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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

Twenty years

(This is a post about September 11. Don’t read it if you don’t want to be reminded.)

It’s impossible to forget. Twenty years ago, those of us old enough to remember have a story to tell, a memory to share, a glimpse just waiting to be captured. Many are emerging to reshare them now.

Where were you? What were you wearing? Had you had your morning coffee yet? Were you still in school? Or were you already at work? When you first found out, did you fear for your own life? For someone close to you? Or were you far enough away to feel safe?

(Have you ever really felt safe again?)

Did it come as a total surprise, or did it validate the anger you knew was lurking below the surface all along? Did you come away seeing people for worse than you could have ever imagined, or as kinder, softer, and gentler, somehow? Are you kicking yourself for looking back, for looking up, never able to get those images out of your head? Or are you ashamed for closing your eyes?

The day holds significance for each of us in a different way. Some, of utter grief and loss. Some, of inexplicable terror, confusion, and guilt. Maybe you rose from the ashes and found inspiration. Maybe you closed an entire chapter on your life and tried not to think too hard. Maybe you too, anytime you noticed the digital clock in your bedroom strike 9:11, you dedicated that entire minute in silent memory and reflection.

Do you remember what you did that day, and the days that followed? Could you manage to tear your eyes away from the TV? Did you save all of the newspaper clippings, collect the paraphernalia ? Did you creep downtown sometime afterward, just to validate with your own eyes how it was possible for something to still be burning?

Did you do anything about it? Maybe you spent the next decade learning more about the victims, hearing their stories and trying to make sense of it all. Or maybe you dug deep into history, looking for signs or clues about what was to come. Did you dedicate yourself to service? Start a memorial for a friend? Leave the city for good? Move there for the first time?

Do you keep your story close to your chest and walk out of the room when it comes up, or do you gather up your colleagues every year to tell them what it was like to walk all the way from lower Manhattan back to the Upper West Side? Do you talk about it out loud or in writing? Or maybe you only talk about it late at night, at bars with strangers in the twilight hours when one day ends and bleeds into the next.

Did you secretly binge on all of the content that followed — the first-hand narratives, the books, the movies, the musicals — and then feel bad about doing so? Or have you tried to put it as far back into your mind as possible?

When you get on an airplane, do you hold your breath and try not to think about it, or have you moved on? Do you remember what it was like to be able to carry bottles of water through security check? To kiss your partner goodbye at the gate? Or has this new normal been the only thing you’ve ever known? If it is all you’ve known, do you somehow wish you could have been there before, to experience it first-hand? Does it twist you up a little to feel that way? Have you explained what happened to your own kids? Did they understand when you did?

(Do you think we’ll ever really understand?)

There are certain global events that imprint themselves on a generation, the after-shocks of which trickle down for years. We’re now a generation built upon preparation and anticipation. We say something when we see something. We trust and love, but we do so carefully. We recognize that anything can change in an instant, that not even concrete walls can keep out the bad guys. And on this day we set aside some time to reflect, in whatever mode that may mean to you.

A lot can happen in twenty years. A lot has. And surely, there’s a lot more still to come.

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