Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Terrorists Stole My Birthday

The morning of September 11, 2001, began for me like many of the previous 80 or so had — roused from an alcohol-induced sleep by a non-natural occurrence, in this case, a phone call.

I had been sleeping and drinking and sleeping a lot around that time. What many people now forget now is the “economic downswing” largely attributed to the events of 9/11 were well underway by the summer of 2001. My two-year career as a copywriter for a prominent Boston direct marketing agency had been cut short by mass layoffs in June. Low man on the totem poll, that sort of thing. With a decent severance, I had decided to turn the summer into a long vacation — hence the sleeping late and drinking much.

When my cell phone chirped me into consciousness on that morning, I already knew who the caller was and what they had called to say.

I was right on one count. It was my mother. I was so very wrong on what she would say:

“Turn on the TV, we’re being bombed.”

She may dispute those exact words now, but I remember them vividly, more than I remember anything anyone has ever said to me before 10 o’clock in the morning. I turned on the TV without responding and like everyone else, began to watch our new world take shape.

It was just after 9 a.m. on the East Coast when I clicked it on, barely minutes after United Airlines flight 175 from Boston flew into the south tower of the World Trade Center. My mother, a teacher in an upstate New York high school, had been slightly misinformed — like many of us in those early minutes — as to what exactly had happened in the city. Understandable. Like many of the preconceptions we had before that day, human beings purposefully dive-bombing an airliner into a building wasn’t even on my mom’s mental radar. But as we watched and as we talked it became very clear that this involved something much more sinister and complicated than a bomb.

It was a good twenty minutes of heavy conversation before my mother spoke the phrase I thought she had called to say:

“Happy Birthday”

Half-listening, I muttered a simple reply, “Thanks.” At that moment I didn’t care about my transition from age 23 to age 24. It was insignificant. There was a much bigger transition taking place right in front of me.

We were all growing older that day.

Very unemployed and with nothing else to do, I glued myself to the TV, flipping between channels in search of the latest information. With everyone knowing I was out of work — and therefore with 24/7 access to a TV and the internet, and with nothing else to worry about — I began to field phone calls from friends and relatives, becoming a point person of sorts. From my mother: “Who do we know in New York?”; Friends from home: “Where is Mark, have you heard from him?”; From a former coworker in the Prudential Tower in Boston in a harried voice: “They’re evacuating us; I have to go, call you back.”

In the confusion that followed, many of the callers forgot it was my birthday. I didn’t mind. I really had, too.

As the workday (if anyone did any work on that day) wound down, I was reminded that a casual birthday gathering had been slated for the evening at a local bar just outside the city. I sent an email around to the invitees; I still wanted to go. Between the tears and the anger, I needed a drink.

On that day and the ones that followed, there were essentially two types of people (other than those directly affected by the tragedy). There were the people that wanted nothing more than to go home and hide under the comfort and security of their bedsheets and shut out a suddenly evil and unpredictable world. And then there were the people that wanted to be around other people, needed to be around other people; needed someone to look them in the eye, and without even saying it, tell them that we’d all be okay. Comfort in numbers.

Many people declined the invite, including my girlfriend at the time, which—probably because I had so much emotion swirling inside of me — somewhat enraged me, causing an already tenuous relationship to end shortly thereafter. But a few friends and a couple of my then-roommates were on the same page as I was. Comfort in numbers.

We went to a small local bar — not the venue we had planned, as it didn’t have televisions — and had a few pints. The bar, surprisingly and not at the same time, was packed. Crowded. But quiet. We were listening. Listening for updates. Listening to the President react. Waited for him to say who did this. Wanted him to tell us it would all be okay. On that day, everyone was a fan of George W.

During the evening, from time to time, a friend would wish me a happy birthday with raised eyebrows and a half-smile, as if to say “I’m sorry”. That was the first time I’d heard it said like that. Not the last.

Five years later we stand here, still a powerful nation and — contrary to the outlook on that dreary morning — still very much okay.

A lot of people have personal ties to that day. Many lost loved ones. Others had close calls. Everyone has a story. (Goodbye Challenger, goodbye Berlin Wall, welcome to our new generational benchmark.)

