On September 11, 2001, I went to school, just like any normal day. I carried pencils and homework and notebooks and all of the standard things a fourth grader needs to get through the day. But today was different: I also brought Twinkies and Hostess Cupcakes: the round, chocolate confections with the crème filling and the white squiggle of frosting on top. It was my tenth birthday, and I was ecstatic. How could I not be? It’s not every day that you turn 10 years old. The thrill of finally hitting double digits was overwhelming.
I listened to the gravely voices on the radio while winding through the side streets on the way to the back parking lot. My father recalls me squeaking from the back of the car, asking him what a terrorist was. Ms. Rollinger, my fourth grade teacher, broke the news to us with reddened eyes and tears streaming down her face, but my classmates and I couldn’t possibly comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy. New York, Washington D.C, and Pennsylvania seemed like a gazillion miles away, too far to affect me in suburban Minneapolis. I didn’t know anyone who died by the attacks, so why bother? It was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate. The rest of the day is a blur. I don’t remember what classes I had, or what I did after school, or even any of the presents I received. I suppose that isn’t important now anyway. What I do remember are the spongy cakes I brought as treats, and a hollow feeling that has remained with me through the years.
To tell the truth, I still don’t fully understand what happened on 9/11. My mom never let me watch the footage of the attacks. I did not watch two of the tallest manmade structures in the world collapse on themselves; I did not watch a jet eviscerate the military hub of the nation; I did not listen to the heroes of United Flight 93 bringdown a fourth potential attack. Even if I did, I was too young and naïve to understand the gravity of the situation. I saw pictures of the aftermath, but only the towers smoking and a blurry, silver object in an otherwise green, empty field. But these are different: they are devoid of all human suffering and death involved in the attack. My image of 9/11 was of a few pictures and snack cakes. I did not feel any connection because from the images I saw, there was no connection to be made. There has been a complete disconnect for much of my life between the date of my birth and the catastrophe that now defines it.
Only last year, my twentieth birthday and the tenth anniversary of the attacks, did I stumble upon a website featuring YouTube clips of everything I had avoided for the past ten years. A timeline was splayed across a white background, where a minute-by-minute transcript of the events loomed at the bottom of my screen. And last year, for the first time, I watched the clips of what transpired on my tenth birthday. And I was hollow inside, but not for the same reasons as before. Watching the attacks take place in real time is a trial you should complete, but not to enjoy it. No, it is to fully grasp the feeling that struck the nation and made one of the most powerful and proud countries in the world feel vulnerable, angry, shocked, and a host of other emotions I cannot begin to convey. It is as if your torso, your guts, all the organs and bones that make you live and breathe have vanished: teleported to some deep, dark abyss. The breath catches in your lungs before you can gasp, and your stomach sinks to a depth it has not known before. Your heart turns to wood; it still beats, but it is a dull, knocking sound rather than the thumping of old. It was like nothing I have ever felt before, and something I hope to never feel again.
On the plane from New York to Istanbul, I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Written by Jonathan Safran Foer, it tells the story of nine year old Oskar Schell, who has a key that was left by his father who died in the World Trade Center attacks. One of the reasons I loved the book was because it dealt with finding closure after the events of 9/11. The search for the lock isn’t just about finding what the key opens; it’s also about searching for one last connection to the person that Oskar loves most: his father. Obviously I can in no way relate to the anger and grief felt by someone who lost a loved one in the worst tragedy on American soil since Pearl Harbor. I can’t even begin to fathom the heartbreak felt by those who no longer have their fathers, mothers, sons or daughters. My heart truly goes out to them on this day of remembrance.
It was difficult for me to try to find closure towards an event I didn’t truly understand until last year. It is even more difficult to pay homage to a national tragedy while still celebrating, or at least honoring, the day of my birth as well. Certainly ignoring one or the other is completely out of the question. Wandering around the streets of Istanbul in a drunken stupor singing “God Bless America,” is just as unhealthy as sitting in my dorm room watching videos of planes crashing into buildings. And while these are the two extremes on the spectrum, the point remains that there needs to be some sort of balance between the two. Reconciliation is the key, not rejection.
More interesting will be both honoring a national tragedy and my birthday in a foreign country. I do not know the exact relationship between Turkey and the United States post-9/11. Regardless, the citizens of Istanbul—the shopkeepers, waiters, and countless others our group interacts with in a normal day—likely have no relationship to the United States, and likely will not recognize the day as something other than a Tuesday. This reaction is understandable. August 30 in Turkey was a national holiday—the anniversary of the last major battle in the Turkish War for Independence. Huge red flags were unfurled down the outsides of buildings, the white crescent and star blocking windows and views. Yet we were oblivious. We went to school, to our scheduled classes, and then went on with life as normal. I do not expect anything different from the Turks on a national holiday of our own. What it does mean, however, is that the sixteen of us will be wearing heavy boots, as Oskar Schell would say, while most of the other thirteen million people around us do not. It is completely understandable, but still disheartening, to commemorate something of this magnitude while virtually isolated.
I was always told that funerals were not supposed to be a lament for the life that was lost. Nobody was supposed to go up to the pulpit and say “Woe is me, this person is dead and now my life will never be the same.” Rather, funerals celebrate those who are no longer with us. Someone goes up and tells their favorite anecdote about the deceased. The mourners know that the dead guy is exactly that: dead. But I believe we should choose to remember the dead as living, breathing, laughing, and loving beings, rather than empty husks of what they once were. This is something that the United States has not done, but deserves to do for the victims of 9/11. We hear stories of anger and sorrow and, especially after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2010, relief and triumph that we finally caught the mastermind behind the dreadful attacks. I think that this approach is ultimately unhealthy. On September 11, we should not rehash the events of that hollow day. Rather, we should remember 9/11 as the deaths of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, coworkers, friends, and above all, people. So much of the time we get wrapped up in the attacks themselves that we neglect those who matter most: the victims.
So on September 11, 2012, in Istanbul, Turkey, I hope that my classmates and I will raise a toast to those who lost their lives and hold a private memorial service in our hearts. And on September 11, 2012, I will celebrate the start of my twenty-second year on this planet. Birthdays are supposed to be celebrated, but they are also a time to reflect on the past year and look forward to the goals of the future. The United States of America should recognize the attacks, but in a different light than before. The nation should focus on the lives of its proud citizens, rather than dwell on the collapse of the two towers. It is time to move forward, not step backwards. For my birthday, I will remember, but also celebrate, and hopefully learn from my mistakes of the past year. I, like the nation, need to focus on what is important in my life in the coming year. I hope you will join me in remembering our common past and moving towards a future full of life, hope, and unfulfilled expectations. And who knows, we might even find some Twinkies along the way.
To donate to the 9/11 Memorial and to view an interactive timeline of the events, go to www.911memorial.org.