by Barry Edelson


No Choice But to Remember

On the anniversary of September 11

It was strange to be flying on the anniversary of 9/11, to be in transit and somewhat out of touch with the commemorations of the day. We were hardly alone; the airports were filled with passengers. But if anyone felt unusually anxious or peculiar about flying this weekend, no one displayed it. It has become a tenet of our times: the dreadful memory of the day is never long from our consciousness, but we act as though we don't remember anything, as if we were fearful of allowing our memories to overwhelm us.

For 10 years, the hole in the skyline left by the felling of the World Trade Center towers has aroused two competing impulses: the imperative of looking at what has been lost, and the need to avert our eyes from the horror of what we know we will see. Every trip across the Whitestone or Throgs Neck Bridge, every approach from the west into LaGuardia Airport — particularly in the kind of sparkling weather with which the day began on September 11, 2001 — has pulled us in both directions. The full view of the city that once offered unadulterated joy, nestled in morning mist or glittering in the late afternoon sun, has since been tinged with a gnawing pain.

What it is exactly that we think we will discover by glancing at the empty space that the lost buildings once filled, we cannot say because we have not yet found it. Understanding does not help, forgiveness is not even contemplated, and peace is as elusive as the kind of dreamless sleep we might have enjoyed before the collapse. The most we can hope for, perhaps, is acceptance of a rudimentary kind. We acquiesce in the disruption of familiar routines, acknowledge the changes to the ways in which we respond to the world and the world to us, and know full well that there is no going back. But an acceptance such as this cannot lie still without discomfort, without regret and disappointment as its constant companions.

To keep the memory alive, we need not relive the events of the day — we do not have to see the photographs, or hear the memorials, or weep at the elegies — because the images have become so much a part of us that forgetting is not even remotely possible. Enough years have elapsed that there are indeed times now when we do not think about it for long stretches; life in and around the city would be impossible otherwise. But these episodes are temporary and we are invariably caught unaware by an unexpected recollection, or an unanticipated glimpse of downtown. Whenever we are reminded again, opposites occupy our thoughts and emotions like unbreakable binary pairs: fear and defiance, grief and happiness, shame and pride, emptiness and hope.

When we are asked how September 11 has changed us, we need only think of the great gaping hole in the sky where the lost spouses and parents and children and friends once spent their days, and where many came to the aid of strangers on the towers' final day. We need only wonder at the sheer implausibility of human imagination that brought such an edifice into being in the first place, and of the equally unthinkable act of human depravity that destroyed it. We are changed mainly by the inability to experience one idea or feeling without the intrusion of its unwanted twin. No longer can we gaze upon the profile of Manhattan with the pure aesthetic pleasure that we once knew. No more can we wave the flag with the unbridled glee of those who have never seen it bespattered with the blood we have both lost and spilled. Never again can the blue September morning rise with no thought in our minds beyond the next few steps in the day ahead.

It remains to the unknowing and unborn to live without the pain and loss that dwells in all our hearts. For those of us who heard and saw and wept, we have no choice but to live with what we have no choice but to remember: not as if it didn't happen, but in the fullness of knowing that we will never entirely escape the feeling that it will never end.

September 11, 2011


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