Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Making Sense of it All

[TW for 9/11]

You don’t even have to say the date anymore, I don’t think. You can introduce a story with the words “That mid-September morning” and people will automatically know what story you’re about to tell. The where you were, what you were doing, why you were there, how much you had seen or not seen, how much you had heard or not heard. I was in middle school. Seventh grade. Twelve years old. In social studies class. I hadn’t heard much of anything save for a really loud plane, and I remember watching it fly past the window of my early morning classroom and thinking, “Gee, that plane looks kinda low.” I try not to think about that part of the day. This is actually probably the first time I’ve ever even mentioned it. Everything had already happened by the time they had told us that something was even remotely wrong.

I had had a dream the night before that I was standing with a bunch of people around this giant Olympic-sized swimming pool and that ninjas came out of the sky and pushed us all in. I woke up just as I was hitting the water. I had no clue what that dream could have possibly meant. I still sometimes am not sure that it was a forewarning of what was to come, my main argument for this being “Why the hell ninjas?” But like I said, I was twelve. I didn’t know what Al Qaeda was, much less how to spell it. I guess ninjas was the only way for my brain to interpret the signals it was getting. Even without the dream, which I probably forgot about by the time I got to school, something just felt different. I never realized what it was until now, ten years after the fact: it was just so quiet. For no reason at all. While walking across the street to get to my school, the heaviness of that previously undetectable silence weighed on my pre-adolescent head like setting cement. I suppose the best way to compare it would be to say that it was like the calm before the storm, although the storm was, as of yet, nowhere in sight.

When our social studies teacher left the room to talk to the assistant principal, I was absolutely convinced that he was getting fired. The AP had never had a problem talking to our teachers in front of us before, so we knew it was something bad. When our teacher walked back in, he told us that he wasn’t supposed to tell us what was going on, but he gave us the news anyway. He said that we deserved to know the truth despite the fact that we were young, and while it was traumatizing as fuck, I appreciated the man’s honesty. My first thought was of my dad; I was pretty sure he was working in the World Trade Center that day, so I was beyond panicked. Turns out, he wasn’t there at all. He was, however, only a few blocks away at 1 Wall. He was supposed to send his apprentice out to get something but forgot to do so. That apprentice would have been walking between the towers just as it all started falling to hell. Lucky break for that guy.

Kids started getting pulled out of school in droves. My brother and I were some of the last people to leave. I was convinced that my mother was going to be the one who picked us up from school or that we were going to be stuck there overnight because nobody was going to be able to get us. My mother is a Physician’s Assistant and, like I thought she might be, was mandated to the hospital. Years later, when I grew older, she told me that the worst she had felt all day was when she was waiting at the hospital for the rush of injured and nobody showed up. She knew exactly why. My dad was actually the one to pick us up; he had walked all the way from downtown Manhattan, cleaning up police officers’ faces as he went by ripping off bits of his t-shirt and using them to wash their faces with the water he had in his water bottle, and hitched a ride on a bread truck while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot. I had never been so happy to see my dad in my life, and even though he was covered in that horrible gray dust, I immediately ran over and gave him a huge hug. A big puff of ash and dust bounced off of him as I did so. It wasn’t for another few years that I realized that it wasn’t just the Twin Towers covering him; it was the people who had been pulverized by the Towers, too.

My life is very different from what it was ten years ago, and yet in those ten years I never thought to sit down and try to make sense of it all. I never thought to sit down and write about what I was feeling and thinking about the whole thing. I spent ten years of my life living in a very different world, and yet I never thought to map it out for myself. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have been so lost for so long. Why didn’t I do this when it had happened 24 hours ago instead of ten years ago? Maybe it’s because when I was twelve years old, I didn’t know the right words. Maybe I figured if I didn’t write about it, I wouldn’t have to contend with the fact that I had been affected by it. Or maybe it’s because it took me ten years to really process what the hell was going on.

Looking back, I have to wonder what it is about this whole ordeal that has me so upset. Obviously I’m sad about the people who were lost in the tragedy, that’s a given. But I was lucky in that I only knew one person who was in lower Manhattan that day, and he was lucky enough to make it out alive. I felt that I really had no personal connections to the tragedy other than that and the fact that I happened to live here. I didn’t even live in Manhattan; I lived across the water. It almost seemed illogical for me to get so upset about something that I basically had no personal ties to in the first place. But just a few days ago, on the anniversary itself, I realized that the fact that I live here IS a personal tie. It’s not nearly as heartbreaking as losing a loved one, of course, but for twelve years, my entire life, I had lived in this city. I had breathed its air, drank its water, walked on its earth and felt the fire of its spirit. When I was a child, my parents used to wake me up early so that I could join them driving my dad into lower Manhattan for his job, and every single time, I would crane my neck and stare up the entire height of the Twin Towers. Every time I took the bus home from school, I made sure to look out the window and catch a glimpse of the Towers rising above the hills of Victory Boulevard. Every time I took the ferry, I marveled at this seemingly impenetrable, indestructible monument dedicated to us, the New Yorkers who gave this city life. This city is the blood that runs through my veins. So it’s no wonder that when the Towers lay broken and bleeding on the ground, I bled with them.

The Freedom Tower is being built swiftly, yet more proof of just how resilient we are as New Yorkers. For those of us who love New York and its previous skyline, watching a new building take the place of the Towers is very bittersweet. The empty, gaping hole in the skyline was heartbreaking, but seeing the replacement is almost worse. It’s a reminder that we’re slowly but surely healing, yes, but it’s also a reminder of what’s missing. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to look at that Tower without feeling a twinge of grief for what had to be destroyed in order for it to exist.

Perhaps someday.