Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years On: What I Remember

Growing up, all the adults I knew could tell you down to the most precise details where they were when Kennedy was shot.  It was the defining moment for that generation.  Even Mother would get a rather faraway look in her face whenever she would talk about it, as though she was reliving it again, and be able to tell you where she was, who she was with and what she was doing when she heard the news.  And, if you think about it, she was alive through the Wall Street crash in '29, Pearl Harbor, the dropping of the first atomic bomb, VE and VJ Day, and almost obliterated by total nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  So, for this single event in a string of dramatic world events in her lifetime to be the one she would talk about over and over again as I was growing up says something both about the power of the then new-ish medium of television, but also how much that single act gripped this country.

I thought my generation had that moment when the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up.  I can tell you about that day even now.  Little did I know that it would be dwarfed years later by a day so dark that it has cast a shadow on all our days since.  So, here we are, on the precipice of its tenth anniversary, and I bet there is not a single individual who will read this who cannot tell you precisely where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001.

The thing is, I can indeed remember exactly what I was doing when I first heard about the attacks, and I can remember much about the first hours.  After that, the day becomes hazy for me - the next several do actually.  I remember the natural instinct to glue oneself to the TV to watch as thousands of New Yorkers posted pictures on makeshift bulletin boards and light poles looking for loved ones.  Loved ones you knew they would never find.  I remember feeling so helpless against that.  I remember struggling to know how much I should tell my kids and trying to gauge their reactions to make sure they weren't too scared.  I read articles about it - but I'm not sure any of us got it right.  All of the parents I know were in shock and just struggling to make sense of it themselves.  Sitting here now I wonder if any of that played a small part in Kelsey's disease:  in a world gone mad, some small thing she could control.  Who knows?

I remember trying to worry over the staff I supervised who all had different reactions to 9/11 against just the ongoing rush of work.  I can't remember if we let the office close the actual afternoon of 9/11 or not - I think I probably let anyone who wanted to go home leave and kept a skeleton staff, but I honestly don't remember.  I do remember one of the managers struggling with a homeowner who called multiple times that day to complain about her neighbor's dog barking.  Clearly the caller had no idea what had happened, and her complaint felt so pitifully lame against the magnitude of the day that it was hard to handle her diplomatically.  I remember in the days that followed having to worry about Anthrax in the mail, and getting protective gear for the lovely woman who was our receptionist.  How bizarre that was.  I remember other bits and pieces of people's reactions over the days and weeks that followed - some of the more highly strung individuals had a hard time dealing with it and became disruptive.  Looking back on it now, I understand the post-traumatic stress reaction a bit better.  At the time, I was just a little incredulous.  Everyone was on edge - our sense of security had come crashing down around us, someone whining at me about observing moments of silence when I've got phones ringing and people waiting to ask me questions just made me want to silence her.  That I remember.

I remember worrying about a cousin who works in Washington.  She was fine, but in the first hours of the attacks when cell phone towers not destroyed were overloaded, no one could find her.  The first call I made was to my mother, I thought she would be scared.  I underestimated her:  all those dramatic events in her life made her stoic in the face of tragedy.  But, she immediately called her sister to ask about my cousin.  My poor aunt.  At the time, I didn't realize another cousin worked at a nuclear power plant that had immediately gone on high alert.  She had two children in harm's way that day.  I can only imagine what those first hours were like for her.

I remember at one point that first night, exhausted from watching hours of footage of the most awful images, thinking that more people would die as a direct result of this day.  Sadly, I was very right about that.

All I want to remember on this anniversary is that roughly 3,000 souls would not live to see September 12, and each of them had names and families who loved them and miss them still.  Others who did survive struggle with disease and injury as a direct result of the attacks.  Young men and women from all across the country currently are in service trying to protect us from other 9/11's and put their lives at risk every moment of every day for that purpose.  Whether or not I observed a moment of silence at work ten years ago is nothing compared to that.  My worrying over long lines at airport security checkpoints now is nothing compared to that.  Whether the Steelers beat the Ravens is nothing compared to that.   I am glad I live in the country I do:  despite all its flaws and petty bickering between political factions, we have continued on in the face of this tragedy, so I hope everyone remembers the things that I do.

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