I have a secret. Maybe it’s a secret a lot of people share. Maybe secret isn’t the word for it at all. Maybe it’s just one of those weird idiosyncrasies. Maybe I’m just a freak who is overly sensitive about things. Well, I’m definitely that, I know. But this. This goes way beyond that.
Eleven years ago, I was living at my parents house (yes, really). I woke up one morning to the sound of their television. It was a very weird thing to wake up to given the television never went on in the mornings. My dad worked nights, so he slept in late. I didn’t think much of it and went about my morning, getting ready for work, until I heard them talking to one another. At that point I walked into their bedroom just in time to see what I can only describe as the worst reality television I have ever seen. It was September 11.
I went to work that day. I emailed back and forth with a couple of friends who were worried about loved ones. I tried to console my coworker as she tried frantically to reach her family back in New York City. I quietly wondered about the cousins I have who live in Manhattan. I held it together for the people around me.
It was the worst tragedy I had ever seen happen in my lifetime. I remember being a kid and watching in wide eyed fascination as the Challenger took off into space. But it never made it. It exploded in front of a million watching eyes. I was all set to give a speech on Sally Ride the following week. I added the line, “I was very sad when the Challenger exploded” to the end of it. It was sad, but being so little, it was also harder to comprehend.
Or was it?
I hadn’t yet been to NYC when September 11 happened. It was my “dream city.” I had dreamed of moving there for as long as I could remember. From the time I was in elementary school until I moved out of my parents’ house after 9/11, I had a beautiful poster of the Brooklyn Bridge with the towers in the background tacked up on my bedroom wall. The Big Apple. The Big City. It was a whole world outside the small-town world I had always known. It was something to aspire to. Something to dream about.
But on September 11, 2001, it became the sight of horrors I could never really imagine. It was bad enough watching the smoke billowing from the buildings. Watching the second plane hit. Watching the towers fall. Watching the people running, screaming away from the area. Thinking of all those people. Thinking of the people who ran into the buildings to save them. Thinking of the people in the buildings nearby. Thinking of the unthinkable really. You think you can imagine it, but can you? Can you really? It took hardly any time before even more horrors were revealed. The internet came alive with disgusting photos of people jumping from the buildings. Horrible photos, magnified and blown up and so awful they literally made me sick to my stomach. Stories of limbs and pieces and people reduced to nothing but ash.
I remember how eerie it was, those days with no planes flying overhead. The fear I felt at the sound of one lone jet streaking across the otherwise silent skies. I remember wondering what if? What if the Golden Gate Bridge was next? The Transamerica Building? What if? What if? What if?
Something about it all broke me. I don’t know why it affected me the way it did. I mean, yes, it was a terrible tragedy. It was probably the worst tragedy I will ever “witness” in my lifetime. But it wasn’t really MY tragedy. Well, in a way it was, it was OUR tragedy, all of us. But I wasn’t there, I was all the way across the country, but it drove a stake of grief deep into my soul. That’s my secret. I’m still broken. And not the way your average person is. There’s no, “oh yes, that was a terrible day” conversation with me. I can’t watch the documentaries. I can’t watch the “stories of.” I can barely watch, read, or hear anything that even references it without feeling that lump rise up in my throat and the tears flood my eyes.
When I (finally) graduated from college in 2006 (there was a long hiatus there), my mother took me to New York City as my graduation gift because she knew how badly I had always wanted to go there. We saw the sites, took the tours, hung out with our cousins, ate pastrami at Katz’s deli (yes, I sat where Sally sat) and, of course, we eventually made our way to Ground Zero. I teased my mom, the overly sentimental one in the family, “oh… Are you going to get super emotional and cry a lot?”
But, surprisingly, it was me. I completely lost it. By then it looked like any other construction site. If you didn’t know what had happened, you never would have guessed it was the site of something so awful. But of course we knew. We all knew. I stood under the plaque searching for the one familiar name. Paul K. Sloan. He worked on the 89th floor of the South Tower. He was on the phone with his family when the line went dead. His best friend was supposed to fly out to NYC on September 12 to visit. We went to high school together. Schoolmates, but not friends. I knew him from the basketball games where we both went to cheer on our team. He had a huge smile and was always very friendly to everyone, even us lowly underclassmen. I was shaky at ground zero. There were tears, but they were basically contained. I couldn’t say much though. It was one of those times where I just knew if I opened my mouth the floodgates would open.
Then we walked into St. Paul’s Chapel and those floodgates did, indeed, open. I think I maybe snapped three photos. I could hardly breathe. I felt like … I can’t even describe the overwhelming sorrow I felt. Overpowering grief mingled with an overwhelming sense of humanity and love. St. Paul’s Chapel is an amazing place. For six months it was filled with emergency rescue teams, doctors, firefighters, police, volunteers, bringers of faith, whatever was needed. The chapel was (and I assume still is) filled with cards and letters and banners from all around the country, letters of sympathy and hope and support. Thousands and thousands of paper cranes, patches from various firehouses, all kinds of things. Should you ever get down that way, go there.
I sobbed. We got back on our tour bus. I sobbed. We got to the next stop and I was mostly okay until I started thinking about it again, and sobbed. My mom ribbed me about it, echoing my words. I couldn’t pull myself together. Thinking about it now, sitting here typing this, I have tears on my cheeks again.
I wonder if it’s something that will always affect me this way? Of course it’s become a bit better as time passes. But I still can’t watch the documentaries. I really want to. There’s one in particular that really interests me. I tried to watch it. I couldn’t. I couldn’t watch the movie about the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. I couldn’t read any of the in depth articles on what all happened, particularly those with a lot of photos. I still feel enraged at the internet making a spectacle of those people plummeting to their death. I don’t really know if it’s normal to still get so upset about something that really, if you think about it, didn’t affect my personal life at all. But it does upset me still. Maybe it’s just that oversensitive Irish gene.
The other night I started watching “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” I had interest in it because the kid in it is from around here, he’s the son of the head of a big non-profit organization. I was nervous about watching it. I watched the first half of it a few days ago and decided I wouldn’t watch the other half. But I needed to. I wanted to know. So I finished it up tonight. If you plan on watching it and haven’t yet, don’t read the rest of this paragraph. Though there really aren’t any spoilers here. There is one scene, with the answering machine and the photos. Those god damn photos. I sobbed. Fists clenched. Choking sort of splotchy red-faced sobs. Again. I wonder about all those kids. Those wives. Those husbands. Those parents. If I, a stranger all the way across the country still gets so strangled with emotion at the slightest mention of it, how must they feel?
And how is it so many people in this country seem to have simply forgotten? We haven’t forgotten the big picture of course, how could we? Terrorism. War. The world changed after 9/11. Everything changed. But what’s been forgotten in the mess of it all is the human side of things. The people. The people who died and the people who lived and the way, for a few days, maybe even weeks, our entire country pulled together into one giant, all encompassing embrace.