It was warm for this late in the fall, the calendar read November 2, but I was still glad I had my vest on as we hurriedly exited the cab on Fulton Street. Immediately my parents and I were drowned in a sea of tourists, all of whom came here to see the same sights, but for countless distinctive reasons. I had the urge to retreat to the cab, as eager as I was to get out of it in the first place. Being in large crowds causes my entire body to tense up and I was battling a headache as it was. But that wasn’t an option. My dad, in his classic form, races ahead. We purchased our tickets online in advance; they required first and last names of all of the guests who would be attending. Our entry time was 3 pm, per my suggestion, even though we arrived to the City at 1:50. I’m aware of how long it can take to travel from Grand Central to downtown. I think everything in New York takes longer than you expect, especially when you’re with your parents. Each ticket used an entire 8 ½ x 11” piece of paper and insightfully included a map. My mom’s theory was intuitively to follow the current of tourists, my dad’s map agreed- and so we headed South. It was like a disjointed dance, making our way to the Greenwich Street entrance- or perhaps an odd game of leapfrog. Though I am 27 years old, have traveled the world solo for the last decade, and just spent 4 days in the city without my Mom earlier in the week, her maternal instincts took over. I tried to stay behind her since she walks more slowly than me and because I don’t want to lose her. Whose maternal instincts were in question here? (I have a habit of always bringing up the rear; I would make a very good sheep dog.) But then somehow, she’ll think she’s lost me and turn around, blending with the mass of people that surrounds us, and I will saunter past, oblivious. In a few more steps I’ll realize that I’ve lost her, and turn around seeking her out. We continue this way for 4 blocks. You can imagine how long it would take us to get anywhere.
We arrive at the entrance at 2:58 and my father walks briskly toward the security guard checking tickets.
“Paul? Heyyy, Paul? PAUL?” my mom shouts to get his attention, but amidst the construction and tourists hers is just another voice adding to the orchestra of sounds around us.
We were meant to meet a few students from Yale, if they had been interested in joining, but communication had been weak. My mom, correctly so, thought it would be good to wait until 3 pm incase anyone showed. My thoughts: the students would probably be late even if they intended to show, but we should wait until 3 as a formality. What’s the hurry, the Jazz show at the Blue Note doesn’t start until 6 and we have plenty of time.
With all of the construction going on around us, I began wondering what it was that I had come to see. I actually had no idea how far along the construction process they were, but I was glad we printed our tickets in advance. As we moved through our expedited “Pre Purchased” line, I began reading some factoids hung on the construction fencing, blinding the eye from the other side. “9/11 Memorial is in honor of the lives lost in the WTC…” We moved our way forward, steadily, like an efficient security line in an airport, walking the perimeter of the grounds, the fence always to our right. Our paper tickets were finally scanned just before we went through security; I knew it felt like an airport. As we rounded our second corner, I knew we were on the final stretch into the park. There was another stream of people flowing out, they had come and seen and felt what they had wanted, and now, like an eddy current, they were slowly, but without much commitment trying to leave.
As soon as I passed the final fence and entered the cleared space where the World Trade Center buildings once stood, I was overtaken by silence. Sure, the number of people around me was still the same, but their voices no longer echoed like in school halls- they were muted. We all were captivated, drawn in, and lost in a world of emotion.
9/11 means different things to different people. Everyone’s experience on that day had its uniqueness to it. I was a sophomore in High School sitting in Chemistry class when we heard what was going on. I remember a buzzing throughout the halls, speculation as to whether it was safer to be at school or to be sent home. Hamden, Connecticut was only 2 hours North of the City. Who was being targeted? Who was behind this? Who would be next? My sister was in her freshman year of College. She was 4 hours from us, but no more than 2 from the City. I can only imagine she wished she could be with her family. I didn’t know anyone directly who was lost in the towers. One of my Uncle’s best friend’s worked in the North Tower and passed away that day, but that was as close to home as it got for me. For those who lost a loved one on 9/11, that day will forever carry a heavy weight, heavier than for the rest of us. But the impact of 9/11 will affect generations to come, whether or not they know it.
My parents had the privilege of meeting Michael Arad, the architect for the 9/11 Memorial. 5,201 put their designs in for consideration, and Arad’s was chosen. He had given a talk at my parent’s College, Saybrook College, at Yale University, just last year. I looked him up out of curiosity, I had seen the designs, and understood why his design was selected. I understood what this space was supposed to be, but being there in person was nothing my imagination could have conjured. He used negative space in the footprints of where the WTC towers once stood- once the North Tower, now the North Pool; South Tower, South Pool. There was no “rebuilding” of the towers to be considered. That would be like living in the past, a constant reminder of what was. This was something that needed to be remembered, but moved through. Pools, how obvious.
I imagined a pool, like a small fountain like thing, shallow, maybe toss a coin in there, like a wishing well- this thought came to me involuntarily, and as I write it, I’m almost sick that that is what I had imagined. C’mon imagination, step it up. These pools are grandiose and dark, alluring and paradoxically repelling. The edge of the pool is surrounded by marble plates with the victim’s names carved in them, immediately beneath those plates is a 3 foot edge of still reflective water, that ultimately cascades down a 15’ wall, free falling until it crashes into the pool below. In the center of that giant pool, there is a hole, about 30’ x 30’ that takes in the fallen water, the water creeps over the edge, reconnecting with itself as it seeks salvation in that hole, so mysteriously slow, that it seems to defy gravity.
Surrounding these pools are rows and rows of trees. At this time of year, all of the leaves are beginning to find their golden glow, except for one tree in the center of it all—a lone pear tree that was found all broken limbs, under the wreckage of 9/11. It was pruned down to an 8’ stump and allowed to prosper yet again. It’s leaves are still green, as if showing off its resilience once more to the pending winter months. And towering above these trees are numerous buildings. The old ones, stand with pride, having seen so much. And the new ones act as mirrors, they don’t dwarf and diminish the smaller original buildings of this New York skyline, instead they honor them by reflecting their images to those who look up. At times it was difficult to discern where the old buildings ended and the new buildings began; there is a certain transparency to these mirrored glass buildings and it warmed my heart, seeing old and new joined so seamlessly.
I don’t know what Arad had intended with his design. I’m not sure if the pools are always that reflective, or if the surrounding buildings and the glass were selected based on their reflective qualities alone, perhaps it was just the time of day that I was there, but standing at the edge of those pools, it was impossible not to reflect on the last 11 years. To think of not only the victims lost in those terrorist attacks, but also the loved ones lost by old age, cancer, or even a tragic ski accident, the jobs lost, the pride lost. It was impossible not to recognize the resilience of mankind, of Americans, sure, but of all of mankind. The hardships endured, the struggles escaped. To me, that was what the pools made me realize. Once upon a time we were still and calm, we had it all, and suddenly we dropped off the edge of a cliff, crashed down, broken into thousands of pieces, fragmented, rippled, separated, and then there was a final hole, a resting place, not that of death, rather that of surrender. Seeing the water crash down over one edge, breaking the stillness, and then slowly crawling over the next, returning to a place of oneness, reminds me of what we all must do. Sometimes, it is not about winning the fight or the battle, but letting our struggles be what they are as we continue to move through despite them all.
“Enduring means accepting. Accepting things as they are and not as you wish them to be, and then looking ahead, not behind.” Rafa Nadal, tennis great.