I remember wishing that in the years to come I’d be able to remember every moment, and knowing that I would forget most all of it.
My mom and I stood on the front steps of our house on the night in 1997 when news broke that Princess Diana had died. The sun was setting so spectacularly that even inside our house with no view of the horizon we had seen its dreamlike color. Violent pink and lilac exploded in the sky and seemed to be everywhere; the air tasted like magenta and D.C. summer, and whether or not there were cicadas humming I remember their droning sound. Summer was ending, and I was in denial about September beginning and the first day of school. I remember wanting to linger outside, hoping my mom would let my bedtime slide just a bit, believing that somehow that particular sunset would never end. I tried not to breathe, thinking she might forget how long we’d been standing out there, and I gazed hungrily out at the neighborhood. I can’t remember whose house it was on or, to be honest, whether it was even there, but I remember that night seeing an American flag flying on our block, thinking how rare that was, and then looking back at our house and our own flagpole bracket. And the memory fades there.
I’ve never felt any particular connection to the flag. It was and always has been a symbol of our collective history for me—particularly our history of domestic war: the Revolutionary and Civil ones. What moves me is our commitment as a republic to the principles of representative democracy—although too many times in our brief 240 years we have threatened and undermined them. Our collective history as a nation founded by rebels and intellectuals speaks simultaneously to my latent inner punk and my (conflicting and complementary) abiding belief in the power of collective will and action. The flag to me is a piece of cloth with a great story.
I remember sitting bolt upright and running to my bedroom window and flinging it open as I wondered where I could hide and if I had time to get there. I had never heard such a sound. The first batch of F16s screamed overhead. My marrow vibrated; it echoed in my viscera; nausea took hold. The newscasters had talked that morning about the sound the planes made when they hit the buildings—unlike any other. It was September 11th, 2001, and I was at home alone braced against my window looking toward downtown D.C. where my mother was still at work in her office two blocks from the White House, and then up at the sky, staring hard at that late-summer blue. That day and for days afterward, it seemed, the F16s kept coming.
I remember in the weeks and months after 9/11 being sure that our phones had been tapped. I remember hearing a click-click on the line and believing that they—whoever “they” were—were listening. In what world did it make sense to spy on a 13-year-old. I wondered what about my mere existence was subversive or a threat to the state, and quickly I began to believe that if I was being spied on there had to be a good reason. Whether or not our line was tapped isn’t important. I became my own watcher, suspecting that I was suspicious and adamant with myself that I fall in line, interpreting how to do that differently on different days.
I didn’t worry about the threat I couldn’t see. I worried that my government suspected me of wrongdoing and that I had no defense. I worried about the flood of warnings and relentless fear-mongering: Stock up on water in case of another attack; buy duct tape to seal your house in case of…what? I didn’t know. Even now my heart races when I think about those warnings. Duct tape. As though duct tape would make the difference in a bioterrorism attack. I thought of Fight Club and Tyler Durden’s sick suggestion that oxygen masks are there only to give the illusion of safety. I thought about the ways in which we comfort ourselves when faced with a threat so large that it begins to feel existential and about which we, individually, can do absolutely nothing. I understood the appeal of duct-tape logic, but it wasn’t for my family, and we didn’t go to Home Depot.
I conflated the duct tape with the anthrax scare and wondered how taping up our windows was supposed to keep out the bio-agent, given that the same U.S.P.S. sorting facility the anthrax-laced letters had passed through also served my house. It was just one thing after another: After anthrax came the Patriot Act and barricades started going up around D.C., and the city in which I was growing up, that had always felt so open to me, suddenly closed down.
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And then, in March 2002, the Homeland Security Advisory System gave color to my fear. We hovered at yellow alert and would spike to orange occasionally, but god if it didn’t feel to me like we were solidly stationed on red.
I remember in early June of that same year, on one Saturday afternoon, my mother and I drove out to my grandparents’ house in Maryland for our weekly visit. Nine months had passed since the attacks, but it seemed that most houses in D.C. and its suburbs still had mounted American flags. Maybe I was getting a taste, I thought, of what it would be like to live in a small town. My grandfather and grandmother had both grown up in Pennsylvania—him in a small town, her in Pittsburgh. They married before he left for war where he saw Europe in all its devastation. He returned and went to work for the government and in his retirement he became a volunteer docent at the National Archives where, on the Constitution’s bicentennial he and a group of other docents founded the Constitution Study Group. In the years I knew him, and I suspect before, he would head down to the Library of Congress on the subway, taking with him a sandwich for his lunch, and spend the days reading at his carrel.
That afternoon in June 2002, my grandparents, my mother, and I sat on their patio and talked. She’d been reading Gulliver’s Travels for her book club, and he’d decided to take another look at Jonathan Swift’s deft political satire. I listened, mostly. Maybe asked a question or two, still very much a wannabe student of dissension. I remember my grandmother and I peeled off in our own conversation and the warm June breeze felt safer than I had in those nine long months.
I remember that when our conversation was over, but before it had gotten dark, my grandfather and grandmother stood with us in their driveway to say goodbye and he gestured at a few of the other houses in their suburban court and said into the amber light of early-summer afternoons, “I’m not a flag-waver, but I am a true patriot.”
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Late that evening, after Saturday Night Live had started but before we’d all turned in for bed, my aunt called. I can hear the phone ring. He’d had a stroke, she said; an ambulance had come; he’d been taken to the hospital. I remember feeling a pulse of adrenaline, but being certain that he’d be awake and as animated as he had been when I saw him earlier that day. How I ended up going with my mother to the hospital I don’t know. We parked up in a waiting room, and at some point she got the chance to see him and then I was alone. I remember the color of the light in that room, a horrible fluorescent color that cast a nauseating pallor on the day. How had it come to be that our endless summer afternoon had ended like this. SNL ended. Buffy the Vampire Slayer came on. I curled up in a god-awful chair and stared out the window at the orange flags used to warn incoming-helicopters of power lines.
I’ve wondered often what he might think of the last 15 years: Edward Snowden’s NSA leak, Osama bin Laden’s death, any of the myriad domestic terrorism attacks here and internationally; I’ve really wondered then. Occasionally I have to remind myself that he was here for the big one—9/11—and I wish terribly I could remember what he had said, or if he said anything about the attack itself. He must have, he wouldn’t not have. I wish I’d been able to describe to him the pulse of adrenaline I felt when, just after 9 o’clock my eighth grade English teacher turned on the TV. But I didn’t understand it then. That day I believed I was callous for not being able to cry or feel. Only later, nine months later, when I learned he’d had a stroke and I felt once again that disbelieving pulse of adrenaline, did I begin to get it: I had seen that which I will never be able to comprehend.