What to say. It’s been 10 years. It hardly seems possible. More than 3,650 days have passed and words still can’t express what I felt that day, or in the months after. I just remember stumbling around in an emotional fog, clawing at this veil that turned everything hazy and gauzy, frustrating my every attempt to see clearly what it all meant — 3,000 lives snuffed out in the space of a morning. I’m not talking about the political meaning of the attacks, or its geopolitical counterpart. That all became abundantly clear in the months, and years, after. I mean the existential truth of that many people who were alive one moment, and then not. I still can’t wrap my head around that one.
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001 didn’t mark the end of the suffering. It was just the start. Weeks and months went by as families and friends of the missing waited for word on whether their loved ones had been found, or their remains identified. I talked to a few of them, a reporter trying to put words to the emotions they were feeling as their insides knotted up in inexplicable grief. It was horrific, this all-too-public reminder of the terrible power of the unknown and the unknowable-ness, at times, that life throws at us.
I was just a bystander to all this of course. No one I knew was killed. Or even injured. But I was affected. You couldn’t live that close to New York City and not be. A pall fell over the city as well as the Tri-State Area, and it hung there, making even sunny, cloudless days gray and mournful. And it hung there. And hung there. And that pall steadily eroded something in me, a belief that I had my own special bubble, that tragedy somehow had blinders on when it came to me and mine. No, I wasn’t hurt in the attacks. But all those people were. What separated them from me? Nothing, except they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I wasn’t. It’s terrifying to intuitively grasp how fragile life is and to realize how inadequate all those defenses you’ve built up over the years seem at that moment.
It took nearly three years before I could bring myself to visit Ground Zero, and even then it was for work. It’s not as if we lived far away. We lived an hour-and-a-half away, in Connecticut. It’s trite to say 9/11, and the weeks that followed, which included anthrax attacks in NY and Connecticut, were so traumatic as to transform a visit into something like picking at an open wound. But I think that’s what it was, at least for me. A few months after the attacks, I remember walking in Union Square, which isn’t even close to Ground Zero by Manhattan standards, and it almost bent me over. Posters fluttered in the autumn air, adorned with faces of people I had never known personally but who suddenly were bound together in this terrible thing.
Today, I sit 2,000 miles away from New York City. Ten years have peeled away most of the pain and some of the befuddlement, but not all. I still don’t know what to feel. I’ve worked through a cycle of emotions. Anger. Sadness. Despair. Exhaustion. But I know this: I think mostly about the people who died. Not about why they were killed. Or the political or geopolitical meaning of their deaths. I grieve over them, and the lives that ended too suddenly and too early. And I wish I could visit Ground Zero. Just to pay my respects.