Sunday, September 11, 2011

as time goes by

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.


  1. Cant watch the coverage. Wont watch the coverage. I think some saw it happen, as in on TV and some experienced it happen as in being there and they are NOT the same. Waiting to find out if friends were ok. Having family panicking because phones were down and no one could find each other and being reassured when the phone was finally answered. Being on the phone with a firefighter friend asking how in the world that fire could be put out and ultimately seeing the building fall. Watching the building one spent so much time working, fall.

    The days following seeing my bf at the time get home after being on the pile all day. Watching him battle PTSD, the nightmares and the trauma. The events of September 11, 2001 were not a disaster, it was not an incident, it was utter devastation.

    We move on, we rebuild, we heal but make no mistake there are daily reminders in NYC; the ever present police presence, the machine guns in the airports, the vehicle checks before going through the tunnels, the body scans before getting on a plane and the big hole downtown.

    We dont need to be reminded. We dont need to be told and we also dont need to relive it every year. The thoughts of the country are appreciated but unless where you once stood is now a crater and friends were never found, one can never know and we will never forget.

  2. A new yorker9:14 AM

    Ten years later, pictures and video tapes got replayed again and again. But I can never forget the strange smell that lingered in the air for weeks. We can smell that as far up town as central park east. I had night mares of images of people jumping off the buildings. Hopefully, these images weren't replayed by the press yesterday. Everyone has a piece of 911 personal story. Michelle called me at the office "Mom, are you all right?" I was stunned when I watched at short range at the tumbling of the towers from my Canal Street office. That's when you know who really cares about you.

  3. Anonymous9:25 AM

    No, we will never forget. I was there, lived every single second of 9-11. It started as a joke "a plane crashed in one of the twin towers, probably one of this private jet, and the pilot felt asleep", and then the horror unfold...
    Smells, smoke all over NYC. People who put their radios loud so anybody in the street could hear. The ambulances that we expected but never came to the hospital where I work. Tons of people in the streets trying to get home safely to their loved ones, walking for hours (buses and subways were stopped for a while).
    The following day,people sobbing in the subways, with emptiness and fear in their eyes. Smells of smoke and burns.

    No, we will never forget

  4. I was not in NYC then, but I was in the DC area. My parents worked about three blocks from the White House. I knew several people who worked at or near the Pentagon. Couldn't get in touch with anyone because they evacuated, and this was pre-cell-phone. It wasn't quite as horrific as what happened in NYC, but it was real and frightening.

    Last month, I did a rotation outside New York, where they used 9/11 as a memory marker ("Where were you when JFK died? Where were you on September 11?") I was pretty uncomfortable with the glibness of that kind of Q&A, and it would seem to have poor sensitivity anyway -- you'd have to have pretty serious dementia before you'd forget those days. Definitely not asking that one to any New Yorkers.

  5. Funny, my husband and I have a similar relationship story. We broke up in July 2001, just prior to moving to Boston (each of us pursuing a graduate degree at different schools). Having arrived in Boston, we were skirting around the issue of whether we'd really stay broken up or just get back together, but then Sept. 11 crashed the world down on us, and I knew then that I didn't want to be with anyone else.

    I wonder how many relationships went through that.