I am a New Yorker, and I’ve spent the better part of 10 years avoiding the memory of 9/11/01. The weight of something so monumental was too much for me at the time; I was in 7th grade, and I didn’t understand. I was the first one pulled out of my school, but I was confused—I didn’t know anyone who worked there, so why was I leaving? I was home before the second plane hit; I began to understand the “what” but not the “why.” As was the case with many that day, my parents had trouble getting home, so I stayed with a neighbor until they did, watching the planes hit again and again and again. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so when you see it a thousand times, does it take a million words to justify it? I don’t think any amount of words, mine or anyone else’s, can make the weight of this day disappear, but I promised myself that this year I would be honest and say something.
There’s a reason that I didn’t share my fears and dreams for National Suicide Prevention Week with other staff members and our interns. It was hitting too close to one of my fears, and I didn’t know if I could be honest. My fears are somewhat tied to this date, which in the “before” was just another number on a calendar but in the “after” is a reminder of something so much more than that. My fear is that my anxiety will win and that I will be alone in it. I know that not all of my anxiety stemmed from the events of 9/11, but that’s a part of it, and of me. Many people in New York and elsewhere now struggle with depression, anxiety, and PTSD (among other things) as a direct result of 9/11. I don’t want them to be forgotten or alone today either.
I knew this year would be the hardest for me yet, so I decided to fight back the hardest I have and seek treatment. The events of 9/11 were an isolating experience, and while I can only speak for myself, sometimes being numb to it was easiest. I felt so stupid for admitting how hard this is for me, because I felt unworthy of my own feelings. I couldn’t let anyone know I wasn’t okay with it. How could I be so affected by something I didn’t even understand at the time? There are so many people who felt more direct effects, lost parents and children, including many of my friends and neighbors. I come from a community with many firefighters and police officers, heroes. My street is now named for a firefighter lost in the towers, a son of my neighbor; I pass that every day, a silent reminder of what and who are missing. Their families were the ones who hurt, so I couldn’t.
I have a puzzle of the NYC skyline, which was actually given to me after 9/11, but in it, the towers are standing. Every time I tried to put it together, it felt wrong to snap cardboard into place to fill a void, which is actually unable to be filled. Sometimes, I like to think of our stories like puzzles. A lot of puzzles were broken up on that day. All of our stories connect to each other in strange and sometimes oddly shaped ways. And many people lost pieces of their puzzles on 9/11, but over time, I feel like I’ve collected more and more about these missing pieces. They may not fit perfectly, but every piece of every story I’ve heard about the attacks on 9/11 has become a part of my story, too. And I will carry them with me, because I will not allow anyone to be forgotten. The hope I hold is that stories will be passed down, puzzles with “9/11” shaped pieces will continue to be assembled long after I am gone.
This year, 9/11 is a National Day of Service. I think a powerful way to remember those who were lost is to help others. Reach out a hand to someone you know, or join a community project. Know that you are not alone today. Know that community is out there, whether you live in New York or Washington, D.C. or Pennsylvania or Iowa or Brazil. And whether you will forever remember where you were on 9/11/01 or you are too young to know, make a new memory this year. Find hope in helping others who may just need you to stand there so they feel less alone. Smile at someone on the street; this may seem like a crazy or normal idea depending where you’re from, but for New Yorkers, it is a big deal. Even if that’s all the service you do, I think it will be worth it for you. If we can make this a day in which communities connect over visible or imagined boundaries, we have been a success. I am a New Yorker, and this year, I’ll be out seeking all these things I’ve wished for you. I will always be a New Yorker, and no matter what gets thrown at our city, I believe in the power of hope, community, and love. These things hold strong through all tragedies.
“This, I think, is how people survive: Even when horrible things have been done to us, we can still find gratitude in one another.” – David Levithan