On Never Forgetting

Yesterday was September 11th. As you may or may not know, our office had special instructions for the morning. We were not supposed to work between 8:45 and 10:30am. We could use the time to remember, to get in touch or to visit a place of worship.

I’m not too religious anymore, but I do worship my mom, so I went to have breakfast with her. I remember that the day itself was very difficult because due to bad cell phone service, no one could reach my mom all day.

I had spoken to all the other members of my family in New York. My dad actually called to wake me up. The week before, I had furiously explained to him that now that I was in COLLEGE, I should never be contacted before noon. At the time he called (8:47am), I was dreaming that two giant roaches were attacking my apartment building and childhood home. (True story.) You’d think I’d be happy to be pulled from that sleep, but I was still pretty pissed. I was even more annoyed when he told me that he was calling to tell me a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Um, hadn’t there been a bomb there in 1991? Old news! News that surely could have waited until NOON, the hour at which all cool college students finally decided to be awake.

But I got out of bed and decided to find a TV. Conveniently, the only one on our floor was in the room of my Big Crush. I found the door unlocked, let myself in, and soon had the privilege of watching the second plane crash with my Big Crush, who had come back from the shower to find me groggily staring at his TV.

A few hours later, my entire freshman hall was meandering all over campus in a pack, uncertain about how to handle canceled classes, two demolished buildings and social interactions. My Big Crush explained to me that a friend of his had died in a car crash earlier that year, and he was through supporting people. He wasn’t capable of listening to any people who were upset. If I had any reaction, it was probably: this guy sounds mean and awful. I should fall more in love with him. But I don’t really remember.

I do remember that I couldn’t get in touch with my mother all day. She was safe and no one had any reason to believe that she’d been close to the danger. But if September 11th changed anything, it was the meaning of the phrase, “reason to believe.” She was the one without a cell phone, and she actually broke her foot that day (unrelated to the National Tragedy.) The isolation we both felt that day was something we discussed at our breakfast; the knowledge that while we both we knew we hadn’t lost anything, we both felt truly lost.

At dinner that night she finally called me. I was in the dining hall, and for the first time in my entire life, I was too upset to eat. I picked up the phone and heard her voice, and the first time that day, and what would be the last time for many months, I started to cry.

At breakfast this Thursday, my mother and I tried to understand why we’d been so emotional. We talked about her broken foot, and the first hug we shared when I came home for a weekend three weeks later. (“I can still feel it,” she told me. “The hug, not my foot. I can only feel the pain in my foot when it’s about to rain.”)

The bottom line is, no one in my family was at risk. Yet we all felt at risk. To me, this is the paradox behind September 11th. It was an actual crisis for only a small percentage of the country. But it provoked some kind of highly individualized upheaval for almost everyone. I think it is because in this world, we are longing to find things to take personally, longing for things that assure us we still have the right to feel.

Mark writes that September 11th proved to us how brave people can be, and he meant the firemen and rescue workers in New York.

But I remember that later that night, the roommate of my Big Crush came to find me, carrying baseball gloves. (They both played the team.) “Do you want to have a catch?”

We went out in the field behind our dorm, and I remember as he handed me my glove, he said, “are you sad?” and I said, “yeah.” That was it; then we played catch. It was the best thing that had happened to me all day. And throughout the rest of my college career, most of which was unrelated to September 11th, I retained and recycled bits of that benign memory, as a reminder that goodness and strength can be subtle yet essential, seemingly insignificant and yet profusely whole.


At breakfast with my mother this week, we did not just talk about September 11th, and as far as I am concerned, this is how it should be. What that day did was open a path of thought and a path of feeling for many people. It wasn’t a personal tragedy for many people, and those of us that didn’t lose a loved one need to put the event in perspective. It’s not the same day for everyone, and it’s not the same pain for everyone. But I wager that many people learned how to feel, and how to think.

The day before September 11th 2008, philosopher Gerry Cohen came to speak to CUNY about why he thinks that old things should be preserved rather than replaced with new things. I.e, this building could be made more modern, but we should keep the one we have, because things of the past have value greater than their utilitarian value. But people kept pressing him for a “normative” meaning to his philosophy. (How does this tell us to behave?) He couldn’t really answer. But he kept emphasizing that if old things were destroyed, we should regret it.

I think that’s the normative part of the philosophy. Do not be lazy, do not forget to regret what you have lost. I think that’s the normative part of September 11th. We all, as individuals, lost something, each of us in our own unique way. But we found a collective venue for regret, introspection and mourning. We all learned that you can never completely lose the memory of a loss.

Many people would like to “move on” from September 11th and I am all for healing. But I also believe that it is always unwise to utterly forget.


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