We were walking through a mall last month and were greeted by a large mural dedicated to the victims of 9/11, part of which read: “Never forget.”
Never forget? That phrase always made me cringe. Who could forget such a thing? Who could forget the pain, the loss, the rage, the image of smoke, fire, and buildings collapsing while people ran for safety? Who could forget such a powerful, staggering loss?
It was a perfect day. Blue skies, fluffy clouds, September warmth. I sat at my desk, the day’s work put aside briefly for my morning blog entry, something mundane about not getting the timestamps right on the blog. Normal, ordinary day. I still lived in a state of mind where I felt the world was a mostly decent place, that people were mostly good, that life would hold no big surprises that I couldn’t handle. And then it happened.
The perfection, the absolute banality of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was shattered. After a few minutes of struggling to connect to CNN.com and listening to people run into my office with reports (the White House was on fire, there were ten hijacked planes in the air — a real myriad of false, alarming information), I called a family member who was still sleeping. “Wake up, the world is ending.”
The next days, months, years were a succession of anger, tears, and anxiety. I grieved with my father over the loss of his friends and colleagues. I attended a memorial service for a bomb squad detective that included snipers standing sentry on the roof of my childhood church.
Our lives were consumed by this one event. Every day was another new alert, another funeral, another service. Every conversation began with a deep sigh. Every plane in the sky was greeted with apprehension, yet every moment of nothing flying above us was filled with anxiety. We hugged. We held hands. We had a shared community of both despair and hope. Schools were on guard. Malls were on alert. War was coming. Who knew what else was coming with it? We sought revenge. We sought justice. We sought to relieve ourselves and the country of a rage and sadness that had swept over us.
As the time went by, we lived, we went to school, and we went to work. We got married and had babies. Wars were started; lines were drawn. We made divisions amongst ourselves, loosening the bonds we had formed over our grief.
Life has a way of making you forget every once in a while. Anniversaries make you remember. The first anniversary was an open wound. The second, a gripping pain. The third, a dull throb. The fourth anniversary was a fading photograph in our wallet. By the time the fifth and sixth came around, 9/11 and the Twin Towers were a phantom limb. Conversations were no longer filled with what-ifs and what’s next. We turned our radios up louder. We danced. We sang.
We forgot. It doesn’t seem possible, but we forgot. I forgot.
I didn’t forget in the strictest meaning of the word, but I forgot some things. I forgot the anger. I forgot the anxiety and the worry. It’s all still there; it’s just not out on my sleeve where I can see it and know it and live it all the time. But it’s there. It’s in every perfect day, when the skies are blue and the clouds are perfect and the warmth is soft and comforting in an autumn kind of way. Some things were okay to forget or let go of. I swore after 9/11 that I would never set foot in another airplane.
I am writing this on a flight from New York to California.
Is it a good thing to forget pain? Is it something we need to keep in our hearts as a reminder, something to keep us awake, alert, and ever vigilant?
No, I don’t want to remember that.
I want to remember the way the skyline looked before, with the Twin Towers intact. I want to remember a time when most people didn’t know who bin Laden was. I want to know that time when the country wasn’t a place of divide, when terrorism and war didn’t separate us into with us/against us.
But I forgot so much. Seven years have come and gone. In those years we moved on, we lived, we put 9/11 aside with all our other memories that we like to keep at bay. Time is the best medication of all. It dulls the pain, eases the hurt, and assuages the guilt. It makes me forget it could happen again. Time brings complacency.
In that small space between three hijacked planes and color-coded terror alerts, between a small field in Pennsylvania and conspiracy theories, there was a brief, lit-up moment when we felt like one. I remember thinking that this tragedy would fix us instead of break us. I want so much to feel again that hope and unity that existed in the days after the attack. There was proof, ever so briefly, that we could come together as a nation to help and comfort each other, when we were all just human beings on common ground instead of left or right, Democrat or Republican.
Never forget, indeed. Never forget that out of the rubble of tragedy arose a moment when we put everything aside to be one whole nation. It is so easy at a time like now to forget that, to draw lines in the sand and become us and them. In so many ways, 9/11 ended up furthering any divisions we had instead of closing them. We chose up sides and backed away from each other as if we were our own enemies — as if the enemies we had, those who steered planes into buildings, weren’t enough.
We don’t want to constantly remember the towers falling, the hole in the Pentagon, or the remains of a plane in a field. We don’t want to constantly think about the deaths, the sorrow, or the anger. But we do need to remember. We need to remember the hope that most of us felt that we would work together to get through this. We need to remember that brief feeling of togetherness. We need to remember how the lines between us disappeared and how we worked with each other to comfort those who needed it. We need to remember that it is possible to work as one to help our nation heal.
Seven years later, that’s what I want to remember.