In my most aimless of days, I was briefly registered as a Psychology – Spanish dual major. I learned just enough to pass tests, but never enough to be dangerous. Perhaps the most powerful memory I have of my time in half-empty lecture halls and grimly-lit clinical study rooms is the idea of the flashbulb memory. I don’t have any flashbulb memories from that part of my college experience, though. I’d rather forget it all.
A flashbulb memory is a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.
And there is no better example of a flashbulb memory this century than the morning of September 11, 2001. In an era where Moore’s Law is hopelessly outdated, nothing has surpassed the way that date and its imagery imprinted itself on all of our psyches.
I was sitting in the back seat of my father’s car as it idled in the driveway, waiting for my sister to join so we could head to school. It doesn’t matter what radio station was on, the singing or strident chatter was interrupted by a somber but unknowing bulletin. “Apparently, an aircraft has collided with one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. We will update you when we know more.” At that time, the radio was silenced, and we were driven to school as normal. Mrs. Thompson’s classroom never got more than half-full, and by math period almost everyone was gone. My parents had been at a funeral, so I was one of the last to be picked up. The principal had distributed a letter, which we were instructed not to open or read. Which meant that I opened it and read it immediately. It was the first time I had ever read the word “terrorists,” the first time I conjured up a mental image of men in ski masks committing vague but terrifying crimes against people who looked a lot like my parents and their friends. I remember getting in the back seat of my dad’s black sedan, silently sliding in as the radio murmured and my parents looked at me lovingly in their funeral garb. The road in front of my elementary school looks nothing like it used to. There are no longer cattle or turkeys or barbed wire fences there. Instead, there’s a subdivision. But in my mind, there will always be that family of wild turkeys, the babies following the mother in an expand-and-contract motion that reminded me of a beekeeper’s billows or a slinky falling down stairs. They had no idea what had happened that morning, but even they seemed to be following extra close as I looked out the window while we drove away from school.
We watched a grainy tube television in the living room, talking heads guesstimated that twenty thousand people had died. My dad cried. I tried to imagine twenty Fort Worth Country Day Schools and my brain ran out of capacity at three or four. I switched to the Ballpark at Arlington. That place was so big, though. Three Country Days seemed more nauseating. There was live footage of businessmen jumping out of the hundredth floor of the towers that I had seen only a few months before on our first real trip to Manhattan. There was a picture of a man whispering to George Bush while he spoke to a bunch of kids like me in Florida. In fact, there were over a dozen angles of the planes running into the towers, one after another in surreal little puffs of metal and fire and smoke. It’s funny that we can remember grainy TVs with crystal clarity. I used to always imagine my grandmother’s childhood occurring in out-of-focus faded colors and black-and-whites.
I have lived more than half of my life in the post-9/11 world, a world in which resilience was a value quickly replaced by a resurgence of race politics and approval ratings that fall faster than the men and women who jumped from those towers. Two nights ago I had a gripping nightmare that was vaguely specific, invoked by glancing at a headline about ISIS as I fell asleep. I saw an Instagram post about two hours ago of my cousin and his friends in Afghanistan, a place I didn’t even know existed before this day fourteen years ago. It is easy to wonder what it all means.
What it doesn’t mean is this: that all hope is lost, or that evil won, or that an incomprehensible act of violence that went far better than its planners ever could’ve dreamed was the final blow to a fractured nation. Three days after the towers fell, George W. Bush gave his famous bullhorn address at Ground Zero, after the embers were cool enough to safely stand on, after the rescue efforts slowed because it had been three days. A rescue worker in the crowd shouted “God Bless America!” We aren’t really allowed to shout that anymore, especially not at the President. But that doesn’t mean that He doesn’t.
Books have been written, wars have been waged, movies have been made. But that would’ve happened anyways. Two days ago, Bretagne, the last “9/11 dog” celebrated her sixteenth birthday. She was a canine first responder who helped search the rubble for survivors, one of the countless tear-jerker stories of heroism in the dusty aftermath.
Today, flags are planted in parks all across America. Gravestones and memorials are polished and pilgrimaged. Some will dutifully observe that sacrifice or mourn those they knew. The people in this coffee shop might not notice at all. Sometimes we can observe the passage of time best by a certain lackadaisical observance. Then, a Google Maps car drives by the front windows and records this moment in excruciating 3D detail.
We are exhorted to “Never Forget.” Except now it’s one word with a pound sign in front of it. Perhaps we can observe the passage of time best through a linguistic study of recurring phrases. Happy All Hallows’ Eve. Merry Yuletide. #NeverForget.
I will never forget September 11th, 2001. It created a flashbulb memory that psychology tells us will last as long as I do. But as I move forward and grow healthier by the day, I will forget some things. Or at least let their sting fade into more of a dull awareness, an informing aversion like the first time you touch a hot pan and know to never do that again. Of course, most of us burn ourselves more than once in our lives.
I have experienced things before, but now, I can earnestly say I am feeling them for the first time. It is easy to turn on the TV and watch the iconic footage on repeat all day today and feel a poignant penitence. It is somewhat more difficult to regain the innocence that I started losing that day and lost a little more every day afterwards. But, with the help of God and good people and bicycles, the tides have turned. And, perhaps for the first time since 9/11/01, I feel better than I did the last time we were told to never forget.