Permanence in Tragedy – Growing Up After 9/11

It’s been a long ten years. It’s been an even longer twenty years.

September 11, 2001

I was 7 years old.

Sometimes, I tell people I was 6, but for some reason, I can never remember those details. I remember my second grade teacher, Mrs. Murphy, and I remember being picked up that day from school. My dad drove us home, his eyebrows furrowed together in stress. And while I had nothing notable to mention from that day other than the class clown talking about this or that, nothing I said would overpower the deafening silence of that car ride back home.

Our TV was in the den downstairs, and I recall sitting on the floor as Dad looked at the screen. The news played, but at that age, I didn’t understand. It was just another news piece. Another day, another moment sitting on the carpet, not aware of what was happening around me.

In the days that followed, I don’t remember what happened at school, but I remember seeing a lot of red, white, and blue. My house was suddenly flooded with flags of all sizes. My mom would take the time to make small pins of the flag, and while I wore one to school, the rest were sold and the money donated.

I didn’t think anything of it.

And then one day, I can’t remember exactly how long after that silent car ride home, I remember asking, “Why are we doing this?

Thinking back at how my parents must have had to think in the moment – how do I tell a young child that something has happened in the city we spent our weekends in, the place where Grandma and Grandpa would buy our sweets, something truly terrible has happened?

The beginning of the conversation, I really can’t remember. I remember asking why terrorists hit the Towers – though, I’m not even sure if I knew what the Towers were other than those two things in the skyline I often dreamed about.

“Because they don’t like us.”

None of this really explained why we were doing all this. Why was Mom putting an American flag pin on my shirt everyday before school? Why did we need to make these pins to raise money? What was even really happening?

It was those last words in the explanation that are burned into my memory.

The people who died in those buildings, they’re not coming home.

There it was.

My first true meaningful and impactful encounter with death, though it was not the death of a friend or a relative. It was the collective deaths of thousands of strangers – people I’d never met and will never meet but might have passed one day during our walks through the city.

I remember crying. My parents hugged me and asked if I was afraid to lose them, and in my childish confusion, I developed my first trauma response – silence.

I chose to stay silent and never answered that question for another 19 years. When I unpacked all that 9/11 had done to how I deal with death during my first experience with therapy, I learned how to finally explain why I cried.

I felt ashamed. I felt embarrassed. I felt so, whole-heartedly, distraught that it took me so long to understand why everyone around me was so sad.

And in the twenty years that followed, that sadness and silence has followed me with every death of a life I’d touched – even if for a moment. That day is the reason why I can’t stand silence, and it’s the reason why I can never let anyone leave the room without saying goodbye. The haunting feeling of 3,000 goodbyes never have been said weighs on my thoughts. Even the day my parents were in a non-life threatening car accident, I cried, and I was just so unbearably angry. I was angry at every teenager who’d ever complained about a parent because for a moment, there was a chance I might’ve lost mine, and I would never have had the chance to say goodbye.

In the twenty years that followed, I proudly told everyone around me that I was a fucking New Yorker. I was born there, and it was in my blood.

On one trip to the city in my twenties, I took the train to a small tattoo shop in East Village and got the outline of the New York skyline tattooed on my arm. If you look one way, it’s the Empire State Building.

But for me, when I look down and see that my sleeve has been pulled up just that much – I see them again. I see the Twin Towers etched into my skin until I die. I can’t begin to describe how I felt on that train ride back into New Jersey when a transit worker walked passed me and said, “That’s an amazing tattoo.

In my youth, my reaction to seeing how other’s would post about 9/11 was far more angry. I’d see young, stupid, ignorant girls place a hand on their hips and smile for the camera in front of the Memorial – the place I didn’t dare visit until I was absolutely ready.

I was ready when I was 24.

I separated from my friends, and I was still soaked in the rain.

And I just walked.

I walked through the 9/11 museum, and I kept walking. I read the old headlines, and I stared at the rubble, perfectly in tact after all this time. And then I got to the one room where they asked you to be silent.

There were phones on the display cases, and when you picked up the phone, you’d hear the last voicemail someone left for a loved one. You’d hear someone’s last I Love You and their final Goodbye. On one wall, you could see the infamous photo of the woman, about to jump to her death, and, in her modesty, held down the hem of her skirt.

Even in the face of death, a woman maintains her modesty.

Another wall, they’d enlarged a video someone had taken of one of the towers collapsing. Along the ceiling, every single news broadcast shown across the world played in a loop. In every video, you could see that beautiful New York sky, slowly being eaten by a cloud of smoke.

As I walked, I cried quietly. It was like all the sadness I’d ever felt just rushed into me, and it was an infinite stream of tears – my tears pleading for forgiveness for not knowing what was happening and for taking so long to come here to see how far we’ve come.

And when I turned the corner, I finally saw it, and it was something I must have missed on my first pass in that room.

A glass case – full of handmade American flag pins that were sold in the effort to raise money for the Red Cross. My mom’s pin right before me – there it was.

Of course, it might not have been hers, but in that moment, I’d thought that this was the piece of me, that 7 year old child who’d been picked up from Mrs. Murphy’s class, that had never left New York, never left the city, and never budged from this place of history. I’d come back to a piece of our family that was permanently tied to this moment. Even in the years that passed when I’d learned that I had family members who directly assisted in the recovery efforts, I was still basking in the feeling of permanence, infinite impact on the moment that shaped so much of me.

To everyone I know today – I don’t care where you were, and I don’t care how you feel now about the state of the world today. But in the days following 9/11, there was an unrecognizable feeling of… home. It was everywhere. That unimaginable feeling of everyone just allowing each other to be silent and grieve – people were hugging each other and really feeling what everyone felt. Baseball fans would flash “WE LOVE NEW YORK” signs even when New York was their biggest rival. It was the one time in our history that we chose to feel the grief of others; we chose to allow silence and tears and screams of pain. This was the singular most outstanding time when for once we didn’t see each other as enemies or strangers, but we were looking at neighbors and friends. That feeling hasn’t returned in a long time.

It’s been a long twenty years, New York. And still, we never forget.

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