If I Could Tell the World Just One Thing

Ten years ago I was twelve. It was a Tuesday. We were already up, had gone about the day as usual. We were turning on the TV to watch MacGyver like we did every day. My mom was taking a shower before we had to leave. The only problem was, all the TV channels were interrupted by a live newscast each showing the same thing.

The scene was this: Two towers, a billowing cloud of smoke from the second.

My brother told me to go tell our mom, so I ran down the hall, banged on the bathroom door, and shouted the news to her. I didn’t know what it all meant, though: I was twelve, what did I know of World Trade Centers and terrorist attacks? To me a plane had flown into a building. It was tragic, maybe in those first few moments scary and exciting, but what did it mean to me–a twelve-year-old boy a thousand miles away?

We were still in front of the TV, watching it with emotions I don’t recall now–was I horrified? was I amazed? was I in shock? I honestly don’t know what I was thinking, but maybe I didn’t know what I was thinking then, either–when the second plane hit the first tower.

We were still watching when the first one fell.

When the second fell.

My sister was at college at the time–was it her first or her third semester?–and we couldn’t get a hold of her. My mom shuffled us into the car earlier than usual and we rushed through the driveway toward the highway. The radio began blaring news of the collapse, the attack, the other planes–were they on the radio so soon? I can’t remember. The fear was beginning to bristle in all of us, in everyone. I still don’t know what I was feeling.

All I could think of was a song sang by Jewel, the song Hands, one of my favorite songs at the time, I’d listened to it a hundred times, knew all the words by heart. Still do.

“If I could tell the world just one thing
It would be that we’re all OK
And not to worry ’cause worry is wasteful
And useless in times like these
I won’t be made useless
I won’t be idle with despair
I will gather myself around my faith
For light does the darkness most fear”

When we got to UNCG, we had a vague idea where my sister would be based on her class schedule, and I remember: We parked the car and walked to the gym. We found her there. She was crying and I was more amused to see what the place looked like than to do anything else. Maybe I was in shock? I remember feeling uneasy till we found her. I remember the anxiousness that radiated from my mother. Maybe I was in shock.

My sister told us she’d been watching the TVs around the gym and thought they were playing a movie. It was a moment before she realized it was real.

I remember it was a Tuesday because Hebrew school was cancelled. I was upset about that more than anything else: I liked Hebrew school. It’s when I got to see my friends and when I got to learn cool things outside of home. I was also resentful: Hebrew school was cancelled, but my Bar Mitzvah lesson was not.

As we pulled into the synagogue’s parking lot, I remember how empty it was. I remember the radio saying all flights were grounded. All phone lines were blocked by the air traffic. The sky was clear… so clear… so empty above us. No clouds. No streams from airplanes flying by. No planes. No helicopters. No birds. Just an open blue reaching into the heavens… into the heavens where so many now drifted in droves….

Inside it was quiet. There was tension in the air. Yet business went on as usual: The cleaners kept cleaning, the maintenance kept things maintained, the desk workers shuffled papers and sat at their computers. Life was still in motion, if now the motion of life was itself in question.

“My hands are small, I know
But they’re not yours, they are my own
But they’re not yours, they are my own
And I am never broken”

I remember the rumors that the attack was caused by Jews. I remember the email going around with Wingdings or Webdings or some font that if you spelled something just the right way you saw the planes hitting the two towers. I remember the way people could fold a dollar bill to show the city in flames.

I remember the silence. The ineffable silence.

“Poverty stole your golden shoes
It didn’t steal your laughter
And heartache came to visit me
But I knew it wasn’t ever
And we’ll fight, not out of spite
For someone must stand up for what’s right
‘Cause where there’s a man who has no voice
There ours shall go singing”

It was on the news for forever it felt. I remember hearing about it every day. Of the people being dug out. Of the people responsible. Of the rescue workers. Of those who had died. Of those so many who had died.

It was on the radio. The television. The internet.

It was spoken of during the Rosh HaShanah sermon. It was spoken of on Yom Kippur.

The War on Terror began. The documentaries. Biographies. Films soon followed.

Would it ever not be spoken of anymore? Would we ever let it go–would we ever be able to live another day without the dark smoke clouds still billowing in our eyes, without the dust clouds of debris chasing us wherever we went?

“My hands are small, I know
But they’re not yours, they are my own
But they’re not yours, they are my own
And I am never broken”

I remember something else, though. Something more profound than the destruction, more pronounced than the fear, more pressing than the media injecting me with information from every angle. I remember the togetherness. The tightness. The pride in our freedom and our purpose pointed at a singular cause.

Has there been anything so tremendous since then?

For a few days, for a few weeks, our differences were forgotten. We were no longer fifty states, but one country. We were no longer just a country–we were a people, united. We had been dealt a deadly blow, and we all suffered the hit together. We pulled on each other to regain our footing, leaned on each other to express our grief, and when the day was done, the skies still empty and the sun sunk beneath the horizon, we clutched each other with fervor and fear, for freedom and forever.

