Everyone who’s old enough to remember has a 9/11 story. Mine is probably fairly typical of those of us with no personal connection to the events, and I’ve never written about it because it feels too much like trying to hop on the tragedy train in order to capitalize on the pageview potential. But on this 15th anniversary I have some reflections I feel compelled to share.
My memories of that day are fragmented. I was standing in my sunny yellow kitchen, chunky six-month-old William on my hip, when the phone rang–my husband, telling me to turn on the television. A couple of hours later I picked him up at his downtown office and we went to lunch–at the top of the tallest building in Knoxville, which I remember feeling nervous about.
In the lobby of the building they were selling extra editions of the Knoxville News Sentinel, something so out of the ordinary that it was frightening. We were all so desperate for news and there was no Twitter or Facebook to provide the instantaneous updates we’ve come to expect when a crisis strikes today.
On the elevator ride up to the 27th floor two men in business suits were discussing a mutual acquaintance whose son was in one of the towers. At the time everyone still hoped he would be found alive.
I was worried when it was time to pick up the kids from school. What did they know? What would I tell them? Emily was ten and already knew. Jake and Teddy were six and seven. I remember at first just telling them that some bad people had done a very bad thing. Because of my kids, I did not obsessively watch the television coverage for days as so many did. I did not want them to see the towers falling.
The house we lived in back then was in a flight path. We were accustomed to hearing noisy airplanes on their descent approach. For the next few days, it was eerily quiet. Once we heard an airplane and we all ran outside, terrified, to see a military plane overhead. We were all on edge. For some time after 9/11, loud noises made me jump.
Flash forward to the 10th anniversary, September 11, 2011, five years ago. Six days out from our own personal tragedy, we were homeless–John and I and the little kids living with my sister Betsy, Emily away at college, Jake and Teddy staying with school friends, even our dog being farmed out to my other sister. We had lost just about every material possession. I didn’t have the emotional energy to think about 9/11. I remember writing on Facebook that I felt guilty posting about our circumstances with all the posts about the anniversary reminding me that our tragedy was small by comparison.
Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has become a fixture in our society, the way most of us keep in touch, read news, express our feelings on matters both personal and political. I can’t help but wonder how our experience of 9/11 would have been different if Facebook had existed back then. I know that in the case of our September 2011 disaster Facebook was how we shared the news and received encouragement and help. This year, on the 5th anniversary of the fire, I was looking forward to seeing those old posts in the “On This Day” feature that Facebook helpfully notifies me about first thing each morning. I braced myself a little because those memories are painful, but recalling the support of friends, family, and acquaintances is uplifting.
Imagine my surprise, then, that even though five years ago I was posting about nothing but the fire and its aftermath for probably two weeks, my Facebook memories are a cheery collection of memes and articles and comments from every year but 2011. Facebook has apparently decided without any input from me that the events of September 2011 are too traumatic and I couldn’t possibly want to revisit them. Presumably if 9/11 had occurred in the Facebook era, it would also be scrubbed from everyone’s “On This Day” feature as something too dark to recall.
And while I am in awe of Facebook’s algorithms and appreciate their intent (as I know people in particular who have been blindsided by unexpected and unwanted visceral reminders of such events as the death of a child), I don’t WANT to forget September 2011.
I don’t particularly want to remember the sight of my burned down house and the destruction of all my treasured possessions, but I do want to remember the offers of shelter, the months of meals, the clothes and toys and gift cards, the love and the prayers. I won’t forget them, not ever, but I also like seeing them on Facebook. It’s worth seeing the pictures to see them, and the pictures provide the context for appreciating them.
Today my newsfeed is flooded with “We Remember” and “Never Forget” memes. Some show the Twin Towers in ruins, some show them intact, bathed in heavenly light. I’m sure when some people say they won’t forget they mean they won’t forget the terrorists, the hated enemies who committed this vile and cowardly attack, the outrage of being attacked on our own soil. Our country has changed since 9/11 and I don’t think it has changed for the better. We have become an angrier country, a frightened country, a deeply divided country. That’s not the America I love and that’s not what I want to remember about 9/11.
What I want to remember are those who gave their lives in service to others, the way foreign countries rallied around us, the incredible feeling of unity as Americans. And what struck me most at the time and remains with me now and what I want to remember most of all is the same thing I want to remember about September 2011: the love–that when people were afraid they were going to die, the last thing they did if they could was call their spouses and parents and children, to say I love you just one last time.