~Forgotten Wings~

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11 September 2002

"Britt! Wake up! The United States is being attacked!"


"Planes are attacking New York and Washington! You need to come and see this."

I know that as I groggily pulled myself out of bed and walked the few short steps into the living room to see the TV, I expected to see fighter planes bombing cities. Of course, within a few moments, I saw the images I'd see over and over again through the next days, and I understood what had happened.

I worried about my father in Washington, not knowing where he was, until he called, and kept worrying until he was home safely. I knew he wasn't near the Pentagon, but there were times that reporters mentioned up to ten planes unaccounted for, and I stared at the TV set, wondering when the next crash would happen. When I had to rest my eyes, I stood on the porch and watched the fighter jets fly overhead.

I watched TV all day and into the night, and when I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer and crawled into bed at 4 AM, I turned off the lights but couldn't turn off the TV, leaving it going until I awoke to go back to the screen again in the morning.

Like most everyone else, I stared and wondered and ached. I can't remember whether it was when the first tower or the second tower crumbled that I cried for the first time. The consciousness of death was overwhelming. It's mostly a blur to me of fire and dust and papers and falling bodies and weeping.

I cried as the stories started to come: first of the men, women and children on the planes, then as families and friends on the streets of New York showed their pictures of their missing loved ones, knowing how many of those missing were dead. Every time the TV showed a weeping parent or child, husband or wife, sister or brother, the tears came to my eyes again. I was melancholy and anguished, staring at the rubble of ground zero hoping that people could be pulled out alive and watching as hour after hour only remains were found.

By Thursday, the TV was still on all day, but there were other things to occupy me and somehow take a small piece of my mind off the death and destruction. My plane flight to Chicago, scheduled for that afternoon, had been officially canceled. Trains were sold out. Buses, too, were mostly full, but I could try to get on one that left at 8 PM. If not, my mother would rent a car and we would drive our way from Washington to Chicago.

I did make it onto the bus, and after a long night and morning, trying to catch news on my dinky little $5 radio and finding only the same talk shows that have always infuriated me, sleeping in bits and spurts, spending the long hours between 3 and 6 AM in a packed-to-overflowing bus station in Cleveland waiting for a transfer that that was supposed to take 15 minutes, we pulled into Chicago, and minutes later, I was in a cab to Evanston.

I still find it hard to describe the feelings that overcame me as I stepped out into the bright afternoon sunshine on campus. It was a beautiful, warm Friday, and as I walked on the familiar ground, I felt rooted, peaceful, thankful. My surroundings were familiar and soothing, so different from the apartment my family'd moved to just a month before. Everything was active and vibrant here, and I was immediately needed and busy, called to the important task of helping the new freshmen move into and become a part of our dorm.

There was no time for television or depression or contemplation. Normal life was moving on at a brisk pace, calling me along, and I went with it and was soothed, distracted, and happy.

* * *

Since then, I have not come back often to the emotional place I was during those short few days last September. I have thought about the events, of course; hardly anyone can avoid it, and I haven't tried to. But I have not felt the emotions so deeply. I have not cried for the victims for a year.

I can be like that. I will feel for the people whose suffering is less known, less discussed. In the last year, I have wept for Guatemalans, Brazilians, Argentines, Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, Africans, and poor Americans for their pain in the past or present, to name just a few that immediately come to mind. But I have not cried for those who died on September 11th. It is not because I do not recognize their pain, or because it does not sting me like all suffering does. But I feel saturated by it, I look around me and find the recognition and sympathy in everyone I see, and somehow it does not dig into my heart and push me to tears.

I do not fight this response, usually. I let myself internalize the suffering of others, force myself to stare at it, because I feel that somehow facing the pain will-must-lead to some sort of understanding that can work to end suffering. But if the mainstream culture accepts and discusses it, then it will not be forgotten, and then what harm is it if I shed my tears for someone else?

But today I made myself think about it, today I made myself see, today I made myself feel, and today I cried. I turned on the television, and I flipped past the speeches and the live shots of Air Force One landing and the pictures of the plane hitting and towers collapsing again and again, and watched the stories of children who lost their parents, of wives who lost their husbands. I thought about the stories that touched me most from last year, about the little boy from Washington on the plane that hit the Pentagon, and his weeping, screaming family. I thought about every family in pain, and multiplied it by 3,000, and could not help but cry again.

I'm not sure how important it is who I cry for, and when, and how long, and how intensely. The real pain belongs to those who suffered and died, and their loved ones who suffer for them. But maybe trying to feel it all will help me ease it somehow, some way.

* * *

What I took, more than anything, from September 11th, was a profound sense of humanity. All of the good, bad, and ugly that we humans are capable of was on display. Everything was larger than life. Anger, hatred, sadness, empathy, love, gratitude, sacrifice, fear…

I was moved and uplifted by the tremendous desire of millions of ordinary people to give, to help, to sacrifice. I will never, ever forget or doubt the capacity of the human spirit for love and goodness. From the heroism of the firefighters and others in the buildings risking their lives to help others and that of the people on Flight 93, to the volunteers digging through the rubble, to the people making lunches for rescue workers, to the people giving blood because it was something they could do to help, to those who have supported victims' families, to so, so many more stories.

But that was not all to be seen. There was so much that was ugly, from the attacks themselves to the hatred they stirred, and these too were deeply human. I remember that the cab driver who drove me from the bus terminal to campus that Friday told me about how a Muslim who owned a gas station in Chicago had spent an entire night ducking inside a booth, afraid to exit to go home, as bullets ricocheted periodically off the bulletproof windows. There were people abroad who cheered the deaths of innocents, and people here who hated and raged. The anger and hatred and bitterness in pain reminded me of the darkness inside us all.

And sadness and grief, too, we saw. From the grown men who broke down in tears on television, to the families and friends crying for who they'd lost, to those of us watching and weeping at home all across the country. We all felt pain and loss and tragedy.

There was more, of course. From our fear, to turning the tragedy to serve self-interest, to the great swells of patriotism, the human spirit was amplified and on display. That's what I will remember.

* * *

There's more to say. There will always be more to say, and it will never be enough. I wanted to write today to help myself remember and feel, to try to pay tribute to the lost and the loss. I want to always remember, never to let myself cop out because other people are feeling it too or because there have been other and greater human tragedies. Maybe writing it down this year will help me remember it again next year, and every year. This was something to cry about, and I will. I promise.

I want to end with one last phrase, one that I have heard several times today in the September 11th commercials the Methodist church has been running. It touched me, and although I might not use the word pray, somehow I don't mind it:

"I pray for a change in angry hearts."


Last updated 12 September, 2002


Intellectual Property Rights denounced by Britt Gordon-McKeon, 2002