Sunday, September 11, 2011

Re-run: Do You Remember?

This is a post I wrote two years ago, as I noticed fewer and fewer people were making a conscious effort to mark the events of 9/11.  Of course, on the tenth anniversary, the media are trying to make us feel like we're there again.  But in some, unconscious way, many of us carry it with us every day.

I did not lose anyone on that dark day.  But I came too close to ever forget the feelings of fear.  And having family ties to the city, having visited the towers and Manhattan many times, the extent of the physical and emotional damage for all who were involved that day is beyond comprehension.

All I can say from the heart is what I wrote two years ago.  Please remember...for those who are not here.

I remember clearly that it was a Tuesday. I was living in Mobile, Alabama at the time. It was my turn for night on duty at the school, so I had the morning off. I slept fairly late, got dressed without tv or radio on, and was headed to the gym in my car before I heard the news story. I thought it was a spoof; like an April Fool's joke. Ha ha. It sounded way too "out there" to be real.

Planes, crashing into a building in New York City? Please; the likelihood of that level of mechanical and human failure happening in the middle of one of the largest metropolises in the world? Not hardly.

I didn't think about the failure of human minds and hearts.

At the gym, I was on the elliptical machine watching the news on tv when I saw that it was real. That something was gravely, horribly wrong. I don't remember when the word "terrorist" first rolled across the screen (do you remember when we still thought it was just an accident?). My first concern was for my uncle Paul, who had worked for NY Bell and was part of the repair crew on the Towers in 1993.

But he was long retired; surely he wouldn't be down there.

And then a moment of sheer terror: I had completely forgotten that my brother worked there, somewhere in lower Manhattan, not in the Towers, but I didn't know where. As the story spread, the towers collapsed; ash and dust coated the entire area and I finally panicked. I grabbed my water bottle and towel and ran to the car.

How odd; nobody around me seemed moved or concerned. They had no connection to this news story unfolding up there in "the corner." But my dad's family is from New York; we had all visited the Towers one summer when I was ten or twelve. I had been there; I knew what it was like, the sheer enormity of the place.

And my brother was there now.

As I drove home, I called his house in New Jersey. Busy.

I called his cell phone. All circuits busy.

(Do you remember how the phone lines on the entire east coast were tied up that day?)

Tried his home again. Still busy.

Tried my parents' down in Georgia. Busy.

Finally, I noticed the voice message icon on my cell phone. It was from my father; they had heard from my sister-in-law that my brother was ok. He was trapped in Manhattan (remember how they shut down all car traffic to and from the island?), but he was safe.

I called my father and finally got through. My brother had watched the whole thing from his office in the Traveler's building, two blocks from the World Trade Center. He was on the phone with my dad, watching the first tower burn, assuring him that they had been told to stay where they were, everything was fine.

Then the second plane hit.

My brother said, "I've got to go," and hung up the phone. That was the last my dad heard from him for the rest of the day. I never did talk to my sister-in-law that day, but I knew there were vastly more important calls that needed to get through.

My brother was the recipient of some of the amazing generosity that bloomed that day. He walked tens of blocks north, and was given shelter by a friend's sister, or something like that. Her landline was the only way he was able to call his wife that day. I don't remember how he got home, or when. That day, it was enough to know that he was alive. (Do you remember the confusion; the "Missing" fliers plastered on every vertical surface?)

He worked for Citigroup at the time, in their International Treasury division. He spent the next weeks at an emergency backup site in New Jersey, working 12- and 14-hour days to ensure that his small part of our financial system remained functional. (It didn't sound all that impressive back then, but after 2008's financial meltdown, I'm a bit more respectful.)

When I finally got to talk to him about it, weeks later, he wouldn't. He wanted to put it behind him and move forward. He had lost colleagues and neighbors. He had watched people leap to their deaths rather than face hell on Earth. That detail was the only thing he would say about it, and he said it angrily: "You don't understand what it's like."

No, he's right. I don't.

Less than six months later, in February 2002, I flew up to visit. (Do you remember how brave you had to be to get on an airplane again?) My brother took me into Manhattan, and we visited his office. Two blocks down the street, there was the raw wound, the huge square of nothingness. "If they had missed the Towers, our building would have been the next one they hit."

So every September 11th I fly the flag for many reasons, but mostly to commemorate the innocents who lost their lives that day. The ones who were in the wrong building. Who weren't lucky enough to flee, covered in ash, panicked and cut off from their loved ones, but alive. Who ran in the other direction, into danger.

I fly it in the hope that it will keep the memory alive another year. To remind myself of the inconceivable tragedy that still should haunt us. To remind myself to be grateful that I still have a brother, no matter how little we may agree sometimes.

My nephew Ethan was born in 2002.
My niece Keira was born in 2006.
My sister-in-law is not a widow.

I know that by the time Ethan's and Keira's children are in school, this will be just another date in history. A bunch of people died. They'll learn the definitions of "isolationism," "nationalism" and the names Bush, Hussein, Al-Qaida, Desert Storm. And it will mean as much to them as Pearl Harbor meant to me growing up.

That's the nature of history; as it retreats further into our collective past, it gathers dust, a soft coating that makes it difficult to see clearly. It's inevitable. Over the years, plenty of other, more immediate crises will push our country this way and that. Yet, for the time being, I'm doing my part to keep the memory alive and distinct.

I don't know anyone who actually died that day. But my flag, this post, and my tears are for their memory, and for the ones they left behind.

A whole family, June 2011


  1. It cannot be forgotten...not by me. I felt the connection, and feel it still. My brother, already enlisted, was called to an even greater level of service and duty. Our world changed, our lives changed... nothing is the same. I cling to the hope that we are stronger, that we can distill any good from the anguish and destruction.

  2. That day is still raw for many. Peace to you and your family!

  3. Honestly, I can't read posts and tributes like these without getting teared up. I elected not to read and hope I didn't miss anything I didn't already know.

  4. Garret, yeah, I feel a little selfish expecting people to read this when I avoided most of the coverage myself.

  5. What a beautiful family, and a beautiful post.

    Family and community and love - that's what everything boils down to. Why is that so hard to remember, ad why do we, as a world, keep screwing that up?


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