After so many years, I think I forgot what September 11th really means. Not the event itself, of course, but what we can glean from our memory of it. For the first few anniversaries, anger and gloom were in charge of me. For a few after that, grief. A lot of grief. Then some delayed patriotism and New York City pride. Then, a reflection of the deeply personal part of September 11th where I lost the version of myself I once knew and met the version of myself that was so swallowed by fear and hopelessness, everything stopped mattering.
On more recent anniversaries, I simply started to carry a little something extra in my heart; something that bumps up against everyone I pass here in Los Angeles, where I've lived for the last 8 years; something that says "yeah, I'm a New Yorker. Yeah, we got through that together. Yeah, it still hurts." Because I was 15 and had before come nowhere near an experience that would crumple everything I thought I could ever rely on, slowly, and with a great deal of surrealism.
On September 9th, 2001, I saw the Twin Towers for the last time, from across the river in New Jersey, with the setting sun bouncing off the windows so boldly, the buildings glowed.
The next day, I began my sophomore year of high school on Staten Island. And the day after that, I sat in Italian class feeling sorry for my teacher who the class relentlessly made fun of when a classmate of mine sprung up from his chair and shouted "a plane flew into the World Trade Center." He was listening to the radio on his Walkman when the news broke. We didn't have smartphones to verify his claim or get more information. We just sat in that, wondering what it could mean.
I remembered when a plane flew into the Empire State Building once. It was a reparable situation - could this one be similar? I found myself staring out the window at a passing plane wondering what kind of damage it could do to the largest buildings I'd ever known. Then chaos started to break out in the hallways.
More and more news was coming in and students were leaving one by one, some with parent escorts, some on their own, most frantic with fear that their parents or some other relative who worked downtown were in danger, or worse.
After a few more periods of class - first Italian, then English, then Creative Writing, my mom came to get me. My body still remembers the moment when I followed after her, walking hastily and panicked to the car, begging her, shouting at her to tell me what had happened. "They're gone!" she said, manically. "Who's gone?" I asked, with a squeak in my voice. "The Twin Towers. They're gone."
I froze in the street. Clearly she misspoke. How could they be gone? How does that happen? How many people must be dead?
My dad and aunt worked near the towers and, with cell service out around the city, we sat in worry for hours. Radio stations told us not to drink water from the tap out of fear the terrorists would try to hit us with chemical warfare. Neighbors became instantly patriotic as the sky turned yellow for months. I spent so much of that week and the weeks to follow submitting a family friend's picture to local news stations as a missing person in the impractical hope someone would find him. No one did. Lots of grief, anger, shock, fear wrapped up in a day that felt like it never ended but also never could have actually happened in the first place.
September 11th brought me a lot of confusion about patriotism, political righteousness, the ethos of war, and what kind of stuff the Universe is made of. It forced me to see a side of myself I didn't know existed, one that boiled with rage and dreamt of the destruction of our destroyers. It forced upon me a surreal vulnerability.
In the anniversaries that followed, my sensibility often wavered from the most zoomed-out perspective of how this impacted all of humanity, all the way in to the very personal ache I felt in my core as a 15-year-old whose understanding of the world became an illusion.
This year, I work with military veterans. Veterans of this war, the war September 11th started. Some were already deployed on peacekeeping missions that day when their task suddenly flipped from peace to war. Others were called to serve and protect because of September 11th.
And every day I hear their stories, not just of the trauma they returned home with, but how that trauma developed inside of nations already ravaged by violence and terror, only further perpetuated by our presence there. And so as I try to understand how to mark this year's anniversary with some reflection, some introspective ritual that does the day justice, I find a well of privilege.
It sounds strange, sure, that such a massive attack on my hometown could bring about thoughts of privilege. September 11th dismantled me and put me back together a little crooked. It killed a great deal of beautiful people, people that were loved and have been missed. It triggered a war that has lasted for 18 years with no end in sight. And yet we were able to mourn and rebuild. We were able to send our troops out with the intent to defend us by bringing war to foreign soil where American civilians would be impacted not at all. Americans have gone about our lives since September 11th. We've experienced residual attacks, our own domestic gun violence, our own struggles with the manifestation of trauma. But we've been at war for 18 years because of September 11th and we hardly notice.
There are places rocked by constant trauma, places so deeply scarred by terror, places where an event like September 11th is just par for the course. That we were so collectively traumatized by it means we've long held the privilege of peace, a privilege everyone deserves but not everyone gets.
And so as I mourn for those who lost their lives on September 11th, the family members left behind, the first responders who carried home their own battles of illness and trauma, and the military veterans who signed up to protect their nation only to be harmed by the politics and reality of war, I also find myself feeling gratitude for the fact that September 11th broke us all because we truly felt safe. America was a safe place to be. So safe, in fact, we still struggle, 18 years later, to fathom what happened that day. That I remain confused about September 11th, what I learned, what it means, and how it will continue to shape us, I'm thankful that I have the privilege to reflect.