I was wearing a steel blue shirt, khakis, and brown boots. I was sitting in our sophomore biology class when we heard a bomb went off in one of the twin towers. Our teacher let us go across the hall into the special-education room where they had televisions. We remained there the rest of that class to watch the horror unfold. And throughout the day we were glued to the news.
Later that night I drove mom’s van to the gas station with grandpa to fill up. Why? Because that’s what everyone was doing. I suppose adults realized we may end up at war with the Middle East, and gas may be scarce. Grandpa was horrified when someone cut me in line and I flipped off the driver. I had never done that before to anyone ever. I suppose my nerves were frayed.
I was 15. A high school sophomore in small town America. I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was. I didn’t know what the Pentagon was. I had never flown on an airplane. I had never visited a big city. And I definitely didn’t know what terrorism was.
My senior year of high school I visited New York for the first time. I was adamant that I wanted to see Ground Zero. Our group was on a shopping trip (we obviously had different priorities). But our group leader promised me we could go there. I didn’t realize how close we were. We turned a corner and I first noticed the road had large asphalt patches. I remember thinking those were some crazy big potholes. I later learned the road was damaged by falling debris from the towers.
Ground Zero was really just a big hole in the ground in 2003. It had construction barriers around it and could’ve been any construction site. I could see where the underground levels were still visible. There were memorials here and there. It was so surreal to be standing in that place where all those horrible things had happened. Before I knew it, I was crying.
And that’s what’s so funny about it, even now. I didn’t know anyone who died. I had no nostalgia for New York. I hadn’t visited the capital. I didn’t personally know any firefighters or EMTs. I had no connection to any of it.
Except I did. Because it was my country. My fellow Americans. So it was personal, even if it wasn’t personal.
Let’s be honest: that’s how we all felt. That’s why the coming days and months we saw an unusual unity in out country. We were devastated by the tragedy, but inspired by the courage and heroic acts. We were, above anything else, Americans.
I’ve been through a lot over the last two decades. College. Law school. Two battles against cancer. I’ve traveled, given speeches, argued in court, and bought a house. I’ve also lost people and friends and pets that I love dearly. In other words, I’ve grown up.
And all of that has made each anniversary so much more poignant. Because now I can relate to the people who were involved so much more easily. I go to work every day in a tall (though not that tall!) building. I work in my office. I build relationships with my colleagues. And I have dreams and aspirations for my life.
Just like all of them.
One day I’ll make it back to New York City (despite my aversion to big cities…). I’ll see the beautiful memorial that replaced that awful hole in the ground. I’ll probably cry again. And it’ll feel like I’ve come full circle.
On the 20th anniversary of that awful, life-changing day, I’ll do what I normally do. I’ll watch the tv specials. I’ll cry for those regular people who turned into heroes. I’ll don my red, white, and blue. I’ll appreciate being an American.
And I won’t forget. I’ll never forget.