On the night before Sept. 11, I wondered what to write.
In retrospect, that was an unusual feeling.
Most years, the choice would have been automatic. My first ever 9/11 column, “The Last to Know,” ran the day after the attacks in New York, scribbled on the back of a napkin while the news was fresh in my mind. I’ve written many since – maybe not every year, but often enough.
But this year, thirteen years since the attacks, the subject didn’t leap to mind. Not until I saw a friend’s memorial Facebook posting.
I wonder very much if I’m alone in that.
September 11 will never be an ordinary day again. Not entirely. And yet, even the most infamous of dates, with time, become something remembered more than felt, dates that steadily pass into the history books instead of the front pages. Today’s sixth-graders have no memory of the Sept. 11 attacks at all. Soon, tomorrow’s high-schoolers won’t, either.
I wonder if this is how survivors of Pearl Harbor felt in 1954. An event near enough that there was still living, vivid memory, but far enough that other events could overtake it, push it into the background, claim the spotlight.
I’m sure no one had forgotten Pearl Harbor. But I wonder how many first remembered it as a date the water bill was due.
There’s a melancholy with that. But also, in an odd way, a freedom.
Those who perished and those they touched should never be forgotten. And I doubt they ever will be. No one’s passing is ever truly “gotten over” or should be, all the less so when the passing is the violent end of a few thousand people.
But it’s OK for the pain to dull, too.
It’s OK to not feel every anniversary as though it were the first one.
It’s OK to be able to look at those memories from a distance and maybe, in a way, see them for the first time with clear eyes.
A lot of powerful things happened in the wake of Sept. 11. Some are moments we’re still proud of. Some are choices that we’re still dealing with the consequences of. All of them, at the time, were tinged with a color of urgency and uncertainty, with the feeling of desperate need.
Now, perhaps, with the colors dialed down a little, we can weigh carefully the things we’ve done and learn from them.
I know, there’s never a time when we’re completely free from crisis. Today, no airplanes are flying into New York skyscrapers. Instead, our headlines are captured by atrocities and beheadings and the prospect of another war in a faraway place. Maybe it’s never possible to have a moment for completely calm, clear judgment.
But maybe, as old horrors grow farther away, it’s possible to be just clear enough to meet the next crisis.
I hope so. Dear heaven, I hope so.
Every year, we say “Remember.” But what is the purpose of memory? Partly, to hold close that which might otherwise be lost. Partly, to honor those whose deeds are worthy to endure. Partly, to learn from what has happened so that the best can be achieved and the worst avoided.
If the fear and pain that once touched those memories so strongly begins to fade – and I recognize that for some, it may never do so – does that mean the memories themselves have been lost? By no means. The closeness, the honor, the lessons can still survive.
Not because they’ve been emblazoned in burning letters that sear the mind and banish sleep. But because we now choose to do so.
And what we take from that choice should be what we pass to the next generation.
Let the fear go to rest at last. Let the best survive. And let life continue.
Because ordinary life is worth remembering, too.