9/11 Twenty Years Later
In a few hours it will be the twentieth anniversary of the 2001 9/11 terrorist attacks. This year, like every year, will be different. Twenty years later the pain of that day is still raw for the families and loved ones of the men and women who died that day in Shanksville, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. As a nation our mourning has become ritualized. For the survivors the twentieth anniversary of the attack is just one of many anniversaries that have been marked by absence. How many families celebrated Thanksgivings, birthdays, weddings and so much more with an empty seat at the table?
This anniversary is different though because, twenty years later, we now have a generation of adults who did not see the first plane hit the first tower, did not see a fireball against a beautiful blue sky, did not see the towers collapse and did not see the moment when an ordinary Tuesday became the worst day --or the last day-- for thousands of men and women.
For those of us who saw the planes --even if only on television-- there is a distinct difference between the memories of before and after. By the end of the day, where two steel and glass towers had scraped the sky above Manhattan, there was a pile of smoking rubble. Scraps of paper rained down out of the sky on the other side of the river. The pile would become the defining feature of New York for months, maybe years. A Roman Catholic priest died that day giving comfort to the injured. In the weeks and months that followed, Orthodox Jewish women sat shiva in shifts outside the medical examiner's refrigerated trucks, praying for the dead who were yet to be identified. The thousands dead in New York dwarfed the tragedy of the Pentagon and the tragic desperate triumph that played out in the sky above Shanksville. Very soon we learned that the plane that crashed near Shanksville had been intended for some television worthy target, but the passengers had fought the hijackers and disaster did not befall another iconic site on the ground.
There is a generation now that doesn't remember the before. A generation that never saw the Twin Towers standing like two outsized teeth in the jagged skyline of New York. Somehow the magnitude of that day made it hard to be honest. By turns humbled and horrified we shied away from the personal. We allowed documentarians and tourists and television to ritualize the memorials. They, of course, edited things out. One year, in the heat of some petty political battle, the politicians, perhaps honest enough to know that their speech writers couldn't write something that seemed anything but fake, all decided to read excerpts from Lincoln's Address at Gettysburg. Over the past twenty years people have either talked too much about 9/11, or avoided it all together.
A few years ago I was on a business trip in New Jersey, barely thirty minutes from Lower Manhattan, and was horrified to learn that the older British couple I met in the hotel lobby were "doing the sites" of New York. A helicopter tour of the Statue of Liberty, photo ops in Times Square, and of course "Ground Zero" where the Twin Towers had once stood. It had already been more than a decade since the towers fell, but I was horrified that tourists were trampling off to take selfies where a woman in a business suit and a thousand bloody cuts had screamed as paramedics tried to brush the broken crystals of glass out of her hair. It seemed crass and cruel, but oddly human. We shared a drink that night and they told me about their day and I did not tell them that since "that day" --the day that divided before and after-- I have never drunk a glass of champagne without tasting ash and hearing sirens.
September 11th was my grandmother Gertrude's birthday. She was a New Yorker. So were my parents. In fact, I'm the first American generation of my family NOT to be born in New York. Native New Yorkers have a strange relationship with the city. Twenty somethings with freshly minted MFAs who grow up in the green lawns of middle America's wealthy suburbia flock to the city to identify as New Yorkers, but the natives always aspire to get their kids out of the city. Who doesn't want to leave the Bronx for Westchester? Get out of a rabbit hutch sized apartment in Hell's Kitchen or Redhook for a suburban ranch near Verona? But even though you can take a kid out of the city, you can't really take the city out of the kid. Native New Yorkers know risk assessment like they know a Kaiser roll. They know that danger doesn't just lurk in the shadows of the subways, it stalks the streets at high noon. Native New Yorkers also know that there was nothing surprising that day when the sirens went off and the brave and the bold, New York's finest and New York's bravest, answered the call without hesitation. For a couple of hundred men and women in the uniforms of the FDNY and the NYPD that was their last callout until Judgement Day.
Twenty years later that is a horrible fact to acknowledge. But we should acknowledge the fact that for the last twenty years too many people have been ignoring the knee-jerk courage displayed by thousands of people that day. The media acted shocked when the towers fell. It was shocking. But most of the men and women in uniform on the ground that day probably knew within minutes, maybe seconds, of arriving on scene that they were in a race against time.
