I grew up not far from New York City, just around 18 miles or so in New Jersey. My family moved to the East Coast so my father could take a job doing research at Columbia University, and I can't remember the first time I visited the city I was so young. We would go into the city often, visiting my father at work, going to shows on Broadway, visiting my absolute favorite place, the Natural History Museum. The city never frightened me, maybe because I always associated it with seeing my dad, and that always made me feel safe. Once I was old enough to have friends who drove we would go into the city to hang out all the time, to sit in Sheep's Meadow or shop in the Village or to sneak into bars with less than stringent ID policies. I even chose NYC for college, attending Marymount Manhattan and moving into the dorms at the 92st Y. But, I felt I was missing out on the real "college" experience, so I transferred to a college upstate where there were real dorms, a real campus, sports teams and meal halls and the whole college nine yards, and I was happy there. I still visited the city every time I went back home to NJ, most of the time I would take a train in to see my dad and we would walk around the East Village, going to Mamoun's or popping into one of my favorite shops. A lot of my friends now lived in the city and I would stay overnight, having huge brunches that took over two or three tables on hungover mornings. I made a lot of great friends at college, and one of them was Amanda. The September of 2001 she transferred to FIT in Manhattan to finish out her degree in Fashion Merchandising. I promised her I would come down to visit for her birthday, on the 10th, the same day as my dad's. She was living in the city for the first time, missing all of her friends that were still at school upstate without her, and she hadn't made any new friends yet to celebrate with since school had just started. So the plans were all set that I would come down that weekend, and we were so excited to see each other.
I don't remember why I woke up early the morning of September 11th, I didn't have class that morning and I usually slept in. I spent the morning trying to get in touch with my father, whose office building was in lower Manhattan, unsure of what else might happen, unsure if he would be able to get back home, not sure of anything at all.
After getting in touch with my family I got in touch with Amanda, and she asked me if I was still coming down to visit. At first I thought "No f-ing WAY am I coming into Manhattan right now" but I just couldn't tell her that. She was understandably freaked out, and her family was far away, and I had promised her. But I was terrified. I was beyond terrified. I told her I was coming, and my roommate and I drove down to NJ. It happened to be right during the time the candlelight vigil was taking place, and as we drove through the small upstate towns on our back way route we cried as we went past people out in front of their homes, silent, each holding candles, for miles and miles. We drove the whole four hours in silence.
That Saturday I took a cab into the city like I had so many times before, but what I saw was someplace completely new to me. I swear it was as if the cars were all driving slower, at a funereal pace, on the Henry Hudson. We drove into the city by the Jacob Javits Center which had been taken over by military vehicles. I cried softly in the back of the cab, I was scared, and I was sad that the city was so changed. As we got closer to Times Square a man with a sandwich board which said "Repent, The End is Near" was walking around and it horrified me. Not something completely weird for the city, per se, but at that time, that moment, I was petrified.
I made it to Amanda's building, which was a ghost town. Everyone on her floor had left the city. We went out in search of the nearest bar. It was a celebration of her birthday, but we also had something to prove. We weren't scared. We were going to go out. We weren't going to leave Manhattan as badly as I wanted to. I walked those streets with her, streets that I had walked before many times, except now I half expected manhole covers to shoot off, something to fall from the sky, office windows to explode, something, something to happen. Every step I expected something to happen, I was in a constant state of bracing myself.
The city felt empty. Not because there was a literal piece missing, but the loss was palpable in every corner. Not only were the victims of the attack missing, but so many had left, scared, rightfully so, needing to distance themselves, and the streets felt empty, the city felt cavernous and cored out.
But we didn't talk about it. We just went ahead and kept going. We met up with friends, we sat in bars where it seemed like no one was really talking. Everyone we came across was stunned still, mute. No one had any words to say. The shock was so incredibly fresh. It was too big, too much to even wrap your head around, it was too overwhelming, it was too unbelievable that it had actually happened.
When I see all of the photos, the banners, the bumper stickers that remind us to "Never Forget" I think, how could I? How could anyone forget what happened? Forget how many lost their lives, how many were so brave to help others? It is a memory seared into my mind, impossible to smooth over even if I desired to. It is a permanent etching on my own timeline that will never change, because it changed me, it changed the world I live in, it changed the world for my children, and for my children's children.
What I need to remember is not the tragedy, the overwhelming horror of it, the incredible loss, because that can never be forgotten. The best way to honor and remember those who lost their lives is to be good to each other. To love each other. What I need to remember is to keep the important things in life important. To remember what really matters most in life. To remember to hold my loved ones tight, to kiss them, to tell them I love them. To remember the incredible capacity in other human beings to want to selflessly help each other. To remember to try to send out love to everyone, not just people close to me. To love each other. To not give power to the unimportant. Even when you cut me off on the Northway. Even when you hurt my feelings. Even when you say nasty things. Even when I'm at the end of my rope with three kids making me crazy on those certain days. To still send out love. And compassion.
It doesn't really matter how many facebook messages I can get to. It doesn't really matter how much work I can squeeze in. It doesn't matter a whole lot if my kitchen floor is clean. I think of those people, in the towers, they weren't worrying about that email they never responded to, they weren't upset about the guy on the train that was rude to them, they didn't think about the traffic they sat in that morning. They thought about their children, their families, their partners and their spouses. I need to remember that. I need to remember to be present, to be grateful, to give love, to send out light.