It would have been hard to write about anything other than September 11th today, though I’m not sure that actually writing about it is any less hard. I think about it every year on the day, as so many of us do. I actually think about it every time I happen look at my watch, on any day, at precisely 9:11. I think a lot of us who remember that day experience some version of this – we have something that instantly brings the day to mind, even if in the abstract. I don’t relive the specific sadness and fear of 9/11/01 when these little reminders come around (I know some do), it’s just that 9/11/01 is never not there.
I am amazed at the specificity with which I remember how things unfolded. I was in 10th-grade French class at my high school in downtown Boston. I must have been facing the door to the classroom, because I was still getting up from my chair when someone opened the door and I saw Bonnie, our nanny at the time, hovering outside waiting for me. “Something happened in the city,” she said, “and I’ve been trying to call your dad and he’s not picking up.” I didn’t immediately understand – either which city she meant or why she would be calling my dad – but when we went to the main office, the school director didn’t even ask, she just signed me out. Our next stop was to pick up her husband at his office, then to my younger brother’s school to get him. We turned the radio on in the car and that was the first time I started to hear actual details. That city. Thosetowers. I had not remembered that my dad was in New York City that day. My brain rushed in to protect him. I remember feeling certain that he wasn’t that close to the towers, and I imagined him doing what we were doing, listening to the news and staying safe. I needed those self-defense mechanisms in place, as fantastical as they turned out to be. Dad would later tell us (although if I allowed myself to think about it, I would have known) that he was right downtown in the financial district, blocks from the World Trade Center. He never went to New York for any reason other than meetings in the financial district. He saw the second tower get hit. He did actually make it home that day, but only because he managed to team up with some people who managed to find a rental car and get out of the city before the bridges got closed down. When I think about the day – really think about it beyond just the little knee-jerk reminder of the 9:11 on my watch – I think about all the people who went through what my dad did. There is something so specific about the numb shock of having survived a day like that day unscathed – having actually seen it in person – and then getting in a car and sitting in traffic for hours and hours with nothing to do but think about it. Of course, these people were the lucky ones, and of course they knew that as well as anyone.
When my dad finally got home late that night, we were all up waiting for him – Bonnie, her husband Devon, Henry and me. Half our house was under construction at the time, so we were sitting in the living room which was also a temporary kitchen. We had watched a lot of news, a lot of footage of the second tower getting hit, and we were still piecing together the Pentagon story and the United 93 story. We didn’t stay up long after Dad came in – there wasn’t much to say. I think he probably told us a short version of what he had lived through that day, and I think I asked if he thought this would be on the front page of the newspaper in the morning. What I remember most about that day was him saying, “this will be on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow, and it will be a year from now. And we will still be talking about it ten years from now.”
At 15, ten years to me sounded like an eternity, but here we are, 17 years later, and we can convincingly say that 9/11/01 changed everything. My dad has said before that living through that day was part of what convinced him to write an email to Ann, the woman who would become my stepmom the following year. Another family friend told us recently that it was after 9/11 that he and his wife had reversed their long-standing decision to remain childless. I’ve listened to The Moth’s dedicated 9/11 story hours, read the writings of those who lost loved ones, and I’ve reflected on all the rawness of humanity that the day brought to light. Some of it is beautiful to see – people’s resilience, their personal awakenings, their resolutions to hug their children tightly, the kindness they showed to those in need. But the macro-level reactions to that day have been troubling and destructive and deeply damaging. If it happens again tomorrow, though, what will keep me up at night is the fear of what we, the U.S.A., will do in response. Where will it have taken us in 17 years, and who will have suffered because of our fear? I cannot think of 9/11 without thinking of ICE, of the Muslim ban, and of fact that Donald Trump is our president now. The war in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan. The suspicion applied generously to Muslims in this country, every day. This year, I write with some amount of hope that we have a future in which security is not inextricably tied to fear-mongering.