September 11, 2011


I've spent a lot of time trying to decide if I would write about 9/11. What could I possibly say that hasn't been said already. For ten years now, the whole of September has been filled with blogs, articles, tv shows, radio episodes and special editions about 9/11. What is left to tell?
Except to not say something, living here, now, this year, is like ignoring the elephant in the room. It is everywhere here. It permeates everything. It's in the recorded and repeated warnings in the subways. "See something? Say something!" It's in the hole in the skyline and the cranes that are building the tower to fill that space. It's in the poster that hangs in the window of the fire station next door with the faces of the firemen lost. And the fact that every day since we have moved here, there have been fresh flowers in a vase underneath it.

Everyone has a story about that day. And I'm no different. I can still remember standing in our bedroom, watching the Today show while I got ready for work and shouting for Will when the second plane hit, right there, while we were watching. Although we were on the West Coast, in Portland, pretty much in no danger at all, I called the school where I worked to see if we would be open. It felt like the world was ending and I honestly couldn't fathom teaching that day. But the school was going to be open, life had to keep cranking along.

I taught the oldest class at our school, fourth and fifth graders. My kids were the only ones who were really aware what was going on that day. They looked stricken, terrified. One boy was frantic, not understanding that his father, who was driving home from Seattle, was in Washington State, not Washington DC. Or maybe he didn't understand that they were different places in the first place.

We kept a TV on in the lounge and dashed in and out all day, unable, like the rest of the country, to look away. One of my fellow teachers had two sons living and working in Manhattan, neither of whom she could get a hold of. In the end, they were both fine, they had somehow found each other and had walked for hours to get home. But it took the entire day to find out, and we all walked past her room holding our breath, not knowing what to say.

I doubt there is anyone who was alive in America who wasn't profoundly affected by that day. For Will and I, it was an unstated but underlying reason to start a family. And judging by the fact that Briton's class has always been miles bigger than the one before his, I don't think we were alone.

But I can't say that it affected me the way that it did people who were here that day. I had a few hours of panic, and a weight of horror and grief and thankfulness that I didn't know anyone who was killed, which sat in the pit of my stomach for weeks. But compared to what people went through here- on the street where I live, in the city where I'm raising my kids- my small pains were nothing. If I tried to say otherwise, I would be worse than a liar.

It feels somehow, fraudulent, to be here now, not having been here then. On Monday, Labor Day, I was coming up from the basement with our laundry and stopped at the lobby when I heard, of all things, bagpipe music, loud and clear, through the old elevator doors. Out on the street, some fifty pipers and drummer stood in small clumps, some from the fire department, some from the NYPD, some from a group of Dublin pipers. I ran up and got Will and the kids and my camera and we hustled down to watch and listen and snap photos. We stumbled on a concert on Memorial Day and I assumed this was something similar, probably somehow connected to 9/11, because what wasn't? But when Briton and I eventually wandered over and asked, a gruff fireman told me they were about to play for a Mass at St. Johns for the lost first responders. Suddenly, I felt horrible. Standing on the street with my children, pointing and taking pictures as if we were watching a Fourth of July Parade when, without a doubt, every single person on the street was there because they had lost someone that day. We went inside, because as much as I would have loved to stay and listen, or walk over the the cathedral and participate in the mass, it felt wrong, somehow. Like crashing a funeral.

I know this day is not just about New York. It's about everyone. It hurt everyone. Some day my kids will be able to say that they were here on this day. That they listened to the music and the names and they knew, even at five and nine, that this was not an ordinary Sunday. But I can't help feeling that this is a good time to stand quietly out of the way. To watch and to listen and tell my children, but also to let the city have its chance to just be sad.

To remember