I find that 20 years after 9/11, re-living the day has grown harder somehow and not easier.
A kind of shapeless panic takes hold of me sometime the day before and lasts until the day after. The knowing that everyone will be talking about the tragedy, and nothing else, for 24 hours. The predictable reality that the images from that day will be on a constant relentless loop. The surprising realization that the sights and smells and fears of that day are as easy to conjure up again as they were on that day. Each year, I breathe and move and live through the panic. I'd like to wish away, but it's a river I have to wade through. There's no other way around it.
The panic, of course, is not what makes the re-living harder. Instead, it's the guilt that multiplies and expands as the years go by. 20 years. We've had 20 more years. But they have not.
On 9/11, I was a young lawyer living and working in New York City. I've written often about my experiences of that day, but lately I've been thinking a lot about the day after 9/11.
On September 12, I woke up in my Queens townhouse, and walked outside. There was still visible smoke wafting across the river from Manhattan - where my Times Square law office was located - and it was unspoken that no one would be traveling into Manhattan that day. No memo went out. No phone call chain. No Facebook threads. No one switched their voicemail to an outgoing absence recording.
We all just stayed home.
I walked into town to buy a paper and a bagel at the local bodega. It felt like a very New York thing to do. And I wanted to do "New York things" that day. The small seaside Queens community where I lived at the time - Belle Harbor - was home to a disproportionate number of firefighters and first responders, and we would later learn that our neighborhood suffered the single largest per capita loss in the attacks. The quiet and emptiness of that morning after was a result of this fact and the fact that every single emergency worker - whether they were scheduled to work or not - was doing a shift at Ground Zero that morning.
At home, with my bagel and paper, I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the television. I wanted to turn it off, but I felt compelled not to. I needed to believe all those missing people were still going to turn up alive.
The front page of the paper carried a photo that haunts me to this day. A photo of a firefighter carrying a lifeless man near the rubble. The caption read: "Firefighter carries unidentified injured man at the scene." The man was neither injured nor unidentified. In fact, to New Yorkers, the man was easily identifiable - he was the charismatic NYPD police chaplain named Father Mychal Judge. Father Judge had died at the scene, and the careless caption angered me. Of all the things to be angry about that morning, I chose this one. It felt more bite-sized and manageable than the rest. (Eventually, I would channel the frustration over the all-wrong caption and photo into an important plot point in my second novel, Secrets of Worry Dolls, but on 9/12, I had not yet found my story-telling voice. That would come much later.)
Later that afternoon, my then-husband, a New York City medical student, received a call that medical supplies were needed in Manhattan, and I pulled myself away from the television to help him transport supplies from his Brooklyn hospital to Ground Zero. We drove through an empty tunnel in eerie silence, missing for the first and last time, the traffic, the horns, the blaring and blinding noise that New York City was known for. We met police and first responders along the way, doling out supplies and breathing in for a moment the harsh debris they were all covered in.
It became painfully clear within a few hours that our bandages and antiseptics and sutures were not what they needed. We didn't have what they needed. No one did. So we returned home in silence. And defeat.
I threw out my clothes rather than trying to wash the stench from them and slept fitfully.
In the morning, I did the same thing I've done every morning since. I woke up changed.
20 years. It hasn't gotten any easier to re-live 9/11. But I'm just as grateful as I was then - for all of the days after.