Friday, September 02, 2011

The Day You Never Forget

Most of the time, people think I'm a pretty tough kind of gal.  I am, I suppose, in a lot of ways.  I say what I think--sometimes at a cost to myself--and once I finally learned to be at peace with myself (a process I don't discuss with anyone other than my husband, perhaps, and my daughters) I was able to walk that fine line between assertive and bitch fairly well.

Unless I get mad, which is a whole other story.

I think every generation has a day they'll never collectively forget.  For my father and his siblings, it was Pearl Harbor.  What else could compete with that event marring their young lives? For my mother, it was a dual memory--the Nazis fleeing Paris and the Allies entering it.  There were several that vied for that title in my youth. I vaguely remember Watergate; I had chicken pox and was home from first grade and there was NOTHING ELSE ON TV.  Then President Reagan getting shot. And Pope John Paul II. And John Lennon.  Then, when I was in college, the Challenger disaster, brought home to me on a whole new level because the daughter of one of the crew members went to the same school in the same department that I was in and I knew her.

But will anything take the place of 9-11?

I'm not going to go into that particular day. That story isn't important.  But I'm sitting here now, ten years later absolutely glued to the television set watching all these terrible shows. I'm morbidly fascinated by hearing the experiences of these survivors and the stories of those who didn't.  I'm glued to the TV screen, listening to the analytical details of how the structures were compromised, how the passengers fought in Pennsylvania, how the firefighters in that one lone stairwell managed to walk away.  That day marked me in so many ways that even now, ten years later I can still feel all the shock, the horror, the absolutely gut-wrenching fear those events caused. 

And yet, I can't escape it, and don't even try.

In a way, that whole day is kind of a blur.  Our workplace didn't close, despite the whole state of Ohio rolling up like a big carpet.  I was stuck there, at Applebees, and only two tables came in. So we were sitting there, with all that news coverage on all those television sets. And that's when, to me, one of the most shocking things of that whole damn day happened.

I was watching the beginning of President Bush's televised address when one of the other servers came up and grabbed my arm.

"Hey," he said. "I need you to lead the birthday song for my table."

Do what?  This guy was a nice enough fellow, but he was also a member of a church that doesn't believe in celebrating birthdays.  The table he was referring to was a group of young women in their early twenties. All I could think of in that moment was the absolute irony, the insensitivity of his request.  I threw his hand off my arm and snarled, "No one will ever have a birthday on September 11 again, you *bleepity-bleep* moron. Sing it your own damn self if it's so important to you."

He looked kind of puzzled and said, "But I can't sing happy birthday--"

"God will forgive you for that quicker than for pretending that this--" and I pointed at the screen "--didn't happen."

He went away.

Strange.  Now I don't remember what the President specifically said during that speech. I remember the feelings I had as I watched it, and the tiniest little moment of reassurance afterwards.  I remember the phone call I got from a friend in New York who'd been off that day from work at Windows Over The World and thus escaped the destruction of the World Trade Center. I remember long hours of working to gather water bottles and shoes and non-perishable food and shipping it off to the rescue workers at Ground Zero. I remember the restaurant down the street, not two block from where I'm sitting now, pouring out every bottle of French wine from its incredible wine cellar into the street when France refused to cooperate in the allied war in the Middle East.

But instead of remembering what the President said to reassure the country, I remember that callous request, and the look of surprise on that young server's face when I yelled at him.  I was too immature to realize that maybe that callousness was the result of a young man in his early twenties, seeing the face of war rise over the horizon.  I was just mad--furious and seething and pissed off--and he was too insensitive to recognize that emotion swirling through all of us there that night.

My reputation was solidified in this town after that night. I was thought of as a bad-ass from that night on, something only reinforced by years of tending bar after that.

And yet, all these years later when I watch these shows, that grief hasn't really lessened.  I watch the Twin Towers come down, and the Pentagon security camera film, and all those poor, doomed people who chose the death of the freefall over the death of the flames and I still sorrow for them all. 

That day, 9-11-2001, marked not only MY generation, but my parents and my children's. Now my son-in-law is stationed in the Middle East, still fighting the war that began that day, while my daughter and her daughter live with me, and I realize that 9-11 has also affected my granddaughter's generation. She's been without her father now for half of her two years, and the first time I sang "Happy Birthday" again after that one day almost ten years ago, was last October for her first birthday.

Everyone has a day they'll never forget.  I have a feeling that when it's my time to go, no matter how old I am, and my life flashes before my eyes, I'll still see those incredible terrible pictures interspersed between all the lesser moments in my comparatively inconsequential life.  I have a feeling the rest of the country feels the same way--judging from the reaction America had to UBL's long-delayed demise.

Some days should never be forgotten. And in this country, apparently, never will be.

I guess I'm not so tough after all.  Everytime I see those videos, I still cry.  And I probably always will.