I mostly dislike the bells and whistles of commemorative occasions. On my birthday, I am made anxious by the “festive” ritual of unwrapping presents, the predictable moment when the cake is wheeled in and the singing begins. But there are smaller, if stranger, ways I mark the same day each year that bring the cathartic feeling of things coming full circle. I enjoy recalling exactly who ordered which dish at the previous year’s celebratory dinner. I set an alarm for 9:09 p.m., the precise time I was recorded “born.”
The act of commemorating September 11th is a different kind of demarcation. The anxiety of approaching my birthday is not at all the difficulty of commemorating the death day of so many others. And yet the way that I want most to remember this day — and, somehow, to mourn it — borrows something from the way I choose to celebrate other days.
To observe September 11th as tragedy or history begins, for me, to turn it into a distant and abstract event — even, I fear, a meaningless one. To think of the dead as a long list of names or whole gallery of faces, to think of swathes of time as simply pre-9/11 or post-9/11 blurs my memory of what happened that day and obscures my sense of why it matters.
So, nine years ago, I chose instead to pick just one name from the list. On the first anniversary of September 11th, The New York Times published a special section called “One Year Later.” Among its features was a set of short profiles of those who had died. I no longer remember what the unifying principle of the profiles was: perhaps they were all New Yorkers or all firefighters or all fathers. The idea of the list — the length of the list — is of course what makes 9/11 an event we collectively commemorate. Just one New Yorker, just one firefighter, just one father dead does not bring a whole country grief. Just one, however, was what I felt I needed.
That day in sixth grade, I picked Robert J. Foti, I think because he was the most handsome of the group, and looked the friendliest. He was from Albertson, New York, a fighter at Ladder 7, a father of three. The profile described him in the bathtub with his five-year-old son, James, where the two made “Santa Claus” beards with soapsuds. After 9/11, James began telling everyone he met that his “daddy died in the Twin Towers.”
I decided that on September 11th, 2002, I would mourn just for Robert. In remembering just one, I would remember what it was about New York, about firefighting, about family and fathers that had been most terribly lost — and would be most terribly missed.
On later anniversaries, I tried to find Robert’s obituary again. I didn’t remember his last name or his fire station, so each time I came up short, wishing I had a sharper memory of the face I had picked. Still, I held on to the image of a sudsy father and son splashing in the tub, of a five-year-old telling and retelling a story the whole world already seemed to know.
This year, on the tenth (and so, somehow, more important) anniversary, I made a longer search and finally found the profile. Robert still looks handsome and friendly, though somehow I’d been expecting him — like me, and James, and everyone else — to have changed.