I remember sitting in a classroom as the elementary school methods professor burst in to tell us that a plane had just hit the Twin Towers. We thought it was a joke. It had to be an accident, right?
I remember listening to the radio on my way to student teaching, all media outlets tuned into what was happening in New York City. With the clear, blue Nebraska sky overhead, I listened as the news just continued to get worse. Not one plane, but three. It would be awhile before I knew about the fourth.
I remember sitting in an empty classroom with all of my attention on the television, unable to focus on grading or lesson planning while my elderly co-op told me that we were going to just act as if it were a regular day. I couldn’t imagine how we could ever have a regular day again, and yet I had to teach like our nation hadn’t just been under attack.
I remember calling my fiance to resolve our ridiculous fight from the night before. Suddenly where I was going to student teach didn’t seem nearly as important as finding out whether we were going to go to war and if I was going to lose my soon-to-be husband to a draft that hadn’t been instated for nearly 30 years.
I remember that first plane ride less than three months later, the heightened security and the mess at O’Hare when I realized that my fiance could only walk me a few feet inside of the airport to say goodbye, the days of walking loved ones to the gate and greeting them there when they returned long gone.
I remember watching our troops go to war, in two wars that were so different and yet made to appear exactly the same. I remember watching statues tumble and women freed and body counts rise. I remember fearing for the friends and family who were serving and eventually questioning what we were doing over there anyway.
I remember realizing, for perhaps the first time, just how complicated war and geopolitics really were.
I remember how, for just a moment, our country seemed to put aside the painful politics of the 2000 election and come together. We were all Americans. We all stood with New York and DC and the families of those on Flight 93. We were all going to show the terrorists that they couldn’t knock us down.
But time is a funny thing. Time distorts our memories while bringing the whole picture into focus. Hindsight helps to complete the story that our memories cannot fully recollect.
So many remember a united country in which all of us were loving our neighbors and proud to be Americans and working together to heal from an act of terrorism that none of us could have ever fathomed.
But we forget the xenophobia that quickly rose up around the country. The fear of foreigners who looked Middle Eastern. The suspicion of anyone who was Muslim. The emotional, mental, and even physical attacks on immigrants who had come to the United States to escape the very terrorism that had found its way to our shores.
We forget the confidence with which we entered two wars only to discover that it was going to be far more difficult than the military action taken ten years before.
We forget how we all had to get back to our lives because that is what humans do, we just keep living. All while those closest to the tragedy are still living with the effects 20 years later.
The past is complicated, and so are our memories.
And yet we continue to say “Never forget.”
What will I never forget?
I will never forget the nearly 3000 lives senselessly lost on that day, and the hundreds more lost over the following years as first responder after first responder suffered health issues caused by their bravery in the hours and days following the attack.
I will never forget the children who lost their parents and the babies who never got to meet theirs.
I will never forget calling my fiance and then my mom after returning from a day of student teaching, happy to hear their voices and wishing I could be with my nearest and dearest instead of 600 miles away.
Twenty years later I will never forget the fear of the unknown, the sorrow for the lives lost, the empathy for those waking up to empty beds and empty chairs, the pride in being in a temporarily united country, and the joy of watching the end of oppression in Afghanistan.
But I will also never forget the missed signs that could have prevented the tragedy, the pain and death of first responders who suffered health issues for years afterwards only to be ignored by their government, the fear and hatred of the other within our borders, and the years of endless wars that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives.
The painful reality is that none of us who lived through that day will ever forget. But neither should we misremember.
On this 20th anniversary, and every anniversary that follows, let us remember September 11, 2001 as a time of grief and unity, fear and hope, hatred and love, terror and resurrection. Let us embrace the both/and of the event that changed all of our lives so that our children can fully understand the moment that shaped their future.
Because that is how we should truly live #neverforget.