In 2001 my grandmother was in a race against time too. Over eighty, she had spent years pretending each year she was still "only" 79. In 2001 she had agreed to have a party. She'd earned it, we all thought. Eight decades, a sixty year marriage to a man who had spent his best years in the uniform of the NYPD, she'd seen both her sons go through the Academy too. A few years earlier, on a slate grey winter day with snow a foot deep in Eastchester Place she'd stopped by the crematorium and picked up a box containing the ashes of her oldest son. Memories of her childhood, memories of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, were still clear and bright, but every day life was getting harder and her thoughts were getting murky.
The cake was ordered from the bakery. Champagne was chilling in the fridge. It was a beautiful day in September. My grandmother's birthday party turned in to an informal wake that day. The Civil Services in New York, especially in those days, especially in my grandparents' day, were tribal. Like any tribe the FDNY and the NYPD developed their own language. Your precinct, your fire station was, in conversation, just your house. Sons followed fathers and uncles into uniform. Your partners, the men from the same house, were as close as family. Sometimes they were family. Half my grandmother's closest girlfriends --all women of a certain age-- had husbands who'd retired off "the Job", they had sons in uniform, grandsons who were bond traders. It was a very bad day when the towers fell.
Courage comes in all forms. People dove to their deaths that day. They fell like black angels through the rushing air. Maybe they wanted to give their families the final gift of a body to bury --it was obvious before the day was out that many families would only have an empty coffin to bury-- maybe they had run as far as they could from the heat of the flames and, trapped above the impact line, there was only one way left to go down. Others ran in to the inferno.
One of my grandmother's dearest friends called that day. Her grandson was working a trading desk and was late home. Not answering a cell phone. Twenty years later I can still remember my grandmother's pale blue eyes blinking back tears as she offered comfort. The Brits do the stiff upper lip thing. But women of my grandmother's generation always tried to tough it through too, even if they were as American as a bagel with a schmear. My grandmother and I split a bottle of champagne that night even though I really wasn't old enough to drink and she probably shouldn't have been drinking. It was a wake of sorts. I remember her pulling me close and whispering in my ear, "I've grown too old."
My grandmother's best friend's grandson made it home that day. He'd been late to work, not even in the elevators when the first plane hit. In the weeks that followed we found out the official death toll. In the months that followed the United States went to war. In the years that followed people built monuments and made speeches. There have been collateral deaths. The pile was toxic. Cancer rates have been abnormally high for the people who rushed to dig through the rubble, desperate to find survivors. At least one widow could not survive the dark winter of her grief and took her own life.
A generation has passed now. My grandmother passed a few years ago. A New York girl, born and bred, we scattered her ashes in the Pacific. I think about my grandmother every year on 9/11. Every time I drink a glass of champagne I think about the victims and the heroes, the average Americans, who passed that day, too young, in fire.
I've cried at weddings, brides unaware that I'm not crying over their romantic vows or pretty white dresses, but just because one sip of champagne reminds me of my grandmother's pale blue eyes, tears held back bravely, a day like no other and the fine line where courage and endurance meet and merge.
A few years ago I heard a song by an Irish band that never really went anywhere accept a few bars in New York. They sang about the "brave and the bold" and the day they witnessed a dream of "two towers" fall in the smoke and the fire. It felt more real than any grinding two hour television retrospective with commentators with perfect hair. No one does schmaltz like the Irish. (As an Irish-American --or a part Irish-American-- I can say that.) There is nothing wrong with schmaltz. And the Irish have earned their sorrow. You could fill a small bucket with the gold claddagh rings --the traditional sweetheart ring of the Irish-- recovered from Ground Zero.
To me the Twin Towers were never a beautiful dream. Not when they stood. I remember seeing them on the skyline all through my childhood whenever I visited my grandparents. But I don't really remember the Towers if that makes sense. They were part of the skyline. Taller than anything else. But not more beautiful. If I had to pick my favorite New York building it would, hands down, be the Empire State building. Or maybe the Van Cortlandt house in the Bronx. The Empire State Building is frankly gorgeous, an icon of my grandmother's childhood. The Van Cortlandt house? It is just a very very old house. A very nice old house left over from the days when New York was still New Amsterdam.
The Towers were just an example of '70s architecture. Too tall. Truly, too tall. Even when they were building them, before I was born, people on the ground knew they were too tall. One of my dad's childhood heroes, an FDNY guy left over from the days when the fire engines were still pulled by horses galloping like the devils of hell, sparks flying from their hooves as they cornered in Greenwich Village, the tillermen on the back true heroes, knights of the fire sitting tall over their engines, shook his head in horror as they raised the skeleton of the towers. "Too tall," he said. "Too tall. We can't fight a fire over fifty stories."
