I never heard Martin Luther King Jr. give his speech on the mall.
I can’t tell you where I was when John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.
Nor can I recount the story of how I crowded around a television to watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon.
But I can tell you where I was on the day the earth stood still.
I can tell you the exact words said. I can describe the faces of those around me, the pitch and tone of the voices, the dazed look of shock and pain; a mirror for everything I experienced as I watched my former world collapse around me.
There are moments in our lives where change is inevitable. Sometimes those shifts are subtle, only revealing themselves to us when we have perspective with time. Then there are those moments that irrevocably change the very fabric of who we are. They’re sudden and violent, with no reprieve from the jolt of a rapid shift from past to present. We’re thrown headfirst into a new, unbidden reality, with no real grip of who we are and the space we’re now occupying. It’s a terrifying freefall into the inevitable where everything, including time, is suspended and we’re frozen in place, attempting to grasp what is happening. A microcosm of frenzied emotions and events all converging in a split second. And then there’s gravity. And then there’s the fall.
In the last week of August 2001, I sat in World Trade Center Plaza in front of the massive gold sphere with my mom and sister, eating hot dogs after an exhausting shopping spree at Century 21 to pick up my essentials for my freshman year of college.
I was thrilled and nervous to start this new chapter, away from home. My mom wasn’t so happy and made her opinion known throughout the afternoon. I was the first to leave home for school, and my parents were not having an easy time letting me go.
I sat there looking around at the men and women in business suits, enjoying their lunches in the plaza. There were kids playing as their tired mothers sat watching them out of the corner of one eye, while going over their back-to-school purchases with the other. The vendors called out the deals of the day and people lined up to order hot food to go before rushing off to their next stop.
I listened to the classical music filtering through the air. That plaza and it’s streaming playlist of glorious symphonies echoed against the giant twin towers day in and day out, helping to drown out my mom’s concerns over my upcoming move.
This picture right here was my city. My home. All of these people flowing together in front of the grandest man-made landscape in the world. Poetry in motion. I breathed it all in, knowing that within a week I’d leave it all behind to make a new home in Philadelphia.
I can tell you where I was the morning of September 11, 2001.
I can tell you how I flipped through the channels of my ancient television in my dorm room, confused by what I was seeing, believing that I’d left on my VCR and was watching some horrible movie.
I can describe how the relief coursed through my veins when I was able to hear my parents voices and confirm that they were alright and wouldn’t be leaving our apartment in downtown Manhattan.
I can tell you how happy I was to learn that my sister and niece never took the PATH train into the World Trade Center that morning, of all mornings, and instead caught a ride into the city.
I can tell you about the total panic and fear that seized my heart and my lungs when I screamed at my sister through the phone, “RUN!!”, when she told me she’d gone back to check on her coworkers on Fulton street, within two blocks of ground zero, as the reporters on my ancient television warned the threat of collapse was imminent.
I can tell you how my world went sideways, as I sat there surrounded by people I’d just met with tears streaming down my face, watching helplessly as my city lost one of its mighty towers and then lost the second.
In a total of 102 minutes, everything I thought I knew about the world and my place in it was completely obliterated.
I was lucky. I didn’t lose anyone in either of the towers. All of my loved ones who could’ve been caught up in that maelstrom were saved by twists of fate. But everything didn’t survive.
That was the day my innocence died.
That was the day my entire future would be reshaped by a new foreboding of fear. That was the day I fell headfirst into a reality I didn’t want to know. The was the day I experienced true heartbreak for the first time. Everything changed.
I can tell you all of these things and more even now, twelve years later. I imagine I’ll remember every second of that day and the following months for the rest of my life, much like those who can still tell you where they were when JFK was assassinated, or when the Berlin Wall came down.
There are these moments in time when the earth seemingly stands still. We go through the looking-glass and find our world is upside down. It doesn’t make sense to go back and point fingers at what should have happened or who was culpable.
The attacks happened. That plaza with its beautiful music and the careless expression of life and balance is gone. Nothing will change that.
My initial shock and pain has eased over the years and 9/11 has become a faded memory for some. But each year I go back in time. Back to that day in the plaza. Back to that terrible morning. I allow myself to experience that again because I need to remember what it was like to face the indescribable and to pay homage to what was lost.
I mourn the past and what could have been. I mourn the loss of life and peace. I mourn the way we’ve come to embrace fear and violence in response to threats.
I will always mourn. I will never forget.
3 Replies to “The Day the Earth Stood Still”
I was very close and I remember every feeling, everything I ate, every detail of that day. I don’t remember as much about the days and weeks and months that followed. I know I lost something that day, which maybe I had no right to have to begin with, since so many children are not as fortunate as I was. Still, I lost a sense of safety that was never there, but I thought it was.
You’re absolutely right. In some ways, we all lose that naivete one way or another. People like to say that 9/11 was America’s brush with what some people deal with on a daily basis in other parts of the world. Although I can see their point, I resent the comparison. And that’s not to say that what happened here was any better or worse. But it’s impossible to draw comparisons because all I know is my life before and my life after. I wrote this trying to put these thoughts and feelings into words, but I still feel like it’s never going to be enough.