This morning on Facebook I said that I would not post today. And I won’t publish my next planned post (you’ll have to wait for tomorrow for that). But I’ve had thoughts swirling around my head all day, thoughts that have been there for a year? Two? Fourteen? So I won’t be promoting this on Facebook or Instagram, but for myself, I’d like to get it out of my head and in writing. If you’ve stumbled upon it between other posts, well hello.
My story is not unique. On September 11, 2001, I was 15, a week or so into my junior year of high school. I remember the sky that morning – impossibly clear and blue. I remember what I was wearing. An acquaintance at school had teased me, “you always wear dark colors. I want to see you wear pink.” So on September 11, I was wearing a stupid pink t-shirt with a fairy on it, which I had never worn before and never wore again.
That morning, in the halls between classes we heard murmurs that something was wrong, something had happened. The teachers were instructed not to talk about it, but my social studies teacher addressed the class as adults, telling us what was known so far. We were dumbfounded. How was that possible? Not long after, I was called down to the main office to call my mother. She had left a message with my guidance counselor that out on the streets of Manhattan amongst the chaos, my father had been seen by a neighbor who called his wife and instructed her to get in touch with my mother. My father, working in the building next to the World Trade Center was okay. He had gotten out.
Students were streaming to and from the guidance offices, the counselor’s desk phones available to try to reach family. Kids were crying, some gathering their belongings and heading for the door. Someone, a well-meaning counselor I didn’t know stood in the hallway saying, “we’re safe, this will never happen on Long Island.” I’m sure she was as stunned as everyone else, but I looked at her like she had three heads. Did she really think that was the concern right now? That we expected our small suburban town to be the next target?
I didn’t go to class the rest of the day. I walked to the convenience store up the block with a friend, a junior firefighter whose father was the local fire dispatcher. We watched the tiny television in the corner of the store in silent shock. I spent the rest of the school day lying on the grass in front of the high school with him, just listening. He already knew that some friends and fellow firefighters had gone into the buildings and hadn’t been seen since. We waited for news.
I went home with a promise to be available at any time if he or any of my other friends needed me. I went home and waited. VH1 played footage of the towers falling and the scene in Manhattan over and over, grey images overlaid with popular music; for the record, “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias and “Overcome” by Live still make my stomach flip over. After hours of waiting, punctuated by grim messages from a friend and former dispatcher getting up to the minute reports from the scene, my father came home. He was filthy and exhausted, but he was home. His story was horrifying. He watched the planes hit from the building next door, shoving coworkers behind cubicle partitions as the window panes bowed inwards from the impact. After coordinating his team’s evacuation, he had literally run from the billow of debris as the second tower fell, then finally walked over the bridge into Brooklyn and caught a train home. His sister had not been located yet.
The next day, the names of the missing and dead continued to trickle in. Blessedly, all of our family was found and accounted for. A candlelight vigil was held near the high school. We all stood there, holding our candles and staring, unsure of what to do. Some of the drama students sang, and one girl’s father, a first responder who had spent the day working at Ground Zero arrived to a hero’s welcome. I can’t say how many people were still searching, still couldn’t find their loved ones. Everyone had a story.
That next weekend, my parents brought me, my brothers and a few of my friends to a local medieval festival here on Long Island. We walked around in our costumes and for a few hours, nearly forgot that the world was standing on its head. We forgot that the past four days had been like nothing we had ever seen before, and that nothing would ever be the same. Our childhood, the innocent days of feeling secure and normal, was over. That day at the faire was a blessing, a release from constant bad news. The tears, handholding and phone calls were put aside, just for a little.
And then, just over a month later, on the day of my sweet 16, the United States officially went to war. I didn’t know how to feel then, and I’m not sure I do now.
2002: The next year, less than a week into my senior year, I marched down to the principal’s office, incensed that there was no memorial planned. I presented a plan, and by lunch the next day I had approved signs up in the halls announcing a vigil at the flagpole in front of the high school for the evening of September 11. I spent the next days making over a hundred little red, white and blue ribbons which were handed out at the vigil with small safety pins, so that everyone could wear their own memorial ribbons. I made a poster that listed the names of those lost from our town, with pictures gleaned from the internet. My memorial was combined with one hastily organized by the Key Club. But that was okay.
Because this wasn’t about me. It was about community.
To this day, I remember the names of the local firefighters my friends mourned, who we wore FDNY embroidered t-shirts to remember in the coming school year. I remember the middle aged woman at the memorial who didn’t say a word, but kept touching one of the photos on my poster. I remember the way our community pulled together to support each other, how unified and strong we were.
This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about community.
2011: Working in the production department of a local newspaper, I helped typeset the 10 year memorial issue. I designed the memorial ads and the front cover, a photo of a field of flags. I recognized so many of the names I typed. And I cried every day.
I’m in no danger of forgetting. I remember every time I see an impossibly blue sky. I remember every time I see someone wearing one of those colorful t-shirts with a fairy or dragon on it, or a dark blue shirt with the FDNY logo over the heart. I remember every time I hear my father cough.
Like I said earlier, my story isn’t unique. We all remember where we were when it happened, and if we’re lucky (as I was), were only peripherally affected by the actual event. So if you’re reading this, try to remember also how we pulled together. The donations, the outpourings of grief and love, the way we supported each other in the days following September 11, 2001.
In honor of those we lost, those who struggled with the loss of loved ones, those who sacrificed their time and health to the recovery effort, and everyone who was affected in any way, large or small, can we try to make the world a little kinder? Remember, it’s about community.