My mother has made an annual tradition of begging me to write about my personal tie to that day. Not that I lost a loved one (I didn’t and don’t know anyone who did) or had a close call. I told her writing about that day would be selfish; bitching about the fact that something as insignificant as my birthday coincides with the worst attack on American soil in history could only be construed by others as selfish. Because it is. Feeling bad about that is selfish. How would a woman who lost her husband that day feel when they read about my insignificant story?

I still haven’t really dealt with the events of 9/11. Or maybe I have, I don’t know. (How do you know?) Because I still cry every year on that day, and sometimes even at the mention of it. I try to watch the reading of the names at Ground Zero each year, but never last more than 20 minutes. I even DVR’ed an HBO documentary on the Yankees’ World Series run post-9/11 and was a weeping mess for the duration. (And I still get teary every time Kate Smith or the Irish Tenor croons God Bless America.) I don’t know if I’ll ever put it behind me. And all that has nothing to do with my birthday.

But this year, I decided it’s time to be selfish, if only for two thousand words or so. Let me tell you how the fucking terrorists stole my birthday.

You’d be amazed how many times in the course of a year — in the course of polite conversation with strangers or acquaintances — you get asked when your birthday is. Normally, you’d be happy to answer. You’d say, “June 25th” and people would nod and smile. I say, “September 11th,” and people respond, almost universally, with that same wince — like someone pinched them — and a muted “I’m sorry.”

I tell them it’s okay, that I really don’t mind, that it could have been a lot worse. I make the brightside joke that I received more birthday cards in 2002 than I ever had before (true). Then I quickly change the subject before the conversation gets depressing. (It’s possible to “never forget” without letting an innocuous conversation make someone cry.)

It’s gotten to the point where I want to lie and say my birthday is September 10th, just to avoid it for everyone’s sake. Honestly, I used to love my birthday. It coincided with the fall, my favorite season, and the changing of the leaves in the scenic Mohawk Valley; it was the start of school, always exciting for the dorky kid I was; it was even a cool number, 911. But that was before 911 was a number that dialed heroes, and before it was a number synonymous with very real death and destruction.

Often, when I think about my birthday, I think about the babies who were born on that actual day, the ones who will walk around with birth certificates and driver’s licenses and passports with 09/11/01 on them. The Children of 9/11. Branded by a day on the Gregorian Calendar. Every day for the rest of their lives they’ll be inexorably tied to tragedy. Their birthdays will likely never be a celebration of life among the general public like everybody else’s birthday, but only a remembrance of horrible, painful death and sadness.

Want to know what that’s like? Well, a friend of mine summed it up in a simple response via email this year: “Too many moments of silence to really rock out and celebrate. Let’s do it another day.”

I hope the parents of the Children of 9/11 don’t let it be like that. I hope their parents are the need-to-be-around-other-people types. I hope they throw big parties on their kids’ birthdays, on the actual day, with loud bands and loud music and clowns and hayrides, real Americana/Norman Rockwell affairs. I hope they’re obnoxious about it. I hope those Children of 9/11 shatter every moment of silence with shrieks of joy as they hurriedly tear open their painstakingly-wrapped presents. I hope they can be heard at Ground Zero and the Pentagon and Shanksville.

Because at some point (but maybe not yet) September 11th needs to become a celebration of life and freedom and heroes, rather than a day to dwell on pain and suffering and death. We’re still here. We’re still okay. Yes, we lost people. Yes, there’s war. But every person dies, and there’s always been a war.

And we’ve always kept the kids from that. Sure, it’s too late for us. Too late for me and my birthday. I’m okay with that. But it’s not too late for the kids. Not for their birthdays.

The Children of 9/11 turned five this year. They’re getting old enough to understand.

Let them live. Let them be kids. When asked, let them say with a smile, “My birthday is September 11th — what’s yours?” and not think twice about it.

And let their contemporaries respond without wincing. Life, as an American, should be like that. The little happinesses.

For us, we can never forget, and rightly we shouldn’t. I’m willing to take a pass on my birthday.

But as for them, the Children of 9/11? I hope they get their day, with birthday cakes and candles and presents. And I hope they never think twice about how the world changed on the day they were born.

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