Note: Again, I originally drafted this post a while ago and am only publishing it now after revisiting it several times, adding and subtracting content. The majority of this post was written on April 19, 2013.
In my whole life, there’s only one day for which I can tell you exactly what I had for lunch. The memory recall is instant. September 11, 2001. Chicken patty sandwich. Lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayonnaise, swiss cheese, half sub roll. It was going to be delicious. It’s waiting for me on my plate as I carry it back through the warm, dusky dining hall to my assigned lunch table. I am eight. I am wearing a light blue uniform jumper. But before I can sit down to eat it, I’m called out by the lower school head from the microphone at the podium. It’s a girl in my grade’s ninth birthday. The plan is to wish her a happy birthday from that same podium at the end of lunch, like we do for everyone’s birthday.
Instead, Mrs. Sharma, a very nice Indian lady with a British accent, tells me that my mother is here to pick me up. I am annoyed, because I must abandon my lunch.
My mother tells me that we have to go home. I don’t see any other parents there, and I wonder why, but I’m not worried. Next I remember, I’m back home. My dad is there, too, and I only realize now how strange it was for him to be home at noon on a weekday.
I am in the TV room, standing. It is a long, rectangular box of a room, so that when you enter you look down the length of it to the TV, a heavy, black clunker by today’s standards, squatting in the middle of the back wall. On the TV, the Twin Towers are bleeding charcoal smoke from a hole a quarter of the way down one of them. The same smoke is chasing people down the street. Men in business suits are running. People are covered in yellow dust. I ask what is happening, but my parents don’t answer. It doesn’t even occur to me that my sister has just begun her first year of college in New York City two weeks before. I think they are trying to call her.
Nine years later, when I am a senior in high school, I take an English class called “Trauma.” We read Freud’s Beyond The Pleasure Principle and we watch Silver Lake Life, a documentary that forces us to watch a man die of HIV/AIDS. On the first day of class, in September, we revisit the topic of 9/11. We talk about the new memorial. Our teacher pulls up an image of a plush toy made to look like the Twin Towers on the projector. It is an art project. The stuffed, anthropomorphized towers are holding hands, and each of them has a plane sticking out of its “head.” One of them has its eyelids drooping and its tongue sticking out. The other is looking at the plane sticking out of its head, surprised.
That day I learn for the first time that people jumped out of windows to escape the burning buildings, and we watch videos of them falling through the air. Zoomed in and grainy, all you can see are black silhouettes swimming against bright, uninterrupted blue sky. It’s shocking for me and disturbing. I think about what it must have been like to make that decision–which way to die. It angers me that I never knew this. I felt like there must have been some sort of cover up.
But, in fact, many people at the time knew about this. I was just too young for them to want to tell me, and for me to want to find out.
To me it feels as if the trauma that tragedies like 9/11 and more recently, what seems to feel like the constant onslaught of mass killings, incurs on me–the depth to which I feel it–grows, deepens, and expands with each new incident. My emotional and intellectual response when I find out about these things intensifies with each tragedy.
In December, when the news broke about the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I had just come home for winter break. I went upstairs to my bedroom and read tweets about the shooting as the details unfolded. Each new piece of information was worse than the next. I read that over 20 small children were shot and killed and that one girl, the only survivor in her classroom, had to pretend to be dead like her classmates. What could that have been like? I wondered, as I lay on top of my covers and cried.
Last week, I sat in my biology class while my professor spoke. A girl who always wears her hair in a high bun interrupted, “Oh my god.” Our professor thought she had offended her because we were talking about some somewhat controversial sex-related topic, but the girl went on to explain, “A bomb just went off at the Boston Marathon.”
I spent the rest of that class checking news outlets and live feeds for updates. One website I found had already created a .gif image of the first bomb detonating. One of the runners near the blast falls, quickly gets up, and keeps running in the opposite direction. I watched the bomb explode and the man fall for a few loops until I had to look away. I felt like I was seeing something I shouldn’t. Soon, photos appeared of pools of blood on the sidewalk and a man in a wheelchair with one of his legs gone. After class, I went to the student center, where CNN was playing on a big TV and people were watching but not saying anything. At a meeting around two hours after the explosions, I watched as two friends from the Boston area, usually vocal and rambunctious, sat silently next to each other in a corner of the room and paled as they scanned the news on their laptops.
