A Day To Remember- September 11, 2001
Julie Mehta

Until the horrific attack on the World Trade Center, September 11 was just like any other day to most Americans. But for me, the date has always evoked strong emotions. That's because it's my birthday. On the one hand, I relish the attention that comes with the occasion, but on the other I've always dreaded getting older. I can never help thinking of all I still want to accomplish and wondering what the year ahead will bring.

Glancing at my watch on the way out of my apartment September 11, 2001, I anticipated how my mom would call at the exact minute shortly before noon that marked 28 years since my birth. As I headed to work in midtown Manhattan that stunningly clear morning, I had no idea of the nightmare that had already begun for thousands of people just a few miles downtown who'd been busy answering e-mail, reviewing reports, updating their "to do" lists. It was I who ended up calling my mom, waking her up to tell her the shocking news I'd learned after arriving at work. The World Trade Center had been struck by two hijacked airplanes and was on fire. I could see the smoke cloud from my office. Suddenly there were more significant times to note that day: 10:00-when the south tower crumbled, destroying thousands of lives in a matter of seconds, and 10:29--when the unthinkable happened a second time as the north tower collapsed.

By mid-morning, the Twin Towers, which had their ribbon-cutting the year I was born, lay in ruins.

At a restaurant with friends that night, the television image of the second plane crashing into the south tower playing over and over in the background, we tried to piece together what had happened. There were the same questions each time someone new arrived: "Is everyone you know okay?" When did you find out?" "What did you see?" Even after talking to people who'd actually watched the buildings collapse or who'd fled from the tidal wave of debris, the sudden, cinematic implosion of the two towers seemed unreal. I simply couldn't grasp it.

What I did grasp all too well was that the day marking the beginning of my life now marked the end of life for thousands of others caught in the collapse. Maybe that's why the weekend after the attack I was so strongly drawn to go see the hundreds of missing person fliers posted at the Armory at 26th Street and Lexington Avenue. So many of them were younger than I am, I thought as I moved slowly past the faces of the lost in a solemn procession of onlookers. Again and again I saw ages of 23, 25, 26...all people who would never again have the luxury of worrying about getting older.

In the following days, I saw missing person fliers at Union Square, at Grand Central Station, and on lampposts and subway stations all over the city. Every time I thought I'd seen them all, I glimpsed a new smiling face-someone else on vacation or at a Christmas party or with their arm around a loved one. And next to it, written perhaps in that loved one's hand, the business and floor where the missing worked and every identifying characteristic imaginable-silver wedding ring, wooden cross, dragon tattoo, belly-button ring. Even things the person in question had probably tried their best to hide were revealed--scars, moles, warts, birthmarks. All those quirks that make us unique. Identifiable.

It felt too personal looking at those fliers and yet again and again I was drawn to them, staggered by how for most of the people in the pictures, all those characteristics and possessions that helped make them who they were were obliterated in an instant. The missing person posters offered only a glimpse into each of those lives; what made them compelling was that they showed that someone knew all those little idiosyncrasies about each person and could likely tell the stories behind them: How did he get that scar on his forehead? Why did she choose a dragon tattoo? Who gave her that gold necklace? They will remember those stories. I will remember the brief link those posters gave me to people I will never know.

When people learn the attacks fell on my birthday, they invariably say they're sorry. So am I. It saddens me that for the rest of my life the anniversary of my birth will also be regarded as the anniversary of an act of unprecedented cruelty. But it will also be a reminder of the fragility of life, of how much we all take for granted. It's so easy sometimes to get wrapped up in worrying about what's left to do before we run out of time that we forget to appreciate the time we've already been given and that it's our connections to others that give that time meaning. We need only think of the pictures of the people whose lives ended so abruptly to realize how lucky we are, this very moment, to be alive.

This year instead of blowing out candles to make a wish for myself, I lit them to remember so many others whose hopes for the future were snuffed out too soon. But if a birthday is meant to be a reaffirmation of life, I don't think I've ever celebrated more appropriately.

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