“You know, this is the first time I’ve been back here,” my dad said, his eyes fixed on the half-built frame of 1 World Trade Center.
It was July 3. My mom, dad, and I had planned to go to Coney Island, but it was raining, and my dad suggested we go downtown instead. He wanted to see the construction site. Tourists brushed by us, but we stood fixed, looking at the scaffolding reflected in the building’s newly installed windows, unnerved by the planes that seemed to be flying a little too low.
The last time my dad was this close to Ground Zero he looked at it from the other side, he told me. It was just weeks after the attacks. A boat took him, my mom, his father, and his sister to the site by way of the Hudson River. His sister Nancy’s husband, Alan, was missing. Smoke still rose from the ashes of the buildings and their inhabitants. We used to joke — as perverse as that might sound — that if we ever spotted a tin toy or a Japanese doll in the mess, we would know to whom those items belonged: my mom’s sister, my aunt Cathy, was known for keeping collections in her office. Cathy worked in the North Tower. Alan worked in the South. Cathy was not in when the planes hit, and we never did see any vintage trinkets in the smoldering landscape of grime. We did get word of a belt buckle and a keychain: they were Alan’s remains.
After my dad recounted the story the three of us broke our gaze, wiped away our tears, and continued down the street. I knew I wanted to record the moment, and a couple weeks later I jotted down notes on my computer.
I have written about 9/11 before. I wrote a poem in a composition book just after I was informed the towers were hit. I was on a retreat with my school, and I didn’t even know Alan had started a job in the South Tower. I recited another verse at Alan’s memorial service. Two years ago, I published a short essay in the News on the subject.
I feel guilty, though, whenever I begin another essay about this. My impulse, as a writer, is to record my experiences, but for me the tragedy is only semi-personal. I now can barely remember my uncle. A photo of me squeezed between him and my aunt is the one image I retain. What right do I have to write about that day, when there are others, like my aunt, for whom the attacks were so personally devastating? That is why I worry I’m being disingenuous when I mention my uncle in class during a discussion of the topic, or when I cry looking up at 1 World Trade.
But I hope no one faults me for doing these things, because I don’t fault those who mourn even though they only watched the burning buildings on television. We each understand 9/11 differently, and we should chronicle these varied understandings because that is our way of historicizing the day. The writers must write. Hopefully, this essay adds yet another new perspective to the archive of 9/11 tales that we all will be forced to revisit throughout our lives. But it is no more special because a member of my extended family was killed in the towers.
When I went downtown with my family this summer we also visited St. Paul’s Chapel, across the street from Ground Zero. After the attacks the still-standing structure served as a place of sanctuary for relief workers. St. Paul’s was itself in the process of being turned into a living memorial. Visitors brought items to honor the victims. Now, the chapel is a sort of reliquary. There are firefighter’s badges and photos and origami cranes, gifts from around the world. On that July day, children were running around the space, children who hadn’t been born when the burning buildings were plastered on television screens around the world. These children will inevitably be taught about 9/11. They will read about it in textbooks and might yawn as their teachers dole out statistics on how many lives were lost. But it is our stories, even the semi-personal ones, that will stick.