I don't really know what this says about me--probably nothing good--but I'm glad that September 11th doesn't fall during the work week this year. Something about the idea of having the day, in all its past, present and future incarnations, commentated on relentlessly on the TV in the anesthesia lounge (I was going to say CNN but to be honest it seems that the default setting is usually Fox News) is more than I really have the stomach for. As a native New Yorker who was in the city on the day of the attacks, I, like many, still feel that it's a little bit of a tender spot. And I think I've talked in the past about how much doctors dislike having feelings.
Ten years later, the events of September 11th have arrived at their final resting place in history, though it's hard for me to put my finger on exactly where that is. More often then not now, when I see it referenced (and granted, I no longer live in New York), it's held up as an emblem more than anything, or used as a supporting argument for this that or the other thing. It's the stuff of decals, of commemorative plates, of tattoos and of posters. And it makes it feel important but distant, like something horrible you'd read about in a book but hadn't actually lived through yourself. The distance is inevitable. Time makes everything less raw, a little less messy, and filters our memories through experience.
We even have a whole other language for it now. September 11th is now "nine eleven." I remember on the day of the attacks one of the doctors in the OR was speculating whether or not there was any significance to the fact that the date spelled out "9-1-1," as sort of a wink to the emergency response system that would surely be activated. We didn't know to call it "nine eleven" then, the date itself at that time was nothing special. In the weeks to follow, the smoking craters where the Twin Towers stood and where remains and debris were being excavated were still being referred to as "The Pit." Not until later did the language of "Ground Zero" take hold, though now, you say "Ground Zero" in reference to Lower Manhattan and everyone knows what you're talking about. Why do I bring this up? I don't know. Maybe because it's midnight and I'm on call and too wired to go to sleep. Or maybe because, as strange as it sounds, I miss there being a time where that whole other language didn't yet exist.
Joe and I broke up shortly before September 11th, 2001, did I ever tell you that? I probably didn't, it even in those early days of my blog I didn't exactly consider it grist for the mill, and I can't even remember why it was that we had broken up at the beginning of our third year of medical school, shortly after our OB rotation in Stamford, CT. (I blame OB, personally. Or maybe Stamford. Probably both.) Anyway, we'd broken up for some reason, and it was weird and awkward, because we were still in the same clerkship rotation group after all, and we still had to see each other every single second and act all normal and professional, which if you don't think was torture you've obviously never dated anyone before. On September 11th, we were on one of our Surgical Subspecialty rotations, which I thought was a blessing because we got split up into smaller groups--I was rotating on Pediatric Urology, whereas Joe was, I think, rotating on ENT (Otolaryngology for your purists out there) in an entirely different part of the hospital. It was a relief to be away from him, so I thought. But after those planes hit that day, Joe was basically the only person I wanted to be with. Six months later, we were engaged.
I don't really know what my point is with all this, and I know it sounds incredibly short-sighted or even mean-spirited to begrudge the way that the events of that day have become more totemic than real. It's just that I can't help but to think that way. It wasn't a T-shirt. It wasn't a bumper sticker. It wasn't a picture on a TV. It was real. The little things make it real, and each year that passes, the edges of those little things becomes increasingly softer. But I still remember. The blaring radio at the bagel store across the street from the hospital. The smell of that fall morning walking into work. The jungle animal print cap the anesthesiologist was wearing in the OR when we heard the news. The way the smoke looked rising up to the sky, thick and billowing at the base, then spreading out into a blanketing haze.
It was real. It happened. We were there. And you can print as many banners and lawn signs as you want, but New Yorkers don't need to be told to "Never Forget." Because we never will.