I have spent a fair amount of time over the last 11 years asking myself one very specific question: What if It had not happened to me?
To specify, when I say It, I mean September 11, 2001. On that day, my father disappeared forever into the dust and flames and papers that rained down on lower Manhattan. One day he was there, and the next he was gone, leaving my family without a grave to visit or a watch to hold onto. And I remember his watch very clearly. Timepieces were not out of fashion in 2001. My father had the same watch for as long as I can remember, maybe even for as long we were alive concurrently, which was approximately 21 years and 1 day. My father held onto his belongings and took good care of them. He seldom threw things away even when they were badly in need of a good darning. You should have seen the Cornell University sweatshirt that he wore on his morning jogs, which he surely purchased sometime after he received his PhD in computer science from Cornell in the 1970s. I suppose if it kept the New York cold out of his bones, then he had a point.
Back to my solipsistic musings. What if It had never happened to me? What if he never went to the Towers that day? What if he did not go to breakfast at Windows on the World? What if he had come home? What if he had continued to work at Citibank as a computer programmer? What if he was at my college graduation in 2002 at Sarah Lawrence College? What if my mother had not been widowed?
This has been a year in which I try to ignore the trauma of 2001. I have spent so much of my life (a third of it to be exact) as a 9/11 family member, allowing that label to shape my existence as well as the content that I produce. It is my touchstone, my center, my barometer of self-identification, and my reason to write. I have allowed 9/11 to define me to the point where it actually has a permanent, ground-zero impact on my core beliefs. I have slipped into this role not as a victim, however, but as a survivor, one who has endured the aftermath with the pride of a trauma survivor.
September 11 compelled me to move to Florida, and subsequently, to go to graduate school and get a master of arts degree in religious studies with a focus in Islamic studies at the University of South Florida. It also inspired me to study Arabic, a language that I have tangoed with for four years. It even compelled me to spend a summer abroad in Amman, Jordan, because I was offered a scholarship from the Qasid Institute. I spent my summer as an alien, both among Jordanians and ivy-league beauties and gents, cracking my head open for four hours a day in class plus three hours of homework in the evening, trying to wrap my PTSD brain around an ancient language that both challenged and mystified me.
No wonder I keep asking myself who I would have been had I not awoken on the day after my 21st birthday to images of towers burning and bodies falling. I would never have done any of those things if It had never happened to me.
Now we come to the time of confession: I failed at something. In 2009, I moved to California from Florida, and I began working on a second master’s degree in Islamic studies at Claremont Graduate University. I then transferred into the doctoral program in religious studies at the same university. But when I saw the amount of student loan debt that I had accrued after only one year of study, I balked and quit. In my mind, had I been good enough, I could have gotten my education funded at a rate better than 50 percent, which is what CGU offered me. But for me, it was not enough. For me, success in graduate school is marked in part by full financial support. So I just stopped registering. I had failed to attain the life that I envisioned myself living because It happened to me. I gave up on my dream and dropped out. I did not feel like it was my calling anymore.
I accepted a job at the university in a different department and found myself loving it. And then I began to savor a strange taste in my mouth: This Is What It Is Like. Could it be that I had found both a path and a purpose that had nothing to do with my father’s murder?
Perhaps. It could very well be.
This year, I have reflected on two specific 9/11-related events that have colored my thinking about the event in a new way. The first is that my husband was picked to read at this year’s 9/11 memorial ceremony. The second was that a friend of mine went to New York, visited Ground Zero, and took a photo of my father’s name and posted it to my Facebook page. I will attempt to share my process surrounding both events and their relevance now.
One. My husband, James, was picked to read at this year’s memorial ceremony. Background: James never got to meet his father-in-law. He only knows him through pictures, paintings, and stories as delivered by the rest of my family. When I learned that he had been picked, I tried to sympathize with his personal experience as a 9/11 family member. He lived in New York State when it happened, as I did, but we had not yet met. He remembers the chaos and the terror and the phone calls and the relief of hearing the voice of loved ones on the other end of the phone. He remembers New York City in chaos for days. He remembers the solidarity that he experienced when attending concerts in Manhattan. Musicians and their fans collectively acknowledged what had happened, grieved, and then opened their wounds together in a collective celebration of life.
And when he fell in love with me, he fell in love with a woman without a father. When he attended his first Thanksgiving dinner with me, there was no father at the head of the table. And when he married me, it was my mother and not my father who gave me away. The absence was palpable and sad. But also palpable was the way that the women of my family pulled together to make my wedding day perfect in spite of my father’s absence.
So what would it be like to read the names of the dead as a family member who never knew his father-in-law? It was then that I began to comprehend the gravity of James’s experience, to understand how he had been robbed of these rites of passage that are standard for so many families.
This year, however, we are not going to the memorial because the expense is too great for us. Currently we are living on one income until James starts graduate school at UC Santa Barbara at the end of September. Perhaps next year he will be selected to read the names of the dead again. But for now, we both feel the pain of not going to Manhattan for the memorial, of being in California, three hours behind, and too many dollars short of plane fare. And again I realize that even if It did not happen to James in the moment, It happened to him nonetheless. He could not escape It any more than I can.
Two. Recently, a friend of mine visited Ground Zero, went to N-71, and took a picture of my father’s name, where it is etched forever onto the waterfalls that, to me, represent the eternal well of tears that exists inside of every family member who lost someone that they love on that day. If It had never happened to me, she would have never entered that spot with a destination in quite the same way. She would have not thought to take a photograph of his name and post it on my Facebook page. She would not have wondered what kind of man Juan Mendez Lafuente was. She would not have stopped on her journey to honor his memory. She would never have connected with me in such an intimate way.
Every time someone goes to Ground Zero and sees my father’s name, It happens to them, too. I am their touchstone. I am the living pathway. I am the mouthpiece. I have worn out so many ears, but still I keep ranting and asking unanswered questions. I am the conduit that leads to the X marking the spot in a place that is huge and sad and scary. And I believe that having a destination at Ground Zero makes the memorial seem a little bit smaller and allows a person to rest and reflect, and to find a moment of peace. That is so hard to do there because it is a place where people were murdered. Murdered. There, people were crushed and lost, and families were destroyed, and children were orphaned, and bones, teeth, and marrow were all pulverized into late-summer dust.
If ever you happen to find yourself at Ground Zero and you do not know anyone, just walk to one of the fountains and read one name. Memorize it. Remember it. Go home and write that name down and learn about it. Honor it. Connect to it. That name will live on longer because of you. You will kindle a fire in that name, and it will kindle a fire in you.
This year, my goal is to stop wondering what life would have been like if It had never happened to me. The truth is that It happened to me. It happened to my loved ones. And It is still happening to all of us, collectively, and only by accepting that fact will we ever be able to truly grieve, and hopefully, some day, heal.