Sixteen years. It still feels like the towers went down a short while ago, but a glance at the crowd at Beinecke Plaza in New Haven for Yale’s 9/11 remembrance ceremony reminded me that for some, sixteen years is a lifetime. Some of the young people who surrounded me were Yale undergraduates who were toddlers when the towers fell. For others, the tragedy may have been their first memory of a public tragedy (mine was the Challenger space shuttle disaster from 1986). I imagine that some of the students grew up thinking of 9/11 as a tragedy that took place in a foreign land. There were also plenty of folk from my generation in the crowd, along with those who remembered wars and tragedies from before my time.
We listened to a man who graduated from Yale College the year after I graduated from SUNY Purchase talk about 9/11 and the sensation of being swallowed whole. He prompted us to reflect on the sixteen years after 9/11, to ask ourselves: “what kind of person have you become?” “what neighbor have you helped?”
I’m tempted to write about how I’ve changed in the last sixteen years, to think about how my life is different than I expected (in good ways and bad), or about how that sense of terror and panic that followed the fall of the towers never went away. I could tie my personal and professional narrative to a commitment to helping people from marginalized groups. It might even be true.
But that’s not what I think about when I reflect on 9/11. I think about the people whose stories came to an abrupt end, those who didn’t have the opportunity to finish crafting their narrative. The people who never experienced all of the amazing and terrifying things that happened over the last sixteen years.
I think about them – all strangers to me – and the sixteen years fall away, and I’m listening to my grandmother tell me on the phone that a plane hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center, and I turn the tv on to the Today show and try to reassure her (“it’s probably just a terrible accident”, “a horrible coincidence”) and watch the second plane hit the tower.
Yale Chaplain Sharon Kugler spoke at the outset of the event, and a phrase she delivered stuck in my mind. “Let us embody peace.” I can try. It feels like the best way of honoring those whose stories came to an end sixteen years ago.