September 11th, remembering and forgetting

The thing that was truly lost on 9/11, what nothing will ever bring back, is the rainy New York day of September 10, 2001.

new york skyline (photo credit: Gary Hershorn / Reuters)
new york skyline
(photo credit: Gary Hershorn / Reuters)
NEW YORK – Unlike the famously bright, blue day of September 11, 2001, when the world was shaken, detritus from the World Trade Center falling like snow in a snow globe as the buildings burned, this Sunday in New York City was dark, gloomy and cold.
Memorials are everywhere, in print and on television. Ceremonies proliferate, enabling officials to make resonant speeches, stand in silent solemnity and lay wreaths. On September 11, particularly this year, Facebook profile photos are changed to American flags or pictures of the iconic towers, like roses or stones laid on a virtual grave. Status messages note that the world is such a different place now, that the writer will never forget what happened on this day 10 years ago.
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Why is this day, the 10th anniversary, different from all other days? Pundits on every television channel, newspaper and website discuss this point in terms of foreign policy, terrorism, intercultural relations and civil liberties. But these things do not touch on the real differences in the lives of real people.
This anniversary is different because it is the tacit acknowledgment that we have moved 10 years away from those stunned days immediately after.
Those days were also beautiful and blue, when we wandered through the the streets of New York passing homemade signs made by families of missing people, hopeful smiles staring sightlessly from paper, imploring us to somehow find them, to somehow undo what had happened.
An anniversary commands us to remember in a different, commemorative fashion, and we have to do so because September 11 is no longer omnipresent, for both good and ill. We no longer climb into yellow taxicabs festooned with American flags to greet the frightened eyes of an obviously Muslim driver in the rear-view mirror.
We have forgotten the panic and fear that made us carry flip-flops in our briefcases just in case we had to walk down more than 20 floors to evacuate a building. We have forgotten how smiling and laughing afterward felt wrong. We have forgotten how we felt sad, crumpled and broken.
We have also forgotten the feeling, as strong and sure as footsteps toward the blood bank on September 12, of “I have to do something to help my country.”
As a 2001-New Yorker, I know this personally. I have forgotten the feeling that took me to the makeshift legal offices at the pier, where I worked for two weeks. I have forgotten the sudden impulsive feeling that made me take a stranger’s hand when I heard him take in a sharp breath as I instructed him how to fill out a death certificate for his wife. He seemed impossibly old.
The skin around his eyes was pockmarked with broken blood vessels.
When I took the pen from his shaking hand, he told me he was 43. His wife had walked down to the 78th floor, and then decided to take the elevator.
I seldom think of the question I asked myself that day: “Why does it take thousands of people dying within a mile of my home for me to attempt to help other people?” Now in 2011, we see the lights downtown but have forgotten the horrible smell of that smoke, burning metal and flesh. The passionate fury of anger, conviction and mourning slide, inscrutably, into forgetting. Of course, the softness of memory can be a mercy. On September 11, the world cut far too deep.
I forget what is important, all the time. Every day, I forget. On this day of the year, the calendar steps on my heart and tells me: Remember! It stomps across my heart with shined shoes, blasting bagpipes, and tear filled voices speaking into windblown microphones. Today, it’s on every channel.
And then slowly, the days and nights elide. With each hour, we inch away from brightly hopeful, clear blue September days.
And I remember that we will forget again.
But the thing that was truly lost on September 11, that no memorial will ever commemorate and that nothing will ever bring back, is the rainy New York day of September 10, 2001. On that prosaic day, we yelled at our dry cleaners for losing our shirts, and went to work pissed off. We ordered Chinese takeout and tipped the delivery guy extra for having biked through the dark, wet night. We ran out of shampoo, and wrote it down on a shopping list for the next day.
On September 10, 2001, our “problems” were amazingly, beautifully small and mundane. Because on that day, there was nothing to remember, and we had no idea how grateful we should have been.