That morning, I was just a waitress working the breakfast shift at a quirky little restaurant in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. I was in graduate school at the time, and my biggest concern was making my rent that month – seemed like I was forever living penny to penny that year.
I remember it was a bit slow that morning. But that slowness ended the moment the head chef emerged from the kitchen to tell us a radio report said a plane hit the World Trade Center. I remember standing by the juice bar, wondering what to do with the news. It seemed like just another moment later he reemerged to tell us a second plane hit, and that the word “terrorism” was being used.
I mad-dashed to my phone to call my then-boyfriend, who worked for a local paper – surely he would know what was happening. He confirmed the chef’s reports, but said they were trying to find a tv to figure it out. He would call back.
And he did – when the first tower fell.
Over the course of the next few hours, time was both stopped and blurred. Me and my coworkers struggled to get whatever information we could, and grabbed onto the snippets of information coming from the radio and updates from my boyfriend. But it was hard to make sense of it all. The restaurant stood empty as people undoubtedly were glued in front of their tvs at home.
By noon, however, the place was packed – downtown Chicago was evacuated, and thousands of office dwellers were sent home, many of whom stopped in to grab a bite, share a story, and just feel a connection to total strangers who shared their same fear and anxiety.
In between taking sandwich orders, I hovered close to tables, trying to eavesdrop on conversations to get any information I could about what was happening. As I filled coffee cups, I ached to go home, to see the news, to witness myself what was happening. Being in the restaurant for those first few hours of the worst attack this country has ever seen sort of kept me at an arm’s distance from the horror of what was unfolding out East, and I needed to understand it myself. Simply hearing about was just too much to believe.
When I finally made it home around 330, I turned on the television in my Wrigleyville apartment. Alone and sitting on the couch, I froze at what I saw. I sat still like that for - heck, who knows how long – truly unable to wrap my mind around what my eyes were seeing. Nothing I heard during that day could prepare me for the images I now watched. Even typing this now, it’s hard to push back the tears – I still see it all – blow by blow – in my mind’s eye.
I left the house only twice in the next several days – once to go home and sit with my dad at my family’s home just to be around some comfort and cry, and then once to go to my internship, where I worked with adolescents substance abusers who were looking to us to explain things we ourselves didn’t understand.
Within 12 hours, news had reached me that the younger sister of a close high school friend was missing – she was in the second tower that was hit. And for however surreal those first 12 hours were, the next several days – with this news – knocked me down. This girl – whose house I spent many a night in, and who I drove to school for several years - was fresh out of college, literally brilliant and beautiful and recently employed at a financial firm in New York. She had called her mom after the first tower was hit to say she was okay, and that she was being evacuated. And that was the last time her voice was ever heard.
On subsequent television broadcast of Ground Zero, news cameras often showed the walls of photos of missing persons, and several times this girl’s face appeared on my screen, almost like a yearbook photo, but…not. About a year later, my father received a commemorative 9-11 book, which we had on our coffee table, and there she was again – peering out at me from the pages of this book.
Ten years later, and the images of that day – the feelings, the video, the pictures – still bring tears to my eyes. No matter where I am or what I am doing, I stop and reflect when I see those images. I can't turn away - I won't turn away. In some ways, I may still be trying to understand the enormity of it all - the loss, the devestation, the horror, the grief. I used to think that, like any type of grief, this would eventually get better – and to some degree, it has. But then there are the days when a photo or some video footage can make it feel as raw as it did ten years ago. And every time I choke up, I am surprised at how much it still impacts me.
Perhaps that’s my mind’s way of never forgetting. And that’s fine with me.
Upon reflection yesterday, I also realized something else about that day – prior to it, I was blissfully ignorant of the world outside of the United States. I was proud of my country and thought that others viewed us as the pinnacle of strength and success. While I knew we certainly have our own issues within this country, it never occurred to me that people not only didn’t like us, but hated us. Hated us enough to kill thousands of us. Yeah, I know that sounds stupid, but up to that point, at my age of 25, when would I have ever seen anything that would give me that idea? I would be hard pressed to tell you a time I heard the word “terrorist” prior to that day, much less be able to identify a credible terrorist threat to this country. My ignorance was corrected that day.
I’ve heard a couple times over the last few years, and especially as we neared the 10th anniversary, that we just need to get over this – that we, as a country, just need to move on. And to some degree, I think our country has moved forward – we’ve returned to daily life, we’ve returned to jobs, attended ball games, held elections, stimulated the economy – we haven’t let the terrorists stall or destroy us.
But it disheartens me when I hear things like my 11-year old niece ask the family during a card game at Christmas “What is 9-11?” and then tell us that she has never learned about it in school. This stuns me. It stuns me because, yes, while our country needs to move forward, I don’t think we should ever forget, or we should bury the events from future generations. While so much horror happened that day, it is a part of our country’s history now. Moreover, however bad it was, it was also the one time in my lifetime that I recall our country being completely united. I’ve never witnessed so much country pride as I did in the months following 9-11.
I know we all have our stories, our response to “Where were you that day?” and these are just a few of mine. They are my memories, and they will always be my memories that I hope I never forget. Parts of me will forever be different - especially the part that woke up to the reality of the world around us, and the part that took on a new sense of pride in being an American and all that it means. And I know there is so much more to say - the aftermath, the war, the war heros, the lives lost, the recovery - but I'll leave it at my memories of that specific day.
As Rodney Atkins sings, “We may not always get it all right, but there’s no place else I’d rather live my life – in America.”