For a few days after both Newtown and the Boston marathon, I had the same tearful reaction when I thought about the people who died, the people who were injured, the families who lost them or who were afraid they had, the unanticipated bills they must now face, the families of the bombers, what went wrong in the bombers’ lives that made them want to do this, the fresh fear instilled in all who read the news…all the components that, when put together, make up a tragedy.
And each time, I was a little surprised. I had never felt this much after high-profile tragedies like this before. Not after Virginia Tech, not after Aurora. Could it have been that the majority of the victims of Newtown were children? Was it that I had, through real-time updates, watched helplessly as the news poured in and as each “incident” unfolded into a “tragedy”?
I think it’s all of these things. But at the heart of it, I think it was that as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize how many parts of life traumatic events like these rob everyone affected of. Could I, eight years old and hungry without lunch, have imagined even a fraction of the terror felt by the people running for their lives? I couldn’t even think to imagine what it was like to be my sister, then 18, in her second week of college classes when a terrorist attack struck just a few miles away from her. Only with the passage of time was I able to realize the fear that she must have felt when she wasn’t able to call our parents, stranded on an island full of 8 million people just as scared as she was. In 2007, when the Virginia Tech “massacre,” as it is so gruesomely known, occurred, I was 14. Most of the victims were in their 20s and 30s. How could I empathize with what it was like to lose your chance at starting your adult life, when I was years from even thinking about starting mine?
Growing older inevitably means that you share more experiences with more people. At age 19, I had had twelve years’ worth of experiences that the children who died in the Newtown shooting wouldn’t have. I could think back on the parts of my life that I remember because they were typically “important”–that first kiss; that first day of high school; that college letter. Or the parts that are really just memories because they are scars–finding out that I’d never meet one of my grandfathers; enduring cruel, purposeful isolation in middle school; that tearful, embarrassing first breakup; coming home and not having my dog there for the first time ever. And of course the parts that I wish I could relive again and again–standing in the depths of a prehistoric cave, looking up at a 14,000 year-old painting three feet above me on the ceiling and watching it flicker to life in the light; playing mahjong with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents as the smell of my grandmother’s cooking wafts through the cement-walled Beijing apartment that has since been demolished; lifting my sister’s veil at her wedding; leaning out of the sun roof of a Land Rover and watching the sun rise over the Serengeti plains.
I can’t help but think about the experiences I’ve been afforded simply because I’ve been there, and how tragedies like the ones I’ve mentioned rob its victims of the opportunity to have similarly unforgettable, lasting ones of their own.
It’s totally obvious when I say it like this, but I didn’t know what it was like to be any of the places I had yet to go, to feel any of the happiness or sadness that I had yet to feel, to know any of the people I had yet to meet, to read any of the books that had yet to be written, until I did. And because I know now what I didn’t know then, even if it’s just a mere 20 years’ worth, I realize how much was taken away from the kids in Newtown, the victims of 9/11, and every other mass tragedy. And it’s not just the victims–the number people affected by such traumas is innumerable.
Like most things I write, I can’t tell if other people feel this way, or if what I’ve just said is totally obvious to everyone else out there, or if it’s selfish for me to frame such immense topics, especially others’ deaths, with my own experiences. I’m not really sure how else to try to understand it, though.
Initially, when I began this post two months before its publication, I wanted to write it to parse out how I felt about ownership of tragedy. I couldn’t figure out why, when I felt so sad after the Boston bombings, I felt like I had no right to feel as affected as I did. I wasn’t from Boston. No one I knew got hurt or was even near the marathon. My friends’ families were OK. But I didn’t realize that these were not the connections I ought to be grasping for in order to explain the degree of my feelings in response to a shared trauma.
What connects us as humans are not the tangible, surface connections that you could trace with degrees of separation or a route on a map from your home to the site of the tragedy. Instead, it’s the inevitable reality that someone who has or could have shared something that you yourself know well–an experience, a feeling, a thought, a revelation, a mistake–can no longer look back on that “something,” whether it’s fondly or with a cringe of regret. And if that experience, feeling, though, revelation, or mistake was ahead of them, they’ll never have the chance to enjoy it, learn from it, grow from it. The tragedy I’m newly realizing about tragedies is that they rob us of people with whom to share the parts of life that make it such a gift. And it’s long been said that the best part about having something wonderful is sharing it with others.