on the hushed conversations of parents and teachers.
We grew up with a very real knowledge that horrible things can come out of the clear blue sky. That thousands can die because of the actions of a few. That you can wake up in one world and fall asleep in another.
That anything and everything can change in just one moment.
And that beautiful things, good things, can come out of ash and dust and rubble and terrible pain. That strangers will wrap arms around one another to help or to comfort, that even the horrible things that kill thousands don’t win, in the end. We remember not only the end but a beginning, too. Pillars of light screaming into the sky to proclaim that we will not forget, we will not be silenced, and – now – One World Trade Center.
The event is already being taught in history classes to students who don’t remember. It’s our responsibility to remember, because we’re the last generation that will. Someday we’ll be the only ones that remember. It is our story to tell. A story of a world that changed, of a nation falling to its knees in fear and pain and then – the very next day – getting to its feet again. A story of a world where other nations stopped, where other nations played the anthem of the United States, where the world for that one moment held together.
A story of fear and death and hope and life, of people who gave everything so that others could live.
We can’t forget that, any of it.
We can’t afford to.