In my own 9/11 remembrance routine, the only thing I actually plan every year is a listening of On the Transmigration of Souls, the New York Philharmonic's 9/11 commission by John Adams. I usually skip the memorial ceremonies broadcast on television. I find it weird to visit the WTC site in person now, with its weird combination of new construction looking to a Bright Shining Future and all the reminders of the Day the Music Died Past, neither of which feel right to me. Watching it on TV is even worse.
But while I wouldn't exactly say that I enjoy watching the replay of the actual coverage, I do find it to be more affecting and real to me. It serves as a reminder of how it really felt on that day, the "what the fuck?" feeling that washed over us all. It's easy to remember the fear we felt as we watched the individual moments of horror unfold on the screen, but we forget until we go back and watch it again how unprepared we were to process those moments as they unfolded in real time.
This morning I watched as the first tower crumbled while Katie Couric kept on talking about something or other, only to be interrupted a few seconds later by someone pointing out that it appeared something was happening, perhaps a section of one of the buildings falling off. It was at least five minutes before someone actually said out loud that the tower had actually collapsed. It reminded me how even when our eyes told us what we were seeing, our brains were still trying to find some context.
Now, six years later, we have an expanded context. The new president who climbed on top of the rubble pile and issued a warning to the terrorists as the whole world stood behind him has been replaced by a lame duck reviled by the international community and even some members of his own party. The war we've been fighting and losing has replaced our capacity for horror and citizen outrage with a numb weariness. If there were another terrorist attack on this country today, I suspect the reaction, both from our citizens and the rest of the world, would be very different. Less shock, more "okay, here we go..."
Six years. I think this year is the first one in which it doesn't feel like it just happened. So much has changed in my own personal life as well. In 2001, we lived in Connecticut and were only beginning to suspect that Schuyler's lack of speech might be something more than just a delay. The day we faced a big monster in Manhattan, Schuyler's smaller monster still lay waiting to be discovered. She was not even two at the time, stumbling into toddlerhood even as the world in which she would toddle was changing as well. Now she's a little girl of almost eight, all legs and motion, and the world that changed is starting to feel a little old and dusty again, as if it had always been this way.
Everyone's memories of September 11 are colored by their own lives and experiences, so it's probably no surprise that to me, 9/11 is infused with thoughts of Schuyler, like two different colors of paint that have been swirled but not mixed. Less than a year before the towers fell, we had taken Schuyler there, and I have clear memories of her gazing wide-eyed up at the towers as she put her tiny hands against the cold surface of their sides, and of the very first time I ever heard her braying, unashamed laugh, the one that I hear almost every day now. I also remember with sober clarity our trip to the site a week after the attack, and how Schuyler's smile made a weary police officer cry.
"Look at that smile," she'd said as she bent down to meet Schuyler. "You are just like sunshine to me right now!"
When I sent my book off to my editor at St. Martin's Press, I braced myself for one chapter in particular to be cut, the one called "The Saddest Place in the World". It was one of the few parts of the book that was drawn largely from what I had written online at the time, mainly because when I went back and reread it, it said exactly what I wanted to say about September 11th. I was ready to fight for my Chapter Five, because while it didn't have much to do with Schuyler's monster, it had everything to do with the lives we were living. I wouldn't know how to tell her story without talking about what it was like, living in America and particularly right up the road in New Haven, in the shadow of those Great and Awful Days. When Schuyler was diagnosed two years later, her monster was born into a world already made monstrous.
My editor left it mostly untouched. Of all the things she has done for me and this book, that might be the one for which I am the most grateful, or at least that's how I feel this morning.
The chapter concludes with almost the same words as an entry from those days:
"America when will you be angelic?" wrote Allen Ginsberg. I think about the people who died all those years ago, those faces on desperate, hand-lettered posters and ethereal voices crackling over cell phones. I think about all those souls, all those young lovers and sad lonely people, the greedy and the generous, the pragmatists and dreamers and gentle mothers and rowdy fathers. They were just like me, and probably like you, too. They weren't angelic. None of us is.
Even as I write that, however, I know it's not true. I do know an angel. I watched her bless doomed towers with tiny hands and grant absolution to police officers whose hearts were breaking. Schuyler's an angel and also a bit of a devil, a fragile flower who speaks in a howl. She remains, now as she was then, the reason I give a damn.