“Never Forget”—And How I Can’t Help But Remember 9/11

by Debra Morris

Best South Tower photoAlong with thousands of others that day, I emerged from the South Tower of the World Trade Center with a crippling fatigue in my knees. Of the walk down, in my case from the 61st floor, certain things stand out: the speed with which one can descend a flight of stairs and smoothly pivot on the ball of the left foot, to begin again; a few stray remarks from strangers (“I think something hit the North Tower.” “They're saying the building's safe and we can go back up.”); our slowing pace as we continued downward, to make room for those entering the stairwell at each floor. And this, of course: at a standstill, just outside the 18th floor; a pause no more than a half minute but time enough for the second jet to slam through floors 78–84 above us, with a sound like a freight train, jolting us against the handrail and blurring the stairs at our feet. Seconds more, waiting—unaware, mercifully, that we were waiting—for the unmistakable sound of a building's slow, groaning collapse. Then someone saying quietly, “It's OK; let's go,” and we began the descent again, our steps suddenly desperate and clumsy.

And now, certain disclaimers, which are always on my mind on the rare occasion I relate any of the above. I, and thousands of others that day, emerged from the South Tower with no obvious wounds—no burns, no cuts, no eyes bloodied by pulverized glass and concrete. Because my floor was below the plane's point of impact, I always had hope of making it to safety, and hope is an especially precious and bounteous thing under certain circumstances. It's remarkable, too, how quickly a person can get down even 61 floors when she has been told to do so—meaning that I was outside and away from the tower with time to spare. Enough time to wonder: how different, really, was my experience from that of the millions traumatized by the televised accounts of the day?

Perhaps I recount it now with the hope that you will tell me where you were at that same moment—and confess: did the world blur before your eyes, too?

On every anniversary since 2001, during public ceremonies commemorating the event, and, of course, in faded window stickers and on car bumpers (inevitably, one sees fewer of these stickers every year, as the sun-bleached or rust-pocked cars that proudly bear them disappear from the road), we are admonished to “never forget.” And I always wonder at the need for this. Who among us is likely to forget 9/11? (This is partly a rhetorical question, because I'm aware that for many—15-year-olds like my daughter, for instance—that day is only dawning. They are only now learning about the pieces that need to be put together.) But I also wonder what it is we must not forget, what truth is frozen in time such that it can be summoned with perfect recall, not only for momentous occasions like anniversaries but also daily, in small and personal ways. It is important to ask what it is we must remember if remembering is to be more than a crude tautology, if remembering is to be something other than just “never forgetting.” This is much more than a rhetorical question.

Whatever we must remember is unavoidably dependent on what we do remember, and at times I despair at our remembering much of anything about 9/11. It's unlikely that we'll forget the date, of course, or the fact—which can seem heartbreak enough—that it happened. But what about that sense, expressed openly and often at the time, that nothing would ever be the same? Many an opinion piece began this way, as did more sober analyses even several months later. Tony Judt, writing online for The New Republic, the day after: “On Tuesday morning, … from my window in lower Manhattan, I watched the twenty-first century begin.” Benjamin Barber, in The Nation's feature story of January 21, 2002: “The terrorist attacks of September 11 did without a doubt change the world forever….” John Lewis Gaddis, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 11, 2002: “The post-cold-war era—for want of any better term—began with the collapse of one structure, the Berlin Wall…, and ended with the collapse of another….No one, apart from the few people who plotted and carried out those events, could have anticipated that they were going to happen. But from the moment they did, everyone acknowledged that everything had changed.” Fewer people were able to say how different things would be, and fewer still how the world could, or should, be reconstituted. In this vacuum, then, what resonated most loudly were the claims that we had lost something so vital on 9/11 that it would have to be regained using older, tried-and-true methods or virtues that had fallen out of favor in soft times: such things as national pride, religious faith, diplomatic cunning or military ruthlessness, depending on whom you asked. Shouldn't we have known, though, that reinstating old modes in a supposedly changed world is a desperate—not brave—act, and it cannot work?

Tell me: what has our nation sown since 9/11, which can be said to honor our dead (and not only avenge their deaths)?

This must seem a strange question, but I think I understand where it comes from. In the days and months, even the first few years, following 9/11, I felt sure of one thing only: I owed something immense to the thousands who perished that day. This was not survivor's guilt; for one thing, I did not feel much like a “survivor.” I had done what I was told, which quickly enough became the only possible thing to do. (The survivor was the wife, or husband, parent or child outside the Towers that day, whoever was left behind. My husband, my parents and sisters, my grandmother—those who watched the disaster unfold on TV, who for several hours would not know, and could not believe, that I had escaped it—these people survived a crushing sorrow that I was spared, once on the streets.) Indeed, it was hard to characterize what I was, if I wasn't really a survivor. Was I a “lucky” person? I was—incalculably so, meaning that it was quite impossible to calculate the net sum of good luck over bad that I had experienced that day. Given that I lived in Kentucky at the time, it has to be counted appallingly bad luck that I was even in New York City, much less the World Trade Center, on 9/11. Still, I was in the South Tower, which began evacuating soon after the North Tower was hit. We had more time to make it to safety, in other words—or was it just enough time, given the unlucky fact that, though the South Tower was the second hit, it was the first to fall? Another morning—if 9/11 had been 9/12, or 9/17, instead—and I might have been in the North Tower, in Windows on the World for breakfast (because hadn't that been on my “must-do” list?). So again, undeniably good luck … that would have been catastrophically bad luck with a slight change in my, or someone else's, plans. I counted myself lucky, of course, “extremely” so, but amplifying it in this way doesn't change the fact that “luck” is just that—there being no additional moral to the story. And luck would not account for the sense of obligation I felt, or give shape to the specific debt that I was convinced I owed.

