It has been fifteen years since the unthinkable happened. How can it have been that long?
It was on a Tuesday, that day when strangers embraced one another, friends sat in stunned silence, and a nation mourned for too many of its own.
Where were you when it happened?
I was a junior at Berry College, in Dr. Tenger’s 9:30 World Lit class, sitting next to my best friend Melissa. We were discussing E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, and having a discussion about death and remembering those who have passed, as it pertained to the book. The discussion was a good one, but I would wager that none of us knew that we would remember it for the rest of our lives. The pertinence was too bizarre to be forgotten.
“But it struck him that people are not really dead until they are felt to be dead. As long as there is some misunderstanding about them, they possess a sort of immortality.”
― E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
Another professor came in the classroom and told us to get to a television so that we could see what was happening. He told us very generally what was going on, and we talked in bewilderment for a moment about the absurdity of it, wondering how an accident like that could have happened. Because surely – surely – this was an accident.
Dr. Tenger, ever the diligent professor, wanted to resume the discussion rather than dismiss us early; thus, we all remained blissful in our ignorance for a little while longer as we continued our discussion. It was 9:45.
When class dismissed an hour later, we exited the classroom and entered a new world. The halls were nearly empty, save for a few students with vacant expressions. Because it was nearly lunchtime, we all gravitated toward the student center across the street. As I made my way, my friend Amanda approached, tearful and hardly able to speak. My heart began to pound with the realization that this was more serious than I had thought.
As I entered the student center, I was floored by what I saw. Students – hundreds of them – were gathered around the one TV in the room. Despite the number of people, there was only a low murmur of voices as everyone caught newcomers up on what was going on. It was standing room only as strangers stood closer than culture and comfort would normally allow, eyes glued to the images on the screen.
Not one plane, but two. A collapsed world icon and thousands of lives. Children. Flames. Billows of smoke and terror in the streets. As we watched the buildings collapse, the air was sucked out of the room.
I don’t remember when I left, or why. I don’t remember eating lunch that day, or walking back to my dorm room. I do remember getting there and finding my roommate glued to our tiny television, talking to her parents on the phone. I do remember curling up on my bed and wondering how to cope with something like that.
I tried to call my parents, but like so many around the country that day, I couldn’t get through. I knew the news would have told me if there were any reason to be concerned for their safety, but I just wanted to hear their voices.
I had class that afternoon – Women’s Choral Ensemble. I went, but not because I felt like singing. We had a concert soon and I needed the practice. When I got there, though, I found that the auditorium was not excluded from the sorrow that gripped campus; the same vacant, teary eyes awaited me there as had awaited me everywhere else I had gone that day. A freshman in the soprano section said she couldn’t possibly sing; another – seated near me in the alto section – said she thought that was why we should. Majority ruled, though, and class was cancelled.
The rest of the day is a blur. My friends and I moved from one room to another, one television to another, absorbing as much information as we could. The Pentagon, too. And a field in Pennsylvania? We talked little, but there wasn’t much to say. We just needed to process things. We just needed to be together. I remember an awkwardness, too, because it was our friend Simona’s birthday.
Gradually, we in our little bubble figured out how to go on. No classes were canceled the next day, though the shock hadn’t worn away. Sociology lectures and biology labs seemed pointless. The world just wasn’t the same, and it seemed bad, somehow, to act like things were as they had always been. We all piled into the college chapel that night for a candlelight vigil. I couldn’t listen to anything anyone said and couldn’t find the words to say anything myself – even in prayer. I pulled a Bible from the pew in front of me and read from Psalms. They had never seemed so real, and I had never cried so much in a church before.
It was a day that wouldn’t be forgotten; I think we knew that even then. Some days, it seems, never end, regardless of how much time passes. Some days, I know, should not be forgotten.
We shouldn’t forget that day and what it meant. I tried to explain 9/11 to my daughter recently, trying to convey the importance of that day’s events without scaring her. I felt, though, that no matter what I said, the words fell flat. Words don’t do justice to the intensity of pain we felt, but somehow we still have to try.
We may not cry when we think about it anymore. We may not feel that ache in the pit of our stomachs, and the images that ran on repeated loop for weeks don’t conjure the same degree of emotion.
Even so, the world is different. We are different, and while it was pain that got us here, we just have to figure out how to take the pieces and move on.
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