September 11: Don’t Look Away

Years ago, I read a book called A Noble Treason, which laid out the story of the White Rose, a group of German university students who wrote and illegally distributed anti-Hitler resistance leaflets around Munich. At its nucleus were Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell, later joined by Scholl’s younger sister, Sophie, and a number of others. Amongst others, the three were tried and executed for their activities, but the ripple effects of their efforts were felt both in and outside of Germany. Their story of working to protect the right to live the ordinary moved me so deeply I vowed to read the book, or something about this group, every year. I believed it was important to make this effort on a continual basis, to remember what they sacrificed for the benefit of those who were to come after, because remembering meant we could never let it happen again.

The World Trade Center in March 2001. The Twin Towers were the most famous portion of the complex, with 1WTC (North Tower), above, to the left of 2WTC (South Tower). Image courtesy Wikipedia.

In contrast, I almost never talk about September 11, and in twenty years have watched just one documentary—at the ten year mark. I have told my son (now eighteen) about that day, and there are such mixed feelings within me regarding his own absorption of it all: it is painful to see him struggle to understand our grief, to not be able to fathom the gravity of it all. At the same time, I envy him not realizing these feelings. No one wants their own child to know such pure, unadulterated heartbreak.

There is another reason why I didn’t tell my own 9/11 story, and that is because I felt as if I didn’t really have one. Who was I? I was not near any of the attacks when they happened, nor did I—as far as I am aware—personally know anyone who perished. And I certainly didn’t do anything of any great note. So when I heard people tell their stories, I held back because I feared anything I might say would intrude on the sacred space of their memories, and such trespass frightened me a great deal. To be honest, it still does. I don’t really know how much to say, and I am a little terrified of me coming out of all this, when none of this is about me. The only thing is knew for sure is how it felt, and so I suppose I did what most people do with pain: they bury it.

Tomorrow* will mark the twentieth anniversary of September 11, and as I have wondered in recent years about my role, small as it may be, in helping to keep my country free, so too did I begin to think about how useless my method of suppression might be. Was it doing anything for all the souls lost that day? Did my silence honor them, or threaten to erase them? Of course, other people know those I remember, even those whose names I never knew. I could let them talk; they probably know more than I do and people probably listen to them in a way they aren’t likely to my small voice. Right?

Well, that probably is true—and partly I am all right with this. I don’t mind it that the world doesn’t hear my voice all the time. But I did begin to feel a bit like a coward, an individual who relies on someone else to do something important, even if that one thing is but a link in a chain of events required for something crucial to happen. The crucial thing here is that I don’t ever, ever, ever, ever want anyone to forget what we lost that day—and how it happened. I want survivors and loved ones to know that strangers cared about them, shed tears for their lost people, and to this day bear scars in their souls that they pray somehow took away a little of the physical pain and mortal fear from those who faced down evil in 2001.

Collapse of the Towers as seen from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

I also recently read an article about Florence Jones, one of the last people to make it out of the south tower, from the 77th floor, and who, until the tenth anniversary, never went to Ground Zero. In the piece, she recounts the excruciating experience of seeing men and women leaping out of the tower windows, as we now know, to escape the inferno that would otherwise consume them. “Florence has always said she didn’t look away out of sheer dignity for those who had no choice. She believed someone needed to bear witness to their suffering.” Though I admit that at the time I likely would have looked away, partly to avoid the sense of voyeurism and also because it is too terrible to see, I immediately felt a bond with her sentiment. I knew this understanding all those years ago when I swore I would not lose the memory of the Scholls, Alexander Schmorell and all those who put absolutely everything on the line for the sake of others. I want to do this for my own people now. I want to, I need to, bear witness to their suffering. I want to tell about what I saw in the hopes that at least a few people will see what I write here and tell some others, and in this way perhaps someone will always remember these people.

“In Russia,” a friend once told me after a friend of eleven years passed away, “people say that no one ever really dies as long as someone remembers them.”

I stopped in London, Ontario that night, even though I was not so far from the American border. I’d been driving for days and it was a good time to stop—early enough that I could enjoy a little time here, but  late enough that it wasn’t wasting time. I tooled around the city for a bit and then back to the hotel for the night. When I woke in the morning, it was to the sound of the TV—something I always did in hotel rooms to avoid the dead silence in the morning. I recognized the voice of Peter Jennings and it registered immediately that something large was occurring. For some reason, in my blurry, newly-awake moments, I thought they were discussing some military exercises, though I wasn’t quite focused enough to be able to think what they might entail.

Once I put my glasses on, my brain fog seemed to recede: Jennings usually had a serious look on his face, but today…something was wrong, really wrong. He was skilled at providing ongoing details while also filling in those just joining, and so I came to understand pretty quickly that one of the Trade Center Towers had been hit by a large aircraft. However, I don’t recall even contemplating the possibility of it not being an accident, though nothing could really swirl around in my mind for long because almost immediately I heard the horrified reactions of people witnessing what I came to learn was a second plane, hitting the other tower. Though I have not been able to find any video, in my memory Jennings declares that this certainly must be a terrorist attack, that there was no doubt about it anymore. He is talking on the phone with someone on the ground in Lower Manhattan, someone who goes into one of the Towers—perhaps the second one hit—to report on the situation, perhaps to help get people out?

