I’ll never forget the silence of that day.
September 12, 2001 was my 29th birthday.
It was the first with my then-girlfriend, now wife. We had arrived at my apartment in suburban Boston 16 days earlier, fresh off a seven-day drive with the contents of her Seattle apartment stuffed into a 10-foot Ryder.
Fifteen days into our new life together, the world changed forever. On the 11th, we woke up—still unemployed—and went online. Then we turned on the TV. And then we didn’t go anywhere for hours and hours.
I had already determined to quit smoking on my 29th birthday, making that day the first of my new life. I walked down to the corner store for my last pack of Marlboros, came back and sat on my porch, on the second floor of my apartment in Somerville Massachusetts, and chain-smoked myself into oblivion on that crystalline gorgeous day.
Nobody talked about the TV images in the store, nobody walked on the sidewalks, and no traffic cluttered our street.
Finally, in the late afternoon, we went to the post office, and then the Joshua Tree, a restaurant and pub in Davis Square. The big screen was on CNN and the waiter encouraged us to drink up. “It’s a national day of crisis!” We did, in a silent, half-empty dining room.
On the 12th, we took a Boston Harbor cruise. We stopped off at the dock bar first, and there were few patrons. The ones who were there stayed glued to the tube, silently nursing their drinks. Then we got on the boat.
The cruise to the Harbor Island leads directly under the Logan Airport flight path. A Boston Harbor cruise is often like a Mets game at Shea, with the LaGuardia runway a mere mile away. This was different.
Of course, the FAA had grounded all flights in the aftermath of the attacks. I had taken many cruises before, and was used to the deafening sounds of take-offs and landings directly overhead. This time, not a sound. No planes moving, taxiing, arriving, or departing. Dead calm, dead silence.
The kind of silence one hears only once in a lifetime.
We went to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory in Cambridge, and the waiter encouraged us to drink up in a silent, half-empty dining room. “It’s a national crisis!” he said.
On Friday the 15th, we walked seven miles from Davis Square, Somerville to Copley Square, Boston. At Davis, the compass in the square was completely covered in lit, melting candles. We lit one and moved on.
At Copley, outside H.H. Richardson’s magnificent Trinity Church, the reflecting pool was completely shrouded in candles. We lit one and sat in the early autumnal dark. We were surrounded in silence, save for muffled traffic and one college kid, who quietly played folk songs on an unplugged Gibson hollow-body.
We lit candles, and we moved on. And then one day passed, and then another…
Fortunately, in the 16 years since the 9/11 attacks, the silence has grown less deafening. More benevolent. In the aftermath of that horrible day, terror and pain clouded our immediate worldviews, often leading to ugly strains of jingoism and scapegoating.
In the ensuing years, however, the long view has won. Our response is much more measured, kinder, and gentler. Yes, this is partly due to the inevitable march of time, but I think it speaks to a larger truth: reflecting on 9/11 helps us remember what is really important.
We remember that the American spirit was not killed on that day, nor was the human spirit. We remember that life is fragile and fleeting, and that we must choose to continue living life to the fullest. Because every day we have granted to us is a gift and one never knows when it will all end. We remember to stretch our boundaries, risk our comfort zone, cross every f*cking item off of our to-do list, and to say, “I love you”—always, always, always.
The entombing silence is what I’ll always remember. Shrouding, all-encompassing silence, like the death-knell that it was. I hope to never hear such absolute silence again in my life. But I’m grateful for the space in the silence. The space to reflect and to grow with this gifted enlightenment.