What Remains


I don’t remember fourteen years ago today. At least, not like I should, and certainly not like I want to. The world shares its stories of where they were and what they felt, and I try to conjure up fragments of a memory, but even those seem to shift as more time passes, and I’m left not knowing what to believe about a day in a life I’ve lived.

I can’t remember, and I don’t know why.

I remember when Princess Diana was killed. I remember when JFK, Jr. died. I remember Columbine. Those memories are sharp and distinct: I raced home to my parents’ living room on each of those days, my eyes glued to the television set, my heart beating with horror and hope as news updates scrolled across the screen. I remember praying for these people I didn’t know—that I rarely thought about and who didn’t mean anything to me, except that they meant something to someone, and that last fact was the only thing that mattered.

I know my heart shattered in a similar way on that sunny Tuesday morning in September. I know I watched the news with the same dread and horror burning in the pit of my stomach—that horror that has become too familiar now. I know I poured over every new piece of information like I did those years before. I know because I know myself. A sensitive person by nature, the reaction was a common one for me: disbelief, anger, hope, and empathy—a deluge of mixed emotions beginning and ending with a heartbroken, “why?”

But the memory itself of that day is gone, blacked out in my mind, and no matter how I try to summon it forward, all that remain are uncertainties.

Here’s what I remember:

It was my senior year of high school. I was about to turn eighteen. I was on my way to Trigonometry.

Whispered rumors filtered among clumps of passing students as we walked through the short hallway near the library that connected the new side of the school to the old, misinformation disseminating through the crowd like a game of Telephone.

“Something’s happening at the Empire State Building.”

“A plane crashed into it.”

“No, it’s the Statue of Liberty.”

We hurried to get to class before the second bell rang. Time was important back then. Schedules were to be kept, rules to be obeyed. There were lessons to learn and tests to take, equations to solve and dates to memorize.

It was just a regular day.

We were young. It’s all I can think—the only way I can forgive myself for not understanding, for not being more aware of the world, for not paying attention when the nation was crying. Back then, the news was just a series of soundbites, pieces of gossip to share and make us feel like we were connected to the outside when, in reality, we were tucked in our small, safe pocket of the world. That’s what distance does to you—it alters the reality, removes the connection. That’s how tragedy changes you—it wakes you up, shows you your humanity, bridges that divide.

Now, for the first time, life was becoming more than a story we read about in textbooks. Our views were beginning to shift, drawing the world closer in shared suffering, and us along with it.

More news began to trickle in as one period ended and we moved toward the next.

I want to say my third period class that year was Economics. I want to say that we filed into the classroom in relative silence, that my teacher had rolled the TV cart to the front of the room, that we watched the towers fall together. But the mind is fickle, and the memory is so faded, I don’t know how I can grasp even one piece of truth from it.

That’s where it ends.

I don’t remember what we talked about at lunch that day. I don’t remember if we went home early or if we stayed to watch updates on the TV during Senior Study Hall in the cafeteria. I don’t remember driving home or standing in the living room to watch the news or talking to my family about it at dinner—my parents who grew up in New York, my brothers and I who were born on Long Island, my extended family who still lived or worked there.

I don’t remember.

The knowledge is there. I know I watched the footage, saw the pictures in the newspapers, read the stories, heeded the warnings. But it’s like all that information only serves to make up for a piece of lost time—the moments are a blank slate upon which I can rewrite my own history.

This past spring, as I finished the first draft of my novel in which the events of that day play a small part, I spent an evening researching timelines, reading articles and personal testimonies, reviewing photographs and video clips I’ve seen a thousand times over the years.

And then, I watched the original broadcasts.

I listened to the gasps and heard the sobs and then realized they were my own.

Fourteen years. Fourteen years later, and I was watching the planes hit and the towers fall like it was the first time, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ve tried so hard to remember how my heart broke then, but all that’s left is this empty space where a memory should be, and I hate myself for it because I know it will never make up for how my heart breaks now.

There could be a thousand reasons why I can’t remember that day, and I don’t understand any of them. All I know is that I should—I should—and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to reconcile the fact that I can’t.

Everyone says they’ll never forget September 11, and I want to honor the memory with them, but I don’t have a story to tell. All I have are moments, bits of recollection that I can’t trust, and the love, hope, and unity I’ve carried with me since that day.

I may have forgotten the details of where I was, but I won’t forget what that day means to the world, to this nation, to me. I won’t forget the courage of those who faced what seemed impossible, the bravery of the many who ran forward, and the strength of those who were left behind.

Maybe I don’t need to remember.

I promise I won't ever forget.

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