Remembering the best day I ever had
My brother died on 9/11, but Sept. 10 stands out because I don't remember it at all
My daughter Victoria awakened early that Tuesday morning and put on a rose dress, the color of her mood. She was eager and also nervous, because it was her first day of pre-kindergarten, Christmas in September for a 3-year-old. Let's go, daddy, she said. Can't be late. She took me by the thumb, dragged me out of the house, pulled me into the gorgeous and, as it turned out, deceitful sunshine that kissed us on the doorstep.
The school was less than a quarter-mile from our New Jersey home. I walked. She skipped. She was too short to notice the view from the road, a panoramic snapshot of the tip of Lower Manhattan, 14 miles away. It was a speck in the distance except for the Twin Towers, permanently aligned together like a middle and index finger. The peace sign.
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She didn't want me to return home. At that age, kids are clingy, and she stayed tattooed to my right calf in the schoolyard for five minutes. Then 10. I suddenly knew how Alonzo Mourning felt years ago, trying to shake his shin free of Jeff Van Gundy. It will be OK, I gently assured Victoria, before she reluctantly released, allowing my blood to resume circulation. That's all I thought about on the way home, laughing at her terrified reaction, totally oblivious to the updated view of the Towers, the peace sign suddenly transformed into a pair of matchsticks.
Poured a glass of juice, turned on the radio for two seconds, then rushed out of the house, back to the street, to the curb to look eastward at the charcoal New York sky. Then ran back into the house just in time to hear the Pentagon was hit, too. The Pentagon! That's where my younger brother Scott works.
"He hasn't called yet, but don't worry," my mother assured me from Washington, D.C. "The phone lines are down. Your brother will call. He always does."
That was 10 a.m. Then, at noon:
"Haven't heard from him yet. He'll call. Relax."
"Still waiting." Her voice, much lower by now, wasn't as soothing as before. There was a quiver in her whisper. She tried to hide it, but she was choking up. We were choking up.
That's the thing about horrible events in your life. You vividly remember where you were and what you were doing when they came along and put a grapefruit in your throat. Doesn't matter if it happened yesterday or 10 years ago. It could've been personal, as in the passing of a family member, or public, when Katrina blew through New Orleans. The last time my ability to recall was this Ginsu sharp, pre-9/11, was when Magic Johnson told the world why he had to retire. Older folks have already freeze-framed even harder punches, the Kennedy and Lennon assassinations and when MLK took a few steps on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
These events all have a cruel way of yanking you back and making you -- forcing you to -- remember everything in great and harrowing detail, when all you want to do, quite honestly, is forget.
That's what makes Sept. 10, 2001, also known as The Last Best Day We Ever Had, so tremendously satisfying to reflect on. Because I can't remember a damn thing about it.
Nobody can. It's easier to recall the grade you got from your elementary civics teacher, or who pitched the fifth game this season for the Mets, or the name of the 15th actress that Derek Jeter ever dated. Most likely, 9/10/01 was just another homogenized Monday, temps in the '70s, summer stubbornly trying to hang in there like a 40-year-old ballplayer. A day to go to school, work, get ready for the rest of the week, something like that. A day like all the others.
Except the one that came next.
Where's the anniversary for the last time 2,976 people seized the moment to bond with family right before, unfortunately, starting another work week? An anniversary for the loss of our last true era of innocence? An anniversary for the last day you really felt totally free and uninhibited? When do we get to gather around and light some candles and hold a silent vigil for that day?
Look what's happened since. Everyone's suspicious now. Of government, different ethnic groups, each other. Less trusting, too. But not on the 10th. Not to suggest that day was a Norman Rockwell painting. Just to say you could tell a big difference between that midnight, when our way of life officially expired, and the following sunrise, when a whole new world was born.
Life wasn't so restricting on the 10th. We could arrive at the airport an hour before the flight and still make it. Go to the game and only get our ticket ripped at the gate, instead of being eyeballed by suits in dark glasses and sniffed by K-9's finest. Leave the house without carrying three driver's licenses, two passports and a Stop N Shop savers card for ID purposes.
On the 10th, I could pick up the phone, dial his number and my brother would answer.
Of course, I didn't call. Saw no reason to check in because, and maybe this is the great lesson of 9/10, I took that liberty for granted. Didn't we just speak a week ago? Just to say, 'sup? To discuss and dissect the Steelers, the team we grew up worshipping, and the new football season? To talk about our young children, his two and my only, and swap stories about their adolescence? To make plans to get together oh, no big rush, in a month, whenever?
Who knew the next and final time I'd hear his voice was the following morning on his answering machine, which was full and unable to accept any more panic-stricken messages by noon?
It's why my family and closest friends now get an extra call, text, instant message, tweet, shout-out, squeeze, anything I can give. Because almost every day is being treated like 9/10, my own fearful and perhaps paranoid hunch that the next time I take too long to reach out, I might get answering machined again.
His name is engraved in three public memorials: a bench near his former apartment in Silver Spring, Md.; on a stone wall with an unobstructed view of Manhattan at Eagle Rock Reservation, a hilly park in West Orange, N.J.; and on another bench just a few yards from the Pentagon, inside the official memorial, where our family will gather Sunday.
They are just names in block letters, not bios, no mention of how he was hopelessly but not unhealthily thin. How his favorite expression -- "quit complaining" -- was a good-natured way of making you stop listing your little problems and start counting your tremendous blessings. How he loved to poke his kids until they finally surrendered a laugh. How he was in lockstep with another brother, his identical twin. How he never, best anyone can tell, was angry or hostile or bitter for 35 years. And how he was a solid U.S. government employee who, on Sept. 10, 2001, made sure to shut it down early enough to rise and be on time for work the next day.
There's an obsession in this country to recognize events of the past, no matter how catastrophic. Or maybe it's an obligation, especially in the case of 9/11 and the 10-year anniversary. That's fine. There are firefighters and policemen to honor, and thousands of innocent lives to grieve over, and memorials to christen. And people who weren't directly affected just want a chance to reach out and express their condolences.
Rudy Giuliani will make the rounds, as you might expect from him. Other politicians, their hearts in the right place and their true intentions in the next election, will fall in line. The New York Giants and Washington Redskins -- and what a creative bit of scheduling this was by the NFL -- will play Sunday in the shadow of the Pentagon. The 24-hour news networks will wave Old Glory all day. And it's all understandable. All well-meaning.
But excuse me for getting a jump start and holding my own service 24 hours earlier, to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the last best day I ever had, a day I hardly know about. Because I'd much rather spend 9/10 remembering how he lived. Not reliving how he died.
Shaun Powell is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
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