11 September, 2005

It's That Date Again...

So much has been said and written about what happened in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on that awful day. I have no great insights to add or new information to share. But I offer this: I did not forget what I knew and understood by the end of that day. And I will never forget. I will remember the heroes, mourn the victims, and ponder the lessons. I will never forget.

I wrote the following essay a couple days after the first anniversary of the attacks on 9-11-01. On the actual anniversary I had participated in the Rolling Requiem, a world-wide chain of performances of Mozart's Requiem, in memory of those who had died that day. Each performer in the event wore a tag with the name of someone who had died in the attacks. Afterwards, we wrote a note on our tag, and the tags were collected for distribution to surviving family members.

Participation in the Rolling Requiem was emotionally much harder than I had expected. It also packed a physical punch. When I started to sing, I found that getting a deep breath was difficult, as it seemed that the tag over my heart was pressing down on me. I wanted to rip it off; it was suffocating. I told myself I must be losing my mind, and tried to believe it was just melodrama on my part. But I couldn't convince myself I did not feel that weight. I finally said to myself, "The families of these people are carrying a lifelong burden, you can bear that burden for an hour." And so I did. But I was so relieved to take it off when we were done.

I wish I could share with you the name I wore. I have it written down and I would know it the instant I heard it, but I can't come up with it off the top of my head, and the paper it's on is still packed away from my recent move. But after the Requiem, I remember that I looked up his name and learned that he worked for WTC security and was last seen helping evacuate children from a childcare center.

I was safe and sound that day, and I lost no one I knew in the attacks. But in a split second my view of the world shifted to a new axis. Here's what I wrote a couple days after the Rolling Requiem, in response to a question about my memories of 9-11...

Unlike someone who either watched the news as it unfolded, or awoke on the West Coast and pieced together the news bit-by-bit, I received almost the whole news in the span of about 30 seconds.

Though a student at a Midwestern music school, I have more in common with a typical absent-minded professor. On that infamous day, I got confused about the starting time of my first class, which involved learning the trumpet. I had left home before 9:00 eastern time and arrived via public transportation early for my class, so I had heard no news.

I settled down for a little practice before classtime. I had no watch, but after a while I sensed that class should have started already. I stuck my head out the door and asked someone what time it was. Suddenly a professor came running down the hall very agitated because her computer was down and her radio was broken. She said something about hoping to find information in the library. I thought this was a little strange, but I was still very focused on practicing. I returned to the classroom.

When my teacher arrived, she apologized for being late (as was the only other student attending) by saying, "It's been a strange morning." I said it had been the same for me (referring to my time confusion). She said, "It's unbelievable, isn't it." Neither I nor the other student (who had been in a 9:00 eastern-time class) knew what she was talking about. She then told us a plane had hit one of the WTC towers. We were both horrified and said, "What an awful accident!" She said, "Wait, there's more." She had seen the second plane hit live. As we were attempting to wrap our brains around that, she said, "There's still more," and told us about the Pentagon. Then she told us about the rumor of a bomb at the State Department, and of the several planes that were at that time still unaccounted for. My classmate and I were literally speechless. We couldn't form coherent sentences. We just babbled and stuttered and stared at each other.

None of us knew what to do other than to somehow keep moving. So we picked up our instruments and started to play. Concentration was almost impossible, but we plodded ahead, stopping occasionally for incoherent exclamations of shock.

It was over an hour later before I had access to a campus computer to find more information. The first headline I saw said, "WTC Tower collapses." I stared at it trying to understand what that meant. The picture of it in mid-crumble did not make it more real. As I clicked on various stories and began to read, I kept going back to that picture to make sure I hadn't imagined or misunderstood it. As I read, the story of the other tower's collapse was posted. At first I thought it was another story about the first tower. It was all more than I could comprehend. I printed out several articles to take with me so that I could find a quiet place to try to read.

Professors in the rest of my classes either gave us time to talk or cancelled classes compeletely, knowing our minds were elsewhere. By midafternoon I could no longer bear to keep my attention on anything other than the attacks. I went home and sat in front of the TV.

That evening I worked as a personal aide to a naturalized American citizen from Germany who has clear memories of being a child in Germany during WWII. I walked through her door and just dropped my backpack on the floor. I did not say hello--that somehow seemed trite. We just looked at each other. "What an awful day," I said. She agreed. I went through the motions of preparing her meal and caring for her needs, but I felt disconnected from my body and my surroundings. Neither of us said much. As I prepared her for bed later that night, she began to talk. She said that it reminded her of the bombings of her town in WWII. She said that she couldn't bear to watch anymore. "I know what those rescue workers are experiencing", she said. "I remember what powdered buildings and dead bodies smell like. I didn't know I remembered the smell, but I can smell it as I lay here." (In the weeks ahead, she began to have nightmares and found that she had never dealt with the trauma of the war.--"I just stuffed it away, like all the Germans did." Many times over the next year, she would talk about the war).

That night I watched TV until my eyes wouldn't stay open. The next weeks were one long blur. I know I attended classes, but nearly every other waking moment was spent sitting cross-legged in front of the TV. I don't remember there being Halloween that fall, and I don't remember the change of the seasons. I would sit in front of the TV to watch the news and lose track of hours at a time. When I would become aware of myself and surroundings, I would find I was rocking back and forth with silent tears falling down my cheeks. I cried for those who died. I cried for those who survived. I cried for our national loss of innocence (or ignorance?). I cried because in order to protect me, soldiers were leaving their families and doing things that I myself did not have the courage to do.

Though I no longer have as intense feelings today, I still mourn and still worry, and I still feel the ground of our country shifting under my feet. The status quo no longer exists, and what we will become is still unknown.

I will forget neither the losses nor the lessons of 9-11-01. I will teach them to others and I will forever honor the sacrifices of those who work to keep it from happening again.

UPDATE: Kat writes about the part I left out in describing my experience: the thoughts and feelings that began that day, and continue to resonate.

UPDATE II: The name I wore.