Friday, September 11, 2009

september 11th.

I tell this story every year, and every year it changes. I remember some things, forget others, or feel more strongly about certain parts. But every year I put it out there so that it’s there and not completely forgotten. I put it out there because it’s a part of me, a battered-but-strengthened part of me that I am glad to have, but certainly not under the circumstances that caused it to come about.

Although I posted this story last year, I felt compelled to share it again. I know some of you have already read it, but I would like to repost it because I feel like I've gained a bit more readership since last year and it's an important part of who I am. I've also edited it since last year after hearing my mother recollect the story and realizing some of my facts were wrong.

It's true what everyone says about our generation - we experienced this tragedy during the most crucial part of our development. We were forced to grow up, and fast. Although I attribute a lot of my growth to having to adapt to a new school with new friends, I'm positive that this had a large effect on how I grew.

Now it's been eight years. I've graduated both high school and college since then. It feels so distant when I remember the events of my day, and yet when I watch the documentaries and broadcasts of the news, it feels so close. Too close, almost.


September eleventh, two thousand and one.

I was fourteen. I'm just realizing how young I really was then. I had just started high school, a new school for me - private, all girls. I knew all of two people. It was the second day of school, the first real day of classes.

The sky was so blue, a perfect day. The blue sky always bothers me because it's taunting; even when the dark cloud rolls over the city, the backdrop is the crisp and bright blue sky.

The vice principal came over the loudspeaker. "If your parents work in New York City, please report to the drama studio." The second day in a new school - I barely knew where the drama studio was. About five girls got up from my Algebra I class. One I had talked to once or twice so far; some other girls I just knew by name. We made our way there, to the drama studio which was never actually used for any drama classes, only for small assemblies.

They told us there had been a terrible accident as they handed out note cards and asked for our information. A terrible accident... did the subway crash? Maybe a really big tanker truck. "A plane hit one of the two World Trade Center towers." My heart stopped.

Driving into Bayonne to visit grandparents, cousins. Every year. "Hey dad, which building do you work in again?" I say, pointing at the Twin Towers. "The one with the antenna on it," he replies.

Something so simple became so important in that moment. Had I not asked, not been told all my life, I would have no idea. I knew very little about what job my dad held and what he did, but I always knew he worked in the Towers, the one with the antenna.

I felt numb. Not really scared, not nervous, not upset. There were no tears. I raised my hand as they asked who had family members who were actually in the Towers. I walked to the back of the room with about ten other girls. I remember praying in a circle with strangers. I remember being brought to the office. They told me I could call home.

"Mom?" Jesus, what do I even say? "Um.. did you hear about what happened?" Of course she knew. She asked if I wanted to come home. I stared up at my vice principal, not sure if I was allowed. Again, of course I was allowed. "Um, I don't know if they'll let me." She asked me to put the vice principal on the phone; I would be picked up in a little while.

We'd switched periods; we were in study now. I walked in and sat by the only girl I knew. She asked if I was okay, expecting me to be much worse off. I assume the other girls whose parents worked in New York had returned to class, noting that I hadn't and explaining why. I said I was fine and asked to copy her algebra notes; she seemed stunned at my non-reaction.

The teacher went on and on about another plane hitting the other Tower, a third hitting the Pentagon. I didn't believe her, not because I was in denial, but because the way she was discussing it made it sound more like fanatic rumors than reality. If only they'd been rumors.

We moved to history class, where I stayed for five minutes before I was called out and taken home. My brother was already in the car. My mother said something about staying calm and not worrying, and how she had already reassured my brother that everything was going to be okay.

(I should note that the timing of the day as opposed to when events were actually happening is skewed in my mind. The assembly we had occurred after both towers had been hit, and one of the towers fell as we were driving home.)

Random moments are vivid, like when I took in the garbage cans when we got home and my neighbor rushed across the street and hugged me, asking me if everything was okay. Or when I watched footage of one of the Towers collapse on my television and immediately decided I wouldn't watch the news anymore; I turned on cartoons and read a magazine.

Then there was my uncle's message on our answering machine. He'd called while my mom was picking us up. He updated us on his whereabouts, since he and his ex-wife (my mom's sister) worked at the Towers too; he was going in late that day, my aunt was working at the airport. My uncle was a talker, never at a loss for words. That day, though, after filling us in, there was a long silence before he uttered a profanity. An exasperated statement, one of disbelief and not knowing what else to say.

I remained numb the entire day, clinging to the fact that the first Tower to collapse was the one without the antenna. Not only had I been told this my whole life, but I had just visited the World Trade Center to see my dad and go to The Top of the World observatory, at the very top of the second Tower.

We finally got a phone call - he tells us he’s okay. He’s okay. He doesn’t know when he’ll be home, since transportation is kind of impossible. I once again remained emotionless; I wasn't distraught, so there was no relief. Whether it was denial, optimism, or just a feeling that he'd be okay, I'll never really know.

As my mom was on the phone, my aunt showed up, my dad’s youngest sister. She had been in a tizzy, calling earlier in the day and claiming that she’d go down to the city to find him if she had to. All I could think about was being disappointed that she didn’t bring my cousins with her so that we could all play and distract ourselves.

Soon after my aunt left, my grandparents arrived on their way back from Atlantic City. They didn’t stay long, as they weren't sure if roads would be closed and they already knew that he’s okay.

In the late afternoon - pretty early, all things considered - my dad arrived home. Finally. We rushed outside to greet him. I hated it because it felt surreal and movie-like, too cheesy to actually be happening in real life. We're not a close family to begin with, so all of us meeting him on the front lawn in a group hug seemed so... weird. He came inside and sat down, his shoes carrying dust from the buildings, dust from the huge cloud that encompassed the streets. We crowded around and listened to his story; I don’t remember much of it.

He told us how nobody realized how serious it was, that leaving the office immediately wasn't everyone's instinctive course of action. He, however, had been through this before with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and knew to grab his things and get out. They took forever to walk down the stairs, where injured people were being carried down and firefighters were dashing up. He was about ten stories up when the first tower fell, though they didn't know that's what it was at the time. When they finally made their way out, they were ushered by people who told them not to look up or back, but just to run.

Once far enough away, my dad and his colleagues looked back and, when they couldn't see the other building, assumed it was just covered by the smoke before realizing it had fallen. He was finally able to call when they ducked into a deli that one of his colleagues had frequented in college. And then he had a beer.

I obsessively watched the news that night, allowing myself to see all the images I blocked out all day. Comforting myself with the fact that school would likely be canceled in the morning, I fell asleep. I woke up in tears the next morning, a panic attack of sorts. I had thought for sure that we wouldn't have school. I was scared. I woke up early just to watch the news, knowing they'd say that all schools were closed until further notice. I mean, we'd just been attacked, right? How could we have school?

My mother forced me to go. I don't know how I got through the day. People in my class who'd come with me to the drama studio, who'd known my dad was in that Tower, asked me if I was okay. I told them yes, and they smiled. It was heartwarming to have such support from people who were practically strangers.


All I ever ask on this day is that you always remember and never forget. As each year passes, I find more and more people caring less and less, even on the anniversary. I've had a college that held no large-scale service one year and friends who didn't stop for one moment to acknowledge the service the following year. I feel that as a country, we would be much stronger if we thought back to that day more often, not only to remember those who passed but to remember how tight-knit we became.