It's hard to know what triggers certain memories in your brain, and I can't figure out what made me think of this today, except...maybe it was the weather. Today was gorgeous: sunny, clear, and mild. And on days like this, as strange as it sounds, I often think about the opening sentence of the 9/11 commission report; how it was so much better written than a government report had any right to be, how evocative that first sentence was, and how perfectly it set the scene for what we all now know was going to happen. "Tuesday, September 11, 2001 dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States."
But what I was thinking about today was not September 11th, but September 12th, 2001. I was a third-year medical student on my pediatric urology rotation, and while I don't quite remember the details of what we had originally scheduled to do that morning--maybe it was clinic, maybe we were supposed to round on the patients that were all hurriedly discharged the day before--but obviously whatever plans we had were truncated or canceled. We had no patients from "Ground Zero" yet (this, of course, was well before the days that it would be referred to as "Ground Zero," most people I knew who were working on site seemed to refer to it as "The Pit"); most who survived to get to a hospital were mostly concentrated downtown. So we had almost nothing to do that day, and somehow, that was one of the worst feelings of all. So what happened that morning of September 12th was this: the two senior residents on the pediatric urology service took me and my co-medical student out for breakfast, at a shoebox-sized greasy spoon diner near the hospital.
It was really a very odd morning. I know that it must have obviously been strange the nation over, but if you lived in New York in the immediate aftermath of September 11th you will understand what I mean when I mention this particular strange disconnect of knowing that the entire world had just imploded right in front of you, feeling with equal certainty that we were all probably going to die, and yet looking out the window and seeing that everything, at least up in Washington Heights, looked exactly the same. Like: out there, on the street, where it always stood, was the bagel cart. With bagels on it. And you'd look at the bagels, and then think about what you had just seen, which was the two largest buildings in the city crumbling to dust literally as we watched, and something would just break inside your brain, because how do those two things exist in the same world? Because on one hand, September 11th happened, and then on the other hand, here we were on September 12th, alive, at a diner...eating eggs. Everything looked and felt and smelled and tasted the same as it did two days ago, but also, at every table and booth, people were reading a copy of The New York Times with the most gigantic headline that I can remember seeing in my lifetime.
It was really...very disorienting.
Now that I'm much older, I so appreciate the simple mercies of those senior residents, and the implicitly understood comfort that they knew they could convey in that small act of taking us out for breakfast. I also know, having been a resident, that even these small gestures were not so small--I know now how little money residents make and I know now how young residents really are, even though, as a third-year medical student, I felt at that time that there was something adult and comforting about them and if they said that we were going to be OK and so we should order and extra plate of hash browns for the table, well then, I guess we would be OK. I know now that they must have been as scared as I was. I know now that they were trying to help me feel better, and in doing so, help themselves feel better, because...well, that's how it works.
And that's pretty much what I came away with today, in sudden flash of memory as commonplace and pocket-sized as the events around it were explosive and consuming. That sometimes bad things happen, and you can't really fix them; but in small ways, you try to fix them anyway.