That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

Posted by kozemp on September 11, 2010

I saw it again this past week.

It wasn’t a bumper sticker this time, or a flag on someone’s front lawn. No, this time it was a sign at the grocery store. Propped up against the windows as you walked out, there it was: poster-sized, a white background, the bottom half a stars and stripes motif, the top half simple blue lettering that read, “9-11-01 Never Forget.”

I stood there and stared at it for a couple seconds, and thought, “that font is actually kinda nice.”

It’s indicative of just how much my outlook and my general disposition have changed the last 5-odd years that I can see a “never forget” sign and have an aesthetic reaction to it – however lame an aesthetic reaction I am capable of – instead of immediately getting pissy and morose. I hacked around in the archives of my old blogger site and found the piece I wrote on 9/11/02 and oh GOD it’s unbearable. What a miserable sod I was.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to be jumping for joy today. I’m going to go out. I’m going to do what I’m supposed to. I’m actually going to have fun. But even if I don’t show it it’s still… it’s still there, you know? Because, yeah, I don’t turn into a snarling jerk when I see the “never forget” signs anymore. And my creative output has metamorphosed from the profanity-laden ranting of a confused, angry 24-year-old kid to the self-deprecating, bemused joking of a happy 32-year-old grownup. (Still profanity-laden, though.) And this is a good thing. This is a very good thing.

But still, there is an important point to take out of that horrible piece I wrote all those years ago, and I can probably put it a little more diplomatically than I did then. To wit:

The “never forget” meme provokes a negative reaction in some of us because it implies that we COULD forget.

9 years ago today I did what I always did back then: I slept until about 12:30 in the afternoon. The phone had been ringing all morning, but I ignored it. When I finally crawled out of bed I walked over to the phone and found message after message after message, from my mother and my father and my sister, all saying the same thing: for god’s sake, wake up and turn on the television.

My parents both came home from school early. My father had stopped on the way home to give blood and they told him to come back the next day, that they had more people than they could handle. My sister – god, we were still on civil speaking terms with my sister back then – came up because she said she didn’t feel safe in her apartment downtown, even though Center City was deserted by noon.

I spent the afternoon with my family watching the horror unfold on the terrible television we had back then. Remember that thing? That tiny little TV my parents put at shin level in that giant cabinet? You could barely see the damn thing. But we sat there and watched and watched and watched. When I could tear myself away I would go outside on my front porch – my first cell phone didn’t work in my house – to make phone calls. Calling everyone I knew. Is everyone okay? Do we know anyone there? Are they all right?

I went to the Mayfair Diner with my friend Chris and his sister and we just sat and talked. On the way there I bought a pack of cigarettes for the first time in two years. Later that night I was at Chris’ house and half a dozen of us were watching the coverage on CNN and someone said, “I wish we had CJ instead of Ari Fleischer.” I remember agreeing with him, thinking that somehow CJ would have made it all easier.

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, warm but not hot, a pleasant breeze. It was one of the most achingly beautiful days I can remember.

I got the letter from Chestnut Hill maybe two weeks later, and before I opened it I knew what it was.

For most people – and they are lucky for this – what happened 9 years ago was terrible, but it was an abstraction. When you get past the general solidarity it evokes, what happened 9 years ago happened to Other People. It happened Far Away. And that’s fine. It’s a reminder that being the good guys – and for whatever else may have happened I still believe that’s what we are – carries a cost. For most people it doesn’t need to be any more than that.

But for some people it IS more than that. For some, today is an empty chair. It’s a chair that will always be empty. And that’s why we can’t ever forget. Even if we could block out all the terrible events of that day and the weeks afterward, that chair would still be empty.

The good news is that the cliche is true: the cure for grief is time. And sitting here, 9 years on, the grief doesn’t have the sting it once did. Hell, it doesn’t have the sting that just yesterday I was sure it would. Part of that, I’m pretty sure, is because I’ve learned to actually process things in the intervening years. Life is a hell of a lot easier when you don’t just let every negative thought fester and metastasize across your entire mind.

So, yeah, even though today brings back a lot of sad memories, I am going to do today what I have always tried to do today: spend time with people I care about. I used to say that I did that because you never know when there’s going to be another empty chair, and I guess that’s still technically true. But thinking like that is way too morbid for me anymore. Years ago I would go out on 9/11 with grim determination to Have Fun Because We’re All Going To Be Dead Eventually.

Today, I’m going out because I actually want to be with people. If the person I was 8 years ago can become the person sitting here today, then there’s hope for any of us. For all of us.



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