It didn't mean the FDNY wouldn't try. On the ground that Tuesday the captains almost certainly knew they were racing in to an impossible battle. They weren't fighting to save the towers by then, they were fighting to save human life, and they were willing to sacrifice their own lives in that battle. The last half hour or so the towers stood, those were the minutes mere glass and steel acquired a soul. Architects and builders, hardhats and steel guys didn't build an impossible dream, it was the sound of feet, thousands running out, hundreds running in, that gave the buildings a heartbeat.
The buildings fell. Ground Zero was a smoldering wreck, a burning grave. But the heartbeat lived on, raw and painful. But now we have a generation that didn't witness the birth and death of that beautiful dream. The denial and lies that followed were painful. I'm guilty of that denial too. I spent a few years pretending my grandmother wasn't losing her memories. A few more years finding things to do on 9/11 that would take my mind off my memories. One year I scheduled an exam for 9/11 and spent 5 hours in an icy over air-conditioned exam room peering through a microscope attempting to get every question right.
This year I'll be packing care boxes for the troops. Men and women I have never met. Maybe hard work will drive me in to a state of exhaustion. Somewhere in the middle there will probably be a moment of silence and tears. But with any luck once again I will avoid the ritualized television memorials. Memory is important. Memory is crucial. We should all respect the dead. We should respect the dead every day. We should live our lives with the same desperate clarity we will have in our last minutes.
If we are lucky enough to live long lives we should make them full lives. When I was a teenager I was privileged to know an old man who had once been a young Marine in the Pacific. He told me he had cookies and whiskey every year on Memorial Day because when he was twenty he had assumed he wouldn't live to see his twenty-first birthday. The seventy extra years he had lived were, as he put it, pure gravy. We're all of us, every one of us, living on gravy time. Others didn't get that privilege. The people whose names are read on 9/11 didn't get that privilege.
I am privileged. I am alive. If you are reading this you are privileged too. We are the living. My grandmother's slow fade in to that goodnight we should all expect some day if we live to be 80+ or 90+ forced me to think about life and death a lot. What is life when we forget? What is tomorrow when we can remember a summer day seventy years ago but we can't remember breakfast today?
By the time my grandmother died there were only a handful of people left who remembered when she was a beautiful girl with killer legs hanging out on Orchard Beach. I have a picture of my grandmother taken some time in the late 1930s, pre war. She's held aloft by my grandfather and his best friend. She looks like a trophy. A teenager with a century ahead of her. War and marriage. Children and funerals. Duty and parties. Oddly that picture reminds me of 9/11 too. My grandfather lived to be nearly 90, his best friend was dead within a few years of that hot summer day on the beach. An American casualty who fell somewhere between Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge. Some of us will live to be ninety something, some of us will be cut down in our glorious prime.
In the end what will we remember? To the day I die I will remember two towers, a beautiful dream shimmering in the blue sky. And I will remember a girl on a beach, beautiful as a trophy, shining in the sun. And to be fair... I never really saw either of them. My grandmother was old and grey by the time I was born, her girlhood glamour a black and white photograph in an album. The twin towers were just a part of a background for me until that day in September twenty years ago. But they will both live within me for as long as I breathe. Some memories don't fade.
The future is hazier for me. In a few hours I will put on a t-shirt a friend made for me. She knows the story I told her about my grandmother's birthday and she took a scanned print of a picture from the album and made me a shirt. With a few friends we'll drive up the highway to an office park and tape together cardboard boxes to send out as care boxes to the troops. I can tell you exactly where I was twenty years ago today. Tomorrow I will be able to tell you where I am for every minute of the day. But where I am and what I do doesn't matter. What happened twenty years ago will matter for as long as we all, all of us right now, draw breath.
The dead live in our memories. And the memories aren't all bad. As long as we live, our fallen live in our memories. They walk with us. They are the tears at a wedding. They are the laughter in the distance. They are the shadows on the sand. They are good advice and irritations. All we have is time, and when time runs out we have courage. Now and forever we should remember the courage, the bright clarity, and the determination, that led people to dig through the rubble late in the night to find the heartbeat of a stranger. Twenty years later we should give the gift of our memories to the children who didn't witness the towers fall, and didn't see the bright heart of decent people doing the right thing. Twenty years ago we witnessed tragedy, but we also witnessed decency. Decency deserves respect. We don't just owe it to the dead to respect them, we owe it to ourselves. Because some day we too will fall in to that goodnight that takes us all. Maybe it will take us decades and we will fade with watery blue eyes and distant memories, maybe it will be too soon, a disaster that cuts us down half way between one thing and another. But we will all have a final night and a final day. And perhaps, before that day comes, we should decide how we want to live.
Rest in Peace.