I mostly avoided the wave of media attention around 9/11. At ten year’s distance, it’s still all too close for me. I noticed a visceral reluctance to go there, for fear of getting sucked back into the trauma and the grief. When I finally watched Brian Williams last night cover the memorial service at Ground Zero (a term which until that day had been reserved mostly for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if you recall) I wept for those who had lost their loved ones. But I think many of us were also weeping this past week for ourselves and what we lost that day, which was an innocence and a sense of invulnerability that up until then we didn’t even know we had.
And I remember how this city, badly bent but not broken, morphed overnight into the largest small town in America. A place of freaked out but connected townspeople who were suddenly no longer strangers to each other.
I remember us up on E. 34th Street cheering truckloads of first responders, filthy as they returned from downtown on their way back to Queens.
I recall a patient telling me of a taxi he and his girlfriend took that following week into Brooklyn that ran out of gas in the middle of the Manhattan Bridge. They bolted out of that cab and ran the rest of the way to Flatbush Avenue, certain that the police or National Guard would target the cab within a few minutes time. “A car stalled on a bridge here, in the middle of a war? I wasn’t about to stay and find out what was gonna happen!” It was that kind of atmosphere.
I recall downtown strewn with xeroxed signs on lampposts, always with a photograph and a name and the desperate words – “Last seen the morning of September 11th. If you’ve seen him, please contact ________”. And you knew every last one of those signs was posted in vain.
And perhaps you recall the internet ablaze with that big photo of the Statue of Liberty holding up a defiant middle finger, with the words ”We’re Coming, Motherfuckers!”
And here in Brooklyn, I think it was that Friday night, thousands of us pouring into 7th Avenue in a silent candle light vigil that turned into a slow procession to the firehouse on Union Street, where eleven men had never returned.
We all got through it, but you know this city and country isn’t past this. Because there are some things we still cannot think about. And until that time comes when we’re able and willing to contemplate what it was actually like that morning to have been stuck on one of the upper floors, and watch the plane come into the building right below you, and then soon to determine that the best thing to do was to grab the hand of an office mate and jump, we’ll not be fully done with 9/11.
And I remember watching this town change over the next couple of years, from a wounded and angry symbol that the rest of the country rallied around, proud to be New Yorkers and Americans and in full support of the President, into feeling that we were being used as the pretext to take the war not just to Afghanistan but further; used as the reason to limit our freedoms; and to re-elect a President who seemed increasingly alien and out of touch with our true nature as New Yorkers.
But mostly, starting September 12th, I saw something else. Our hearts had been broken but also opened. As time went by, I noticed, first with Shelley, and then with numerous other friends and family members, a fresh and urgent willingness to say something that had been always true but rarely spoken. Words tacked onto the end of our telephone conversations. For when hanging up with a loved one we no longer could — nor would — take for granted that we’d ever be speaking with them again. To this day, the primary way 9/11 changed many of us is when we say, “I love you” before hanging up that phone.
And for this I can only be thankful. For this, I can truly say that if the terrorists’ goal was to demoralize us or damage who we are as a people, then they failed and failed miserably. They demonically took some of us away, but they opened the rest of us to each other in a way not seen before. And for this I am grateful to God and to what’s most decent and deep in you and in me.