It has been fifteen years since the attacks of September 11th. For some it feels like a lifetime ago. For others, like it was just yesterday. And for some of us, it’s a mixture of both. No matter which category you fall into, it was a horrible tragedy. It was an awful day. It’s a day I will never forget.
The first reports on the news were of a “small plane” crashing into one of the Towers. I called my dad, who was safely at home in Brooklyn. I remember noting it was such a beautiful day, with clear blue skies. How could anyone not see the Twin Towers, even from a small aircraft? My dad, big conspiracy theorist, said, “We are under attack.” I rolled my eyes. I have since apologized for that.
My brother worked directly across the street at One Liberty Plaza. I managed to get him on the phone, and described to him what was being reported on television. The people in his office had no idea what was happening. I could hear panic and chaos of sorts in the background. He rushed me off the phone. He was heading to the designated meeting place on his floor to hear from whoever was in charge about what they were going to do. “I’ll call you back,” he said. That was the last time I spoke with him for several hours. He and a friend from the office got on the last ferry that left Manhattan for Staten Island. Life jackets were handed out as people boarded. There was no certainty that they would make it to the Staten Island side. I finally heard from my brother when he arrived back home, with no keys. He had to break into his own house. My story has a happy ending. Far too many others do not.
Each year on September 11th, I remember those frightening moments. I remember being afraid. I remember being afraid that my brother was dead. I remember tremendous acts of kindness amongst our fellow citizens. The gentleman that escaped on the ferry with my brother is a diabetic. He had no supplies with him. My brother took him to a local CVS where they gave him an interim supply without a charge. The pharmacist, refusing the money, said something like, “Be safe and God bless America.” I remember schools in our area “adopting” local firehouses and police precincts, sending them little notes and treats to thank them for protecting us, for being the ones to run into the buildings while “we” were the ones running out. I remember. I remember lots of insignificant things and lots of big details. But I remember.
Lily, age six, saw me crying this morning. She wanted to know why I was upset. Using very basic facts, I explained to her about the attacks of September 11th, that many people died. Her generation may acknowledge this day in history, but they will not remember feeling the pain and sadness that my generation does. This thought made me even sadder. When I asked my daughter, who attends school n Ivy League college, how September 11th was being remember where she was, she reported “nothing I know of is happening on campus today.” This made me angry.
My cousin, Lisa, teaches the second grade. She is able to incorporate the significance of this day in her second grade classroom. She gives her students a brief summary of what happened, obviously limiting graphic details. She then uses it as an opportunity to talk about heroes. Her students talk about who the heroes are in their city. They then write about who their hero is and why. This is perfect, in my eyes. There were many stories of heroic acts both before and after the Towers actually fell. These stories touched me, inspired me. This is the story of September 11th I prefer to remember. Bravo, Lisa, for helping second graders understand that.
Some day, and I fear that day is coming all too soon, September 11th will be that day on the calendar that people have a vague understanding of. It will be that day that’s kind of important because of some terrorist attack. Very few will remember that a plane also struck the Pentagon that day or that passengers on another plane taken over by terrorists lost their lives trying to take it back over Pennsylvania. I’ve barely mentioned that part of September 11th in this post. As someone who lived through it, albeit from the safety of being on Staten Island and watching on television, it is important to me that the next generation, and generations after that, understand what it felt like to be “there.” I want them to understand what it felt like to think that my brother was dead. I want them to understand what it felt like for the people of missing loved ones who worked at the Towers; what they felt not knowing if their loved one was alive or confirmed dead. I want them to understand what it felt like for someone to have a loved one whose remains have never been recovered. I want them to understand what it felt like to be the partner, parent, or child of a first responder, who knew their loved one was running towards that disaster while everyone else was running away.
I am hopeful that because of television, the internet, and social media, this day will retain at least some of its significance. I was so full of emotion about this particular aspect of September 11th today. That’s when I realized that I am one of those people who has an almost complete disregard for the commemoration of other tragic events that have already occurred: wars, mass shootings, other terror attacks. I was overcome with guilt. There are people in Aurora and Columbine, Colorado who feel the way I do about their movie theater and high school mass shootings dates. How could I have been disrespectful without even realizing it? I was not personally affected by those events. I wasn’t a parent who lost a child at Columbine High School or a loved one at the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight.” To those people, whose lives have been touched by these and other horrific tragedies, I apologize for not remembering you or acknowledging your pain on those significant dates. This feeling of guilt also made me realize that it is the responsibility of those who were affected by the tragedy to keep the significance alive. This is why I tell my story to my children every year. I hope that they will tell their children, when they ask why September 11th is important, my story about my brother. That is why I wrote this post. I will never forget.