Fifteen Years Later

Like a lot of paychecks that come just before rent is due, some memories are snuffed out within minutes. I have to make a very conscious effort to remember what I had for breakfast this morning, and if I meet somebody at a party or a gathering, I have to repeat their name at least three times if I want to have any hope of it sticking when I see their face again five minutes later.

Strangely enough, other memories linger and bury themselves in the beehive of the mind. I have this very vivid memory of the day my mom took me to see Batman Forever (which she called “the Jacob movie”) and I thought the movie theater was the most magical place. Two hours later, I woke up during the credits and was incredibly sad that I had missed out on Batman. I remember the first time I saw a tarantula scuttling around the desert, and I don’t think I’ve ever run harder to get away from something. I can also tell you what I had to do for homework exactly fifteen years ago to the day.

The day wasn’t important because of the homework itself, but it’s simply one random detail that I can recall when much heavier things were happening. I learned that morning that on the other side of the country, a plane had hit a building and burst into flames. That’s so sad, I kept thinking. What a scary accident. And then another plane crashed into the other tower of the World Trade Center, and all I could come up with was, That’s such a weird coincidence. A freak accident.

As I sat there in my ten-year-old body that afternoon, listing all the ways that I could describe a chocolate chip cookie using all five senses, my ten-year-old brain was having the most trouble trying to grasp the fact that a plane could crash into a building on purpose . . . that, as my mom, and my friend’s mom, and my teachers gently explained to me, if two planes crash in the same place, it couldn’t be an accident . . . that there was such a horrible idea called terrorism, and that what I was determined to call a “freak accident” was further proof that there is evil in this world.

It was almost too much to wrap my brain around. Why would somebody hijack a plane on purpose and crash it if that means they’ll die too? Why would somebody do this to kill hundreds–thousands of people? Every time I tried to understand it, I’d get frustrated, but eventually, I had to accept it as fact. Terrorists had attacked America. It was a blow to my innocence as a fifth grader who wanted to believe that the world was good, that even some of the abusive people I’d encountered in my own life had to be good people deep down. That was what I used to tell myself to get through my first ten years of life, which weren’t exactly happy-go-lucky. Everything is good.

As of September 11, 2001, everything wasn’t good at all. People lost their lives. People lost loved ones. People lost a sense of safety and security. A family friend was called to New York to search the rubble for bodies. Something terrible had happened, and everything wasn’t good. This was the strangest idea for me to grasp.

But as the ash and smoke cleared over the next few months, stories of strength, bravery, and love came out of the rubble . . . stories of passengers who fought back on United 93 . . . stories of people in the workforce who missed the subway by a minute because they had spent extra time looking for their keys, and then hugged their family a little tighter that night . . . stories of people in the streets offering each other shelter as they ran from the falling debris. Schools paid tribute to the firemen and cops who lent a hand. We wore ribbons and hung our flags. We came together to offer what we could, whether it was thought, prayer, relief funds, or warmth.

And then I realized something that I still believe today: It can be possible for everything not to be good, and yet something will still be good. In other words, I had finally accepted that there was real darkness in the world, but it didn’t mean everything was dark. It meant that the candlelight was brighter and more powerful than I had previously understood. It meant that where there’s a school bully or an abusive presence at home, there is a greater number of people in this world who will rush to shield you or build you up again. It meant that for every hijacker, there are a hundred other people who will come together to keep the plane in the air. It meant that for every ugly comment, ten people say something beautiful.

That’s why fifteen years later, memories can linger, and why it’s important to share stories when this happens. We share stories so that we don’t forget. We share stories so that in times of darkness, we remember where we found that light.

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