Monday, September 11, 2006
An Anniversary
Five years ago right now, I was settling into my second day of "real" grad school, a doctoral program, so early into it all that I hadn't even yet reached the "maybe I don't really belong here" anxiety. My professor that morning was Diana Sholtz, who is one of the smartest and yet most human professors I've ever had the privelege to experience, and I am grateful for that. I was grateful throughout my classes with her, but I was especially grateful on that day. Back when "September Eleventh" was not a phrase in the Americn vernacular and two really big buildings were standing in New York City, back when there wasn't a big scar on the Pentagon and a crater in a field in Pennsylvania.

Class started at 9:00, and a few minutes later someone - maybe Martha? I can't even remember now - went downstairs to get something, or maybe came in late, somehow heard someone talking about a plane crash in New York. Maybe even somewhere in the city. No one was sure. Diana tried to start class, but no one was quite focused; there wasn't anything specifically wrong, just a vibe in the room that we needed to know more about this weird little plane crash thing before we could get on with our day. So at 9:30 she cancelled class and we scattered to wherever we could get near a television. Some found them on-campus, but I lived a mile from the school so I just drove home, with Bob, Lindsay and Mark joining me there. The second tower fell while we were en route to my house.

My mother-in-law was at the house babysitting Emily, because her preschool wouldn't accept her until she was 18 months old, which happened in October 2001. We startled my mother-in-law, who was just about to get into the shower, and I distinctly remember the looks of horror on Bob's and Mark's pre-parenthood faces as they beheld the evidence of Emily's productive sinus cold. And we sat on the couch, and we watched it all unfold. We tried to call friends and loved ones in and near New York to make sure everyone was okay, but the lines were down. We tried to call friends and loved ones anywhere at all, just to make sure no one had taken an impulsive plane ride that day. And we sat and watched it some more. I wish I had remembered to toss in a VCR tape and record some of those early, raw, initial reports and video. But I didn't.

And after a while, we shook it off and tried to attend our second class, at 1:00 in the afternoon. It was not a successful attempt, and everyone headed home by 2:00. For more watching, but now with the added awareness of just how many planes normally fly over, even in a small town in rural New Hampshire, and just how quiet it was now that they weren't flying over. For months afterward, once the air filled with planes again, I found myself suddenly, acutely aware of air traffic, in a way that I hadn't been since toddlerhood. "Oh, look, a plane," every single time, though it wasn't in the happy awestruck manner that Emily was saying the same things.

I didn't lose anyone near to me on September 11th, nor did anyone close to me lose anyone close to them. The nearest loss was two steps away: Willem's aunt lived in the same neighborhood as a stewardess on Flight 93, and was socially acquainted with her. We live and were raised in the Northeast, so we're grateful and a little surprised that it wasn't any more personal.

And here we are, five years later, and it's stil unfolding. Slowly, sometimes painfully, and sometimes just stupidly. Last night, I was in the grocery store, and the two women in line ahead of me were talking about 9/11, and one said, "Yeah, it's the worst day in our history. More Americans died on that day than any other, you know." Um, actually, no, I don't know. In fact, I know otherwise. I know about things like the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg, the Galveston Hurricane, D-Day... They're all well over the estimates of 9/11, which hover around 3,000. It's a lot. It's too many. But it's not the most.

And I sat there, staring at my bag of Chex Mix and package of mushrooms, and wondered, if an inaccurate memorial happens in the supermarket, does it still make an impact? And, is it better to be clear and accurate or to be hyperbolic to make sure we get the maximum drama for the scene? I know where I lean on that spectrum... I'm the same person who has had a hard time with the sympathy cards to Willem that describe my father-in-law as a "good man" when what he really was fell closer to "well-intentioned but complicated and often hurtful." But while I value accuracy for myself, I didn't accost these poor women with facts and reality there at Hannaford. If they feel more important, more impacted, more real by remembering Septemeber 11th as the worst ever, who am I to take that away? It was a superlative in their lifetimes, and in mine.

Everyone remembers it uniquely.