And, for a whole slew of reasons, neither would the “there but for the grace of God go I” explanation. It is certainly true that, during the weeks that followed 9/11, I would often become aware of feeling something profound, and distinct, though complex—a mix of calm, quietude, lightness (almost detachment, as if I had come upon myself selecting oranges at the grocery store, or crossing a city street, and it struck me as a wonder that I should be doing so), and, radiating from it all, a dignity that I cannot say I've often known—and, when I did feel it, I almost always thought “so this is what believers mean by ‘grace.'” It was the “there but for God” part that eluded me. No God that made sense to me would ever contrive to rescue me, and decline to rescue another, from that tower. I'm aware that most people would say that “making sense” isn't quite God's point, but surely bestowing meaning is—and it was meaning that I needed.

What I knew intuitively was that the meaning would be found in the details of my experience, given the precise size and shape of the debt I felt I owed. It was to specific people—2,606 people, every one of them a stranger, their relation to me pure chance. Since it couldn't be said of anyone other than Port Authority employees, or fire and police personnel, that they had sacrificed their lives so that mine might go on, no heroics would be required of me. But I felt a solemn obligation nonetheless. I walked out of the South Tower, others would not: what I owed to them was to live the rest of my life ever mindful of this simple fact.

What I'm trying to stress, here, is simply the human size of the debt—as opposed to, say, the gratitude due a God who had directed one down the correct staircase. Or, for that matter, the patriotism due an entire nation. Standing tall, or proud, or united didn't strike me as the proper way of discharging the debt. Whatever I owed, I didn't owe it to America (not yet, at any rate). It's difficult to describe the nature of the debt, to say what, exactly, it required of me; sometimes my plans were decidedly humble (my husband and I talked of moving to Grenada, where we were married, with no aspiration other than raising our daughter on wholesome food and good books), at other times much bolder (I was on fire, for a while, with the idea of making films that would change the hearts and minds of audiences). But every one of those plans represented the good, as I understood it at the time; and in all my efforts henceforth I would contend with the same existential questions, the same setbacks, have to make do with the same confounding regularity, feel the same self-doubt and fear as any one of the 2,606 would have faced, too. All of which is to say that my obligation to them, as well as the only way to express a decent gratitude, was to live as I was honor-bound to assume they had lived: as best they could.

I fear that this may seem a shabby account of 9/11—if it doesn't in fact come across as acutely and distastefully solipsistic. It is rendered from just one perspective, my own. And, it must be admitted, until a few weeks ago I had even begun to wonder if 9/11 held any significance for me any longer, much less whether my experience was at all relevant to others. When I mentioned to friends that I was considering writing about 9/11 for my next piece on 3QD, and they probed me for details, I confessed my confusion, indeed distress, at the fact that it didn't seem to matter anymore. That day—the day that was supposed to have changed everything, remember—has sunk into the substrate of national memory, and my own; has found its own level, as it were, among countless other tragedies. Yes, I understand that this is inevitable, not to mention humane: life goes on, and at some point we must, and can, let go of our own most shattering memories, the better to see and embrace what life is offering us now. Still, I told my friends, I felt the loss keenly. Not only did 9/11 no longer provide the bright line dividing a conflicted, imperfect before from a rich and meaningful ever-after, I couldn't get it to make any sense at all. It was as if I retained only pieces of memory from that day—things seen, or heard, just once—impressions so singular as to issue in no understanding, and proving less communicable by the day.

Then, one of my friends said something that suddenly made clear to me why I remember 9/11 as I do. She suggested that there was a crucial difference between what was happening to me inside the tower and what the many, more or less official narratives on the outside were already making of it. I emerged from the South Tower, and plied a random walk down unfamiliar streets, experiencing things that would never fully fit the stories, for the simple fact that they preceded the stories. I understood then: my memories of 9/11 were bound to remain idiosyncratic—things seen, or heard, just once; things felt, for all we know, by me alone—their meaning never utterly plain or stable. And this, undoubtedly, is as it should be in the case of momentous events like 9/11, when the temptation is strong to think and act as if the world has changed forever. Perhaps, then, we must remember what doesn't change; what is irreducible, or unavoidable, or everlasting.

An example of one such memory: I am picking my way through the debris field outside the South Tower, when my heel slips and I almost fall. I look back; I have slipped on someone's glasses. For a long time I will believe, with perfect horror, that the glasses were there because they had been blown off someone's face. But is that even possible? Isn't it more likely that someone already outside the South Tower when the second plane struck lost them in a panicked flight from the glass, and steel, and burning paper raining down? I can't know, of course—but the memory persists, undiminished.

Or the thick, black pool in my path: is it jet fuel? Yes, surely; what else could account for its size? And yet … that bright red footprint—a woman's—on the papers next to the pool? Days later, when I recall it, I am sick with the thought that she must have seen the pool too late to avoid it, and racked with her grief at discovering what the pool truly held.

Or this, finally, my most enduring memory from that day, the one I recreate and revisit most obsessively (I can because it is unimpeachable; there is no other way to account for it, for the simple fact that its meaning eludes me still). In the moments after the plane struck our tower, once the stairs at our feet had steadied and we remained frozen in place, I can't recall a single thought that went through my head or a single image that flashed before my eyes, but I can tell you what I did. I said my husband's and my daughter's names out loud—quietly; solemnly, even; just once. Why did I do this? Did I imagine that they might hear me somehow? (When the unthinkable had just happened, perhaps nothing seemed impossible then.) Or did I say their names simply to make them the last words on my lips?

I'll never know—which may be just the thing that guarantees I never forget.