All our borders fell that day. For a moment we became whole.

“In the end only kindness matters
In the end only kindness matters
I will get down on my knees, and I will pray”

Ten years ago the world was a different place. It hasn’t stopped changing for even a moment since. I’ve grown. Everyone else has grown. I have evolved. So has everyone else. The country has changed. The world has changed.

A few weeks ago, I spoke about the bomb threat at my school. About how it reminded me of 9/11. Hell, that’s something else that has changed: A meaningless number, now forever tied to one of the darkest days in American history. Three digits, now a dismal reminder of thousands of lives that once were, are now no more.

The bomb threat reminded me of 9/11. I was on the phone with a good friend that day: It had reminded her of it, too. And others. Others thought so too. But maybe it was the media’s doing? Already pushing it into our retinas, through our speakers, news updates coming on our phones….

I haven’t watched the news today. I haven’t touched the radio. I won’t turn on NBC or ABC or CBS or watch A&E or History or National Geographic or Discovery. At services yesterday, my rabbi addressed the day. Our congregation’s president recanted a letter a friend of his from Chicago who was in the towers that day had sent around ten years ago. That was enough for me. That was enough for the next ten years too.

“My hands are small, I know
But they’re not yours, they are my own
But they’re not yours, they are my own
And I am never broken”

I was once an avid follower of the news. I read the headlines on my Wii every day and stayed up for the eleven o’clock every night. I heard the radio and even read pages of the weekend paper. Then April 16. The Virginia Tech massacre. It was covered so closely, with such impeccable dedication and detail. It became too much. Far too much.

I learned something important that day: I can’t read the news.

I take the news too personally. I let it rip out my heart and throw me into a tailspin of depression. I haven’t followed the news with any appreciable dedication since then. News stories, topics I’m invested in. Occasionally the morning news as I eat breakfast, the evening news as I procrastinate on homework. But nothing now with any appreciable fervor. I’m far too susceptible to its emotional appeal. Its logos, ethos, pathos kills me.

I haven’t touched the dial on that TV since morning began–what’s there can stay there, I don’t want it anymore. I know what happened. I remember. I was a witness to the desecration, the terror, the silence. I haven’t forgotten. I don’t think any of us living that day have forgotten. It was burned in our eyes, our flesh, our grey matter.

I may not always remember, but I’ll never forget.

“My hands are small, I know
But they’re not yours, they are my own
But they’re not yours, they are my own
And I am never broken”

This morning began another year of religious school at my synagogue. We had a lively get-together outside with breakfast and an opening assembly. One of the little girls I met, her family new to our congregation, was only six. All my students from last year are now eight and nine. From the year before they’re nine and ten. None of them were alive when it happened. None of them have this mark upon them. None of them need ever know.

They’re free.

But they do know. And if not yet, they will know. Like the Holocaust, the devastation was too great to be ignored–the memory too important to be forgotten. It will live on. It always will. We will teach what happened, how it happened, why it happened, what happened after it, and how we can keep it from ever happening again.

Life will continue. It has for the past ten years. It will for the next ten years. Time cannot be stopped, cannot be turned back. The living will keep on living. The dead will live in our memories.

And we will return to the solid state where we were before: A disjointed collection of communities, of people in disarray, unknown to each other, a place on the map full of differences that threaten to tear apart the whole.

If anything, 9/11 taught us one thing: Patriotism feels awesome. To unite a nation under one cause, to tie our heartstrings together and tell us we are alive, that life is precious, that every moment is a gift not to be taken for granted.

But the elderly have passed on. The children have grown up. New people have come in through birth and immigration. Our nation is no longer the same. That stasis has been broken. That feeling has been lost.

It can be found again. All of us are still here–if only in memory, everyone can be immortal. We can still see ourselves as a whole, not a collection of pieces vying for the spotlight. We can pull ourselves together, unite for the causes of liberty and justice and freedom. We don’t need parties or race or religion or sexual orientation or gender or ability or money or distance or demographics to separate us. We are Americans.

That’s all we ever have to be.


Can for once that be the only thing we have to be?

“And I am never broken.
We are never broken.
We are God’s eyes.
God’s hands.
God’s heart.”

Lyrics property of Jewel Kilcher. No copyright infringement intended.

One thought on “If I Could Tell the World Just One Thing

  1. Beautiful post Darren. I’ve avoided media this weekend myself, it’s too personal and easily overwhelming. A decade ago I woke up to see it on the AOL front page and, like your sister, I also thought it was a movie at first- or a distasteful promo with a plane flying into an already smoldering WTC presented as ‘breaking news’, and I thought they shouldn’t do that- someone might think it’s real. I turned on the tv just seconds before the first tower fell and my hands framed my face in disbelief as my mind put it together, or tried to. I binged on round-the-clock news and media for weeks until I was burned out on the footage, the personal stories, the missing posters, the funerals… I’m glad they show the footage now for those that want to see it, need to see it, and for younger people to better understand. But I don’t need to see it to never forget it.

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