(The following elegy for 9/11/01 was written by our son, Erik, on the 15th anniversary of the attack on New York City. He was living there at the time. We are posting it because his memories are still so vivid, and the lessons he draws still so important in our lives: embrace continually those we love.)
The towers fell while I was asleep. We all were in some ways.
The night before, I had been out too late, just blocks from the future ground zero, hanging out at a now-plowed-under NYC music epicenter called Wetlands with some hippie kids I met during our freshman orientation at NYU the day before. We smoked and drank on the curb outside the club, naively staring up at the towers above us, happy that we had somehow just wound up in this wonderful city – all huge privileges we had only begun to grasp.
I stumbled out onto 5th Ave the following morning and found myself among throngs of neighbors staring through wet eyes towards downtown. The archway of Washington Square framed a dark black plume of smoke – only moments before, the white stone had been robbed of its picturesque content in an instant, after decades standing firm.
New York never stops changing, and it was never the same after that day. I had blearily witnessed the looped horror of fiery impacts and the heart-wrenching collapse of each building on TV upstairs; my mom was crying into the other end of the phone, glad to have finally reached me after a morning of panic calls that I didn’t answer. I walked those same streets moments later. Brushing by the stream of souls wandering blearily up Broadway, covered in dust and debris, clutching their last bits of sanity as they fled the ruins – that was the image that will always play on repeat in my memory.
I was drawn to the carnage clutching my camera, headed upstream against the flow of humanity that passed before me. Something pulled me down there. My friend and I crossed over the invisible cordon of Canal Street, waiving off the cops that tried to stop us from entering that ancient tip of island which had never been truly closed in its history. We continued south through barren, deserted streets catching glimpses of smoke and noticed that our feet were now leaving footprints in the thick layer of ash that blanketed the concrete. Burnt paper drifted everywhere like tumbleweeds through a ghost town. Falling through the sky. We could already smell the death and melting plastic that we all would continue to breathe for months afterward… Those of us who stayed.
We were alone. Our only company was the abandoned cars, silent skyscrapers, and exhausted firemen who had just lost half of their families of brothers and sisters that morning – if not all of them. They stared back at us blankly. The smoke consumed everything. We saw fire though the darkness a block away, glaring into our eyes without mercy; our lungs hurt in our chest alongside our hearts. We finally retreated North to find our brothers that remained.
We had all just met but those of us who huddled in dorm rooms that evening, drinking the sorrow away as we tried not to look out of our windows at the city smoldering into the night; we were brothers and sisters too. Some of those brothers I will still sacrifice my life for to this day. I thank this thankless city for that.
I spoke to my brothers today. Not enough of them… 15 years later. It feels like a dream we all lived together, so visceral yet so shrouded in haze like NYC was for the days and weeks that followed. Missing people greeted us at every corner, their faces chained to fences together on waiving pieces of paper. Few were ever found. I feel lucky that I found my brothers. We also huddled together, in parks and on street corners, at the bars which sustained us and in classrooms that no longer felt so important. In the clubs that stayed open despite the gentry, and on rooftops looking back over this place that many people have worked to tear down, but which always seems to sprout back in one form or another.
This whole place was pulled closer together, even as the world was tearing itself apart, one block or country at a time. New York seemed tougher than the nails and steel that held it together; tougher than the haters and thieves that tried to scare us into a corner. Politics and terrorists couldn’t really phase us as we continued to smoke the days away, trying to find laughs and love wherever she was hiding amidst the ash and ashtrays.
I found her. And I found myself along the way too. At least the part of me that remained. Another part of me may still be asleep, silently wishing it is all but a dream… But we still continue to row our boat together, gently upstream.
Love y’all. At very least don’t forget that.