I took this picture in April of 1999. It was my senior year of high school and I’d scored the trip of a lifetime with my dad to New York City, the city that had captured my heart as a kid and had never let go. This was my first visit and we checked off every item on the tourist list including a ferry ride out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It was here that I got my first great view of the Manhattan skyline and here that I snapped a picture that would end up being more historically significant that I could ever imagine.
Fast forward two years and it’s September 11, 2001. I’m in London, England having newly arrived to a country that was to be my home for the next year. My dad and I were in the room that I was renting from a British family and I was trying to unpack my belongings and not to cry. This was the farthest I’d ever been from home, and having been here only two days I petrified, overwhelmed and homesick.
My dad flipped on the power switch to the tiny television that sat near my bed and began changing channels. I paid little attention until I noticed my dad staring at the screen and what appeared to be a building on fire.
“What is that?” I asked.
“I have no idea. But those are the World Trade Centers.” He said, in a voice that I didn’t recognize coming from my dad.
“Maybe a movie?” I offered meekly.
“I suppose, I just don’t know...” his voice trailed off as we watched another plane emerge from the corner of the screen and begin to head directly toward the second tower. As the plane hit the building I gasped, my dad said, “Jesus Christ,” and the world as I had known it, fell apart.
The next day we found ourselves hours North of London in a town called Millom, a town that my dad’s grandfather was from and a place we’d planned to visit before my dad returned home to the states. The car ride up had been somber, neither one of use wanting to broach the subject of whether I’d return home with him in a few days or stay for the rest of the year. We had no idea what the impact of what we’d seen on television would be and being so far away seriously delayed any news or connection to home.
That morning we stopped by the ocean, not for any particular reason but to get out of the car and stretch our legs. As we walked toward the sea I glanced down at my watch. 9:09 am. There’d been an announcement in the grocery store we stopped in that the town would be observing a moment of silence at 9:11am in honor of the tragedy that had occurred, that was still occurring back at home.
As I watched the seconds creep towards that time, and my dad wander farther out towards the sea shore, I wondered what would happen when my dad left and I was left alone in a foreign country. I imagined myself having to swim back home if this event caused the beginning of World War 3, I imagined myself stranded here in the place I’d been so desperate to get to, a cruel joke on the girl who’d wanted to be anywhere but home now longing for the one place she’d so eagerly left.
I stayed in London for the year but was constantly haunted by what was going on back home. Even though home for me was in the Midwest, well removed from the areas of impact, it was clear that every single American was affected by what had happened that day. The distance I felt was more than geographical. I was in a place where terrorism and national tragedies were prevalent, where the gravity of a situation like 9/11 was felt, observed and mourned, but with a sense of distance and objectivity that only served to make me feel more alone in my sadness.
Now, twelve years later and three months into my life here in New York, I found myself in a place tonight that I hadn’t planned on going. I found myself on the R train headed downtown. I got off at Cortland Street and stayed closed behind a group of people on the train who were clearly headed in the same direction. But as I came above ground, I quickly realized I didn’t need to follow anyone. I lifted my gaze and right in front of me were two giant beams of light.
Below that, people were pooled on street corners, some taking pictures, others staring up, and some stopped completely in the street. Even the hardened New Yorkers with places to go and clipping along at a steady pace stopped for at least a moment to look up at the tribute of light.
I too, stopped and looked, and to be honest, was surprised by how little I felt. I could see the light there, obviously, and the memory of the day hung heavy in the early September heat, but I wanted to get closer. I wanted to feel something. I wanted to be connected to the event that I was so disconnected from when it happened twelve years ago.
I began walking in what seemed like the right direction, closer to where the beams of light were coming from. I followed groups of people and occasionally stepped off to the side to take pictures, or simply to stop and gaze at what had once filled the place where light now was.
Finally I found myself near a parking structure. I could see that the light was coming from somewhere nearby but struggled to figure out how to get there. And there was some part of me that really wanted to get there. Not to say I’d been to Ground Zero, or witness the wreckage of the most horrific terrorist attack our nation has seen but because twelve years ago I was so very far away from what had happened and in the aftermath the only thing I wanted was to be home, in my country. I longed for the sense of community that emerged after, the camaraderie and care people found for everyone from their neighbors to their strangers. I didn’t have it then, and very selfishly, I wanted it now, tonight.
I walked as close as I could get and then stopped. I gazed up again, and stood there for a few minutes not knowing were else to go. I spotted two police officers directing traffic in and out of the parking structure and walked up to them.
“This is going to sound totally ignorant, so I apologize, but I just moved here a couple of months ago and I’m wondering, is this as close as I can get to Ground Zero?”
The male officer, gently took hold of my arm and guided me closer to the female officer, shielding me from the traffic that was turning onto the street.
“Yes, this is as close as you can get.” He said, still holding on to my arm protectively.
“Okay,” I said, “Thank you.” And began to walk away.
“You’re welcome,” He replied, “Stay safe and have a good night.”
As I walked away, my eyes filled with tears. It wasn’t that I was overwhelmed with the emotion of the attacks, but the simple fact that in a city that’s often touted as having mean, rude and uncaring people, I’ve found exactly the opposite in my time here, and this was the perfect example.
What he said continued to ring in my ears. “This is as close as you’ll get.” He was right. I shouldn’t need to get any closer. I shouldn’t need to see the singed wallet of the woman who died on the 35th floor or the sheets of paper that rained down on the city as the towers fell. He was right. I had my story, my memory of where I was twelve years ago and that was enough. It wasn’t a competition of who had the saddest story or who was impacted the most---we all were.
Even years later, when the dust has settled and the day becomes a memory of the tragedy that was, what remains is a communal sharing of the experiences we all had living through 9/11. Despite any and all differences that separate us, we all have a story to tell about where we were on that day and how it changed our lives.
I can't begin to tell you how many stories I overhead today. How many people sharing with each other their memories, their loss, their heartbreak. Whether it was here, or Miami or Minnesota, everyone talks about the day in the same heartfelt way.
In a world that’s so bound by differences, today is a day that should remind us that the things in life that bring us together, though often unlikely and sometimes tragic, can bring out the light in us all.