There are not many who remember
They say a handful still survive
To tell the world about
The way the lights went out
And keep the memory alive...
A good friend asked me if I planned to post anything on the 6th anniversary of 911. No, I said. There's nothing I can add to all that will be said.
This afternoon I read the comments on a website that had marked the day. Do you ever get tired of being asked to remember? Said the post.
No, said a commenter. I'm tired of being asked to forget.
So am I, I suddenly realized.
So this is what I will say instead of forgetting:
I didn't see the jetliners crash into the Twin Towers; I heard them. I was at work and had just returned to my seat after a restroom break. I usually listen to a local radio station via streaming media and earbuds while I work. Just the week before, my station had converted to an all-news, all-talk format. At the time I had complained about it. I'm a music lover. How boring, I groused. It'll never last.
Now the BBC was broadcasting live from New York City into my ears. I got the vague impression that something unusual had just happened; a reporter was describing chaos on the sidewalk and I could hear shouting. Then they announced that an airplane had hit one of the towers.
I pictured a small Cessna.
Hey, I told an older colleague, an airplane just crashed into the World Trade Center.
His voice was a shrug. I remember when that happened years ago to the Empire State Building, he said.
Across town, a pilot friend of mine was thinking the same thing. Head in the cockpit, he thought, meaning a pilot so glued to his high-tech controls that he forgets to look out at what's ahead of him.
But there was more to it than that. I continued to listen, trying to piece together a story out of the sounds of crowd chaos that only seemed to grow. What was happening? I stood up a looked over the top of my cubicle, earbuds still in place.
I was now alone in the room.
I found the rest of my coworkers in TV lounge next door, silently watching the news. We gasped as the second plane made that deliberate, angry swerve as it adjusted its course to slam into the building.
In New York City, my mate's best friend from college was stopped by the telephone on his way out the door to work. Don't go to the Towers, said his boss. We need you in Queens today.
He spent the day on a rooftop in Queens, watching the Towers burn.
As I sat with my colleagues in the lounge, the news ticker below the live footage announced that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. There were fires on the National Mall, it said. Maybe a bomb outside the State Department.
In those days, my sister worked in a building directly across the river from the Pentagon. In full view of it, as a matter of fact. I forced myself to abandon the TV and ran for my desk phone.
I didn't have her office number with me, but I knew the name of the multistory building. I googled it and came up with a telephone directory for the businesses inside. I called her office.
I called the floors above her office.
I called the floors below.
I put my earbuds back in. There was another plane. Not in D.C., not in New York--
About 3 weeks before, a dear friend of mine from college had packed up and moved to rural Pennsylvania. He had emailed me that in his zeal to participate in the community he had volunteered for the local emergency response team.
What a joke, he wrote. Like anything ever happens here.
By noon our local telephone system had crashed and we were asked to make only emergency calls. The Internet clogged and slowed. I remained at work. In those days I had no reliable internet access or TV at home; in order to stay connected I had to stay at work. I told my boss I didn't think I was going to be good for much.
She said not to worry about it.
At the end of the day I went home. I called my parents. I located my sister. Her boss had seen the smoke rising from the Pentagon through her window and charged onto the floor to announce We are so outta here!
Without a car, my sister had been caught up in the crush of oddly silent, oddly cooperative fleeing people. Metro stations began closing at random, bouncing her from stop to stop and back again. She finally arrived at her apartment at 5 pm, having left work before noon.
I hope they find Bin Laden and shoot him in the heart, she snarled. Bet it's a really tiny target.
We live in the days since then.
Editorials in major newspapers have told us that we need to get all this into perspective; after all, more people are killed in automobile accidents each year than perished on 911.
The operative word in that sentence is accidents.
Others tell us that we are self-indulgent; that this is far less than the murder and misery caused by US policy in other parts of the world. We had it coming.
Sometimes I want to find the people who say this. Fine, I want to say. Make this right. I want to watch you. I imagine they have a particular figure in mind; the number of bodies needed to balance the scales. And I will follow them from house to house while they gather the requisite amount of people. Don't worry, they will tell each person. After this we'll all be equal. You want to help create a just world, don't you? That house next door- is it occupied? We need ten more from this block...
And when before they can enact their justice I will put them in a plexiglass cage in a human zoo. I will stare at them.
Such people deserve to be stared at. They are a new subspecies of human being.
I have a friend who was at least nominally Catholic before the attacks. The story of flight 93 broke his faith. He couldn't fathom a just God sending such heroes to their death.
My faith was born on that day. Wordless but coherent, it grew in me, unbidden.
Faith that ordinary lives, though small and short, need not be insignificant.
Faith that the America I know is made of many clasped hands and generous hearts.
(Who give so much blood in a single week that even the Red Cross says- Enough! Who carry food to Ground Zero and gather every morning to cheer the rescue workers. Who link arms around the outside of mosques to protect American Muslims.)
Faith that my small life can somehow be of service.
My new faith has one ritual act. Every year, on the afternoon of 911, I carry a bouquet of roses to our local firehouse.
I walk because it comforts me to see the neighborhood, with its tidy homes and lawns. I walk because it gives me time alone to think about what this day means.
I walk to our local firehouse because I can't walk all the way across the country to a firehouse in New York City. A firehouse where no crew returned on the evening of September 11th, 2001.
I walk because I know our own firemen would have behaved no differently than those vanished ones.
When I get home I know that they are still protecting something worth saving.
And that is the one thing I refuse to forget.