Because I have subscribers in many different countries, and not all readers are necessarily interested in whatever is convulsing the US at any given time, I’d like to frame this post about the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as a few universal questions of grief and remembrance, in the context of that day.
Honestly, I haven’t read very many of the special articles and editorials about the 10th anniversary. This is partly because I want to keep to my own thoughts about it, and partly because I generally don’t deal well with melancholy feelings. Sometimes, with all the outpouring of 9/11 remembrance and commentary over the last ten years, I wonder what else there could possibly be to say.
Yes, many Americans now think of life as before and after 9/11. For people my age, 9/11 is also a kind of line between childhood and adulthood. At the time, I was 18 and a senior in a religious boarding school.
We were in the hallway moving between classes when a kid who’d spent first period in the basement computer lab burst into the crowd and said a plane had flown into New York City.
“That has to be a crazy internet story,” I said, and hearing shortly after that a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center just convinced me more that the whole thing was a nasty, wild rumor.
Of course the reality filtered through soon enough, and my teacher responded by herding us into our class and beginning the lecture as if nothing was wrong. For awhile, it seemed to me that the school was doing its best to ignore the event, and I don’t even remember hearing about the Pentagon or Flight 93 until after the fact, probably because I was in class.
I think kids kept trying to sneak looks on the computers to see what was going on, and after lunch the school finally gave in and turned on the news in a large math classroom and suspended the normal schedule. We sat on chairs and desks and tables and the floor, gaping at the TV. I felt numb with a bone-deep unsettledness rising up underneath.
A tearful friend whispered to me that her dad, a pilot, was flying a plane today and that no-one could get ahold of him. My friend’s worry suddenly broke the haze. I realized that the fire and smoke and rubble on the TV meant thousands of people had died all at once. I was embarrassed to cry in front of my classmates but the tears came up so fast I couldn’t help it.
Then the faculty turned the TV off and waved us back to our classes.
Putting on my horrible gym shorts and going down to the tennis courts seemed like a bizarre thing to do, and no-one wanted to go back to class, but we roused ourselves and trooped out on the teachers’ orders.
It was a strange school day with little space to process what was going on. Perhaps as a dorm student without the chance to go home to my family that night, I felt the lack of support at school more acutely.
In my memory, there are actually two days in that school year with the same patina of repressed shock and grief. That winter, a well-loved student – a close lifelong friend of mine – died in a tragic accident in the dorm.
The whole campus was up most of the night, huddled in the dorms and dining hall as news helicopters throbbed relentlessly overhead in the dark.
When we got up in the morning after an hour or two of sleep, we were troubled to learn that we were all expected to attend a normal school day. Dorm staff and teachers gave the impression that it was important to keep going as usual.
Most of the day was an anguished blur to me and doubtless many others.
I do remember that we were reading Macbeth in English. Our teacher stalked the room and said it was “propitious” that we were reading a play about guilt, because if we students examined ourselves, we would see that we should have somehow prevented our friend’s death.
As an adult, I try to forgive her for saying this by remembering that she was grieving too. After school, I cried for a long time on a friend’s shoulder and then forced myself to stop and get out my Shakespeare. I had a large reading assignment due the next day.
These two days at school – 9/11/01 and the day after my friend’s death – sear so similarly in my mind not only because of their terrible sadness, but because of the clear choice the school administration made to attempt normalcy.
It’s something I think about in a general way, ten years later. What is the right way to deal with tragedy? Should we press on bravely, feigning outward normalcy in the hope of returning to real peace and productivity as soon as possible? Or should we put our regular tasks on hold and give ourselves over to what we’re feeling, even though our tears won’t change the situation, and will delay our work?
The older I get, the more I realize that tragedies happen all the time. Sometimes it seems like letting ourselves be paralyzed (even temporarily) by each calamity would be even more fruitless than trying to predict what the next heartbreak will be.
During a break between classes on that day after my friend died, a good friend hugged me without saying anything and took time to sit with me at my locker. A paramedic and firefighter who’d saved many local lives, he said later that 9/11 and its first responders were what inspired him to join the military after a year or two of college. He died in Iraq in 2006. He was 23. Like I said before, I usually don’t deal well with melancholy things. The grief for both of my lost friends has a habit of surfacing all at once when I let my guard down – like when I take time to think about that surreal school day on the original 9/11, as the day’s responsibilities ground on when I just wanted to sit quietly with friends and try to absorb what was happening
The US will be trying to strike that balance between a painful, reverent pause and a necessary continuation of life’s doings for many 9/11 anniversaries to come. After ten years, I find myself thinking less about the last decade and more about the future of our 9/11 commemorations. What form will they take?
In fifty or a hundred years, will 9/11 pass by as quietly as December 7th generally does today? Or will it grow into a national holiday with its own long weekend, like Memorial Day, when we might attend a somber little ceremony and sing the national anthem before hitting the beach or the Memorial Day sales?
I have not always been proud of what Americans have done and said in the wake of 9/11. Actually, I’m tired of pundits saying “in the wake of 9/11”. During this anniversary last year, the US was gripped by controversy over Barack Obama’s religion and a crest of anti-Muslim sentiment, including outrage over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero (you can visit my blog about this from last year if you’re so inclined). Before I get too annoyed with my fellow Americans, I try to remember that, just like my grieving English teacher, we sometimes say inappropriate things when we’re hurting – especially when we don’t give ourselves the space and time to reflect properly.
I haven’t attended any ceremonies today or read any commemorative articles. Hashing all this out with a box of Kleenex close by, and publishing it instead of sitting silently on it like I am wont to do with most gloomy things, is my own kind of memorial. My blog’s motto is Fiction Need Not Apply, and real life is not always funny. It’s ok to give some space to the sad things. Life goes on tomorrow.