Lower Manhattan seen from space on September 11, 2001. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

I don’t recall this entry or the journalist’s demeanor being anything like some of the embedded reporters later, people who catapult themselves up onto a platform from which they observe us, sometimes with disdain. This reporter, he gives me the impression now of a reporter on the beat, one who knows the grime of the city and works for his story. I am sad to say I don’t remember his name, though I will never forget him, because he is supposed to be calling Jennings back to report on interior conditions at the Tower, but before we get this call, the building collapses with the reporter inside it, and this is when I come fully awake and burst into tears. I am in shock and wave my hands in the air, trying to wrap my mind around the reality that someone whose voice I heard just moments ago has now been crushed beneath the rubble of a building more than 100 floors high.

I neither liked nor disliked Jennings, though today I would say his humanity was always evident, even though he always remained professional. For this I probably leaned more toward liking him, and then it did not escape me that the country I now found myself locked in—for I was locked out of my own—was the one he originally came from. I was to gain a great fondness for Canadians because no one had to tell them what they needed to do. They seemed to mobilize without instruction and sheltered perhaps thousands of stranded Americans. Even the hotel staff tried to do anything they could—I remember accidentally breaking the hair dryer as I rushed to leave, feeling an urgency that had no destination, and the housekeeper consoling me.

That was Tuesday and when I reached New York on Friday, I marveled at the absolutely gorgeous weather of the day. It didn’t mix with what had happened; how could something like this happen on such an amazingly beautiful day? Even more out of place were the trucks that rumbled through the streets, vehicles that reminded me of those where I came from, hauling snow to storage areas when it piled too high on the streets. But this was September and, of course, this was not snow they were transporting. It was debris and, had it not been for the smell, I could perhaps be persuaded it was only debris in the backs of those trucks.

The streets were lined with missing posters. It wasn’t just the families who were desperate; strangers lined up on sidewalks to look at the posters, as if memorizing the faces in case they saw any of the missing. Perhaps they were also looking at the faces, holding their breaths and hoping they didn’t see anyone they knew, because beneath everything, we all knew these people were dead. Worse, so many of them would never be found because their bodies, broken into millions of tiny pieces, perhaps some of those pieces ground into ash, rumbled past us in trucks. I remember making myself think it, articulate it in my brain, as if the shock of such a terrible set of thoughts would snap me out of something I thought I might be stuck in. But I functioned in numbness as I wandered around New York City, for what purpose I really don’t know.

The people were friendly. I’d been to New York before and had joked about how if you stopped anyone to ask directions, the person they were with would invariably interrupt to criticize the complicated or incorrect instructions. They might argue with each other and say something like, “What, I’m supposed to get someone lost? They go back to their home and tell everyone what jerks we are?” I loved how they asked questions: “You want I’ll get you a cab?” They weren’t quite so animated now, though they didn’t cry openly. In fact they were quite dignified and their pathways were orderly as they walked the streets, many, I suppose, continuing to meet work obligations. Some, you could tell, were watching crowds, looking for people. One hope was that someone had received a head injury and perhaps suffered from amnesia. They lived in hope because how else could you? How does one function, how does one move forward and what does one do when a loved one is gone, quite literally? They are late and they are gone, as if they just disappeared. Which, admittedly, is precisely what had happened. You could see the grief on the faces of people as they walked past, and that was a difficulty I hadn’t been prepared for.

“We will rebuild!” was a common refrain that I heard in 2001 – and they did. I visited One World Trade Center in 2018, a moving experience. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

And there were so many.

As the days went on, I continued to wander and eventually spoke with a few people, though the conversations were not defined by loss. Most of them, in fact, covered ordinary topics and questions about why I had come to New York City. Some urged me to take their mayor, Rudy Guiliani, up on his challenge to buy in New York, which would help bolster the economy. Others wanted to know my impressions and what I liked best. What struck me the most, however, was that they all maintained a demeanor of some sort, if this is what it could be called, that we had already been acquainted at some level, like people who knew each other, or of one another, but didn’t cross paths all that often. I could have been their kid cousin who didn’t know her way around.

It was a strange combination in those days, the ordinary and the terrible extraordinary that threw lots of strangers together to sort through a variety of different types of grief and searches. The strength of spirit was fairly amazing, and I’ll never forget that about New Yorkers. I don’t know if I’ve done them justice with my contemplation here, though I hope so. Twenty years on, some of the people I met may have passed, and I feel like I want to say, of them and their lost loved ones: “Know that they were. Don’t look away. See their ordinary and their remarkable and rejoice in it, for it is all remarkable.”

*Today, by this point in writing.

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