It’s weird how the mind works. How certain days, moments, songs, sights, etc. are for one reason or another stored in your personal memory bank while others pass through and are soon forgotten.
One of the first memorable events that I can remember was watching Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk for the first time on the Motown 25 anniversary special in 1983. I was six and a half years old, hopelessly in love with Michael Jackson, and I was up past my bedtime but my dad let me stay up to watch MJ perform. I remember sitting on the living room floor watching Michael sing Billie Jean and then magically gliding across the stage for the first time.
Three years later the Challenger space shuttle exploded and another random day was placed in my memory bank forever although I don’t remember nearly as much detail about that one for some reason. I remember being a freshman in high school and having to evacuate the school in the snow for hours without a coat because there was a bomb threat while across the world US troops were in the Gulf War, the first war of my childhood. I even remember where I was when OJ Simpson was in that white Bronco running from the police.
I can’t tell you what I did ten days ago, but I can tell you exactly what I did ten years ago to the date. Most people probably can if they were old enough to be aware of what was going on that day. I was twenty-five years old living in my first apartment. I had a full time job with the with the American Cancer Society and had planned to work the evening shift instead of my normal day shift because I had a job interview elsewhere that day. No one in my department knew I was looking for work, I was the Coordinator of the department and was in charge of two shifts of employees. I was making good money and it was essentially a good job but it wasn’t what I wanted to make a career out of. I’d been there four years and I felt like if I stayed there much longer instead of working in the field I’d studied in college that I’d be stuck.
I woke up on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 like I did most mornings with my television automatically turning on with the Today Show coming across the air to me. It was after 10:00 and I remember lying in bed trying to focus my eyes to figure out what was going on because it certainly wasn’t the normal Today Show broadcast. On my little television screen there was the North Tower standing there with smoke billowing out of it. I had never been to New York at that point and to be honest wasn’t very familiar with the World Trade Center. I wanted to go to NYC to see the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Broadway, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building that they talk about in the musical Annie. The World Trade Center simply wasn’t something that I knew anything about.
I laid there in bed listening to the Today Show watching the building burn and I wondered how many people had been hurt or killed. Then Matt Lauer said something about how the other tower had fallen and it was then that I recalled that there had been two towers but on my screen there was only one. I sat up in bed with one hand over my mouth and the other on my heart watching in horror. Soon a plane hit the Pentagon, United Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, and then right before the world’s eyes, the second tower of the Trade Center fell and our whole world changed.
The rest of the day consisted of sitting in my spare bedroom where my computer and yet another television was. I was online literally all day contacting people via e-mail and AOL Instant Messenger making sure that people were safe. I also spent a lot of time on the phone as well. My best friend’s cousin had been working a temp job in one of the towers the week before and no one knew if he was still on the job or if it had ended. I had friends with family members who worked in and around the towers and I sat online with them for hours waiting for any bit of news to come in. The phone service in New York was pretty much nonexistent as when the towers fell so did some of the city’s main phone antennae. My good friend and mentor Kathy who I led a children’s grief support group with was in New England and supposed to be flying home to Michigan that day. I had no idea what airport she was coming from or if perhaps she’d been on one of those doomed flights. Another friend who lived in Philadelphia was supposed to be going to Washington DC for a class that day and I had no idea where she would be on her route or if she’d left Philadelphia at all. All day long and into the night we waited for news from people… waited to hear if people were dead or alive.
At some point I called the place where I was supposed to be interviewing that afternoon and left a rambling message on their voice mail telling them that I wouldn’t be coming in. Then I remember how this city and the country just shut down that day. Every time I looked up at the television something else was closing, and I was just amazed at how fast it all happened. It might sound silly but when the news reported that Walt Disney World of all places had been closed I knew that things were really bad. I knew that planes had been crashed and thousands of people had died and all air traffic had been stopped over the country but Disney World never closes.
I don’t know how many hours straight I sat there online that day, but it’s all I did. I watched the news and talked to friends who needed to just talk about what was going on… maybe it was the social worker in me, but “being there” for people is what I do, and so I did it. I gave advice to parents on how to talk to their kids about what happened, and examples of appropriate language to use as well as what to expect from their kids as they experienced grief.
I was glued to NBC and CNN for days. My office was closed by mid afternoon on the 11th and stayed closed for a few days but even when it reopened I took time off and stayed home. I barely even left my apartment that week, I just watched the footage over and over again. For days I had NBC on both in my computer room and my bedroom so that I didn’t miss anything. Whether I was at the computer, in the hall, in the bathroom, or in the bedroom, it was there with me. I remember forcing myself at one point to finally take breaks from watching the news, I’d flip over to Disney for an hour or two at a time taking in something senseless for a bit before going back to reality.
I’m lucky in that I can say that everyone who I was waiting on news from that horrible day made it out alive. Some were close enough to have seen the horror up close, but they were all safe. I still find it hard to explain though how 9/11 changed me. Up until that time New York had always been somewhere that I not just wanted to visit but needed to visit. I had this obsession with needing to see the Statue of Liberty in person. After 9/11 my desire to go to New York just intensified.
I finally did make it there in late August 2002, just a few weeks before the first anniversary of the attacks. I went to Ground Zero where they were still cleaning up the site and took in the massive size of the site. Having never seen the Trade Center in person, I had no special recognition of the area, I’d only seen it on television. I knew it was big, but to be there standing behind a fence looking into that huge hole was just unbelievable. Now that ten years later the memorial is finally complete and open, I want so badly to be able to be able to go back and see it. To replace the big hole with something better, something at least peaceful.
I know people who can’t watch 9/11 specials or get angry when 9/11 is written into movies and books. I on the other hand am the complete opposite. For the past ten years I have had this need to know as much about that day as I can. Even looking back to the day it happened and the subsequent days that I spent watching the news… that was my way of trying to make sense of it. My main resiliency tool is education. If something doesn’t make sense to me I’ll research it until I do understand it. The problem with 9/11 though is that you really can’t understand it. Sure, I know that terrorists wanted to hurt our country and were very successful in doing so that day, but my head and my heart won’t let me truly understand that day. I can’t wrap my mind around so many people dying so quickly or someone having so much hatred in them that they’d purposely fly planes into buildings of innocent people. I can’t fathom enormous buildings falling in 12 seconds. No amount of research could help me understand that. Still, I have watched practically every special, documentary and movie that there is to watch. I’ve seen so many different accounts of the attacks that I’ve come to recognize people before their name pops up on the screen. I may have heard their story ten different times and yet I’ll sit and watch them tell it all over again.
I went for years without a day going by that I didn’t think about 9/11 in some way. I don’t think about it daily anymore and I hardly ever dream about it now, but it’s still a huge part of my life. It’s one of those days that will always be a part of my memory bank just like when Michael first moonwalked and OJ ran from the police. I know there will be other days that I’ll experience that will stick in my mind. Events big and small that I’ll never forget no matter what… I just hope that whatever those events are, none of them measure up to Tuesday, September 11, 2001.