I’d never seen that look in my dad’s eyes before. He’d always been so stoic.
It was a foreign look. It was fear; it was pain; it was anger; it was confusion; it was awe; it was reverence. And he didn’t hide the look from me. That was one of the best gifts he’s given me throughout my life: the honesty of that moment.
He was hurting. My mother was hurting. The towers that had proudly watched over the place of their formative years were crashing. The illusion of an unassailable America was crashing. It was like an era was crashing.
My mom learned how to tie her shoes in Queens. My dad shot rifles with the Police Boys Club on Long Island. They went to prom together in Lynbrook. One set of grandparents met each other as 9 year olds on the streets of Brooklyn, and the other set met as teenagers in a White Castle. My Italian great-grandparents shook hands with the American Dream for the first time at Ellis Island.
I may be the only one out of my family who wasn’t born in New York, but to deny my connection to this singular place would be to deny my roots.
We all have a connection to New York, though. For some of us, it’s home. For others, it’s a dream. But for us all, it’s a memory. It’s a memory that has defined a generation, whether we like it or not.
We are the children of 9/11. We are the ones who can remember the pain, but not the details. We are the first generation to know very little of the world before that fateful day. 9/11, for us, is not a crinkled page in our history books. No, it’s our experience — it’s our collective memory.
And now we’re all grown up. We’re not the 7 year olds who couldn’t understand that look in our fathers’ eyes. Now we understand what that day meant. We understand why we left school early. We understand the eerie silence that consumed our towns. We understand why that was the first day in our lives we didn’t see planes in the sky. We understand we will never be allowed to forget that day.
When we walk through an airport, or when the NSA taps our phones, we are not allowed to forget. When we deliberate over what freedom is, and how we will protect it, we are not allowed to forget. When we explain to our children what we saw on those television screens, we are not allowed to forget.
Yet, I fear it’s becoming too easy to dismiss 9/11. We’ve wearied of the discussion; the constant colloquy that once informed our nation has receded into the background. We shed the right number of tears as we watch the documentaries; we all bow our heads in honor at the memorials; we read the survivors’ tales and hope our essays in honors English class about what that day taught us are good enough to boost our grades. But we’ve become numb to 9/11. It’s now this tired event we can’t be bothered to take seriously even as we seek to shape the social conscience.
We look to the past because it is our greatest lesson, not because we don’t know how to look to the future. Remembering 9/11 is not dwelling — it’s learning.
Our nation changed that day. Some of those changes are obvious; other changes are still as nebulous as the dust that suffocated our city. But that change lives in us all.
Friday is a day to remember the change that lives in us all — not to debate; not to argue. It is a day to discuss together, breath together, feel together. Friday marks the second day in our history that shall live in infamy. And it marks the first day in our generation’s history that we learned what it means to be American.
We weren’t Democrats that day. We weren’t Republicans. We didn’t quarrel over immigration or social security. We held hands and we mourned. Let us remember that feeling.
I’d never seen that look in my dad’s eyes before. I’m not quite sure I’ve seen that look since. But I’ll never forget that look. I will never forget that day.
We will never forget that day.