How do you separate yourself and your memories from History? How do you separate your presence from so many absences? Questions I can only ask, and never answer.
-Viet Thanh Nguyen, "A Man of Two Faces; A Memoir, a History; a Memorial"
It's been several years since I have written a memorial piece on 9/11, but I woke thinking of that day out of my sleep this morning. I had watched the 60 minutes segment on the firefighters last night and must have been thinking or dreaming about it. The images in my waking thoughts were silent, without sound, the hush of the city as the buildings collapsed forever seared in every 9/11 survivor's psyche.
I was still living in New York City that day. Our home was a co-op on the Upper East Side and I was teaching at NYU and Gotham Writers Workshop. Our daughter, Chloe, was in her own apartment on the Upper West Side; she worked close to the World Trade Center. She was running in Central Park listening to the radio on her Walkman when she heard the news; thankfully, she had not yet boarded the subway. When she got home she called our landline, not yet an artifact. Patiently, she uttered three simple words: "Turn on the TV." If memory serves—and memory after trauma weakens—that was the last we heard from her until we established email contact. For some reason, email was still working, and I was grateful that the phone lines were up on the West Side of Manhattan so that Chloe could reach my mother to assure her we were all okay.
But that was us, our family, safe and sound in a city that had become a war zone, the enemy combatants dead in the debris of the Towers, suicide bombers from the other side of the world, a world none of us had ever visited, much less understood. What did it have to do with us? Americans I knew who cared about the world outside our borders, and America's role in that world, hypothesized instantly and endlessly about what this seminal horrific event signified and portended for the future.
But first things first, there were confused seniors in our building who required care, and workers who had arrived early in the morning and had no way home. The American Red Cross sent out a call for blood which somehow was conveyed throughout the city. My husband, Jim, has Type O, the universal donor, with a special enzyme which was badly needed. We pulled ourselves out of the apartment and headed to Second Avenue. It was only as we surfaced from our apartment building that we saw and smelled the billowing smoke and the stream of workers covered in ash escaping the site. We made it to the Red Cross, but were turned away. Few if any survivors had arrived in the emergency rooms. The Red Cross did not need blood.
Time collapses in our memories. Maybe it was a week later, maybe two weeks when I joined the crowds walking the city in running shoes, stopping at makeshift paper memorials and "have you seen?" signs, writing poetry and attending readings, lighting candles for the dead. I started to immerse in the history of the Middle East, Islam, extremism and fundamentalism, imperialism and jingoism. All of that history is still relevant today—in the upheaval in Israel and Palestine, in Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, in the right wing surge in the United States.
The beginning of the term in that vivid, terrifying autumn of 9/11 was delayed, and when I got back into the classroom at Gotham Writers Workshop Irene and Phil Tufano were waiting for me. Phil was a firefighter who lost all his friends in one of the Towers. He wanted to write something about his experience, even though it was still so immediate and raw. And when I returned to NYU Professor Vasu Varadhan was waiting for me. She lost her son, Gopal, in one of the Towers, a loss she did not tell me about until months later when we started working together on her memoir, On My Own Terms; A Journey Between Two Worlds.
In the writing is the healing. the connection, the attempt at understanding, and the testimony for future generations.