I am reminded of 9/11 almost on a daily basis. Not because, like thousands of my fellow Americans, I am pained by the memory of a lost loved one, colleague, or friend. My heart goes out to them, as I cannot imagine the anguish that the searing memories of that day have brought them these 20 years.
My reminder is different — sometimes twice a day, sometimes several times in a week, I will see the numbers “911” somewhere. Often, it’s just when I happen to glance at a clock or a watch the one or two times a day I think to check the time, and lo and behold it’s 9:11 a.m. or p.m. It’s not planned, and I’m never thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be 9:11 soon.” It just happens.
Or it occurs when I least expect it. I’ve seen 911 on license plates in front of me in traffic. I’ve looked down at my odometer while driving to see it’s just switched to show the numbers 911. That means I just happened to look at it within that mile between 910 and 912 to see those exact numbers, which was really jarring. I’ve seen 911 on the treadmill at the gym — that’s 911 displayed as 9 minutes and 11 seconds, meaning I had exactly a one-second window in which to see that precise number. I got a parking ticket once, and I looked at the time that it was issued: 9:11 a.m. I’ve seen 911 on shopping receipt totals or the time of the transaction. It’s maddening.
To be reminded constantly of this horrific event that caused such pain and grief for the entire country all these years is upsetting, to say the least. It makes me constantly think about those who lost loved ones and how they don’t need the numeric reminder — they have the inescapable heartache and memory of the event every day of their lives. At first I saw it as a curse, assuming I must’ve done something wrong or bad to be constantly reminded of this tragic event on an almost daily basis. Friends and family tried to reassure me that maybe it was perhaps a positive omen in some twisted way, though I couldn’t bring myself to see how.
I have a strange relationship with the day of those events because I wasn’t even in the country. In September 2001 my family and I were on a long-awaited, lengthy vacation in Australia and New Zealand. We woke up in New Zealand on what was then Sept. 12 to the live coverage from my own employer at the time, ABC News. With horror and sobs we watched the events happening back home, particularly in our hometown area of Washington, D.C. The guilt immediately sank in: How could we be on vacation when this was happening? How could we possibly continue with our travel itineraries without feeling sick about what was going on back at home? I was especially torn because my colleagues at ABC were working 24/7 and I would have been too, had I not been on holiday.
As part of our travels, we were getting on an airplane that very morning to Australia, and sitting on a plane wasn’t exactly a place anyone wanted to be given the day’s events. And several weeks later we had to grapple with the idea of getting on an international flight to return home, if flights in the U.S. were even allowed by then, and envisioning what might happen in the skies.
The Australian people couldn’t have been more wonderful once we landed there on Sept. 12. Waiters cried with us, tour guides hugged us, and everyone felt this universal, global sense of loss and despair since they had lost fellow citizens, too. If we had to be anywhere on that day, I’m glad it was there. But we still felt the searing guilt of not being home. When we returned to the U.S., it was as if we’d been in a time warp. We left the country in one state and returned to it in a very different one. Life had changed forever — most notably in the lives of those for whom the numbers 911 bring more pain than most of us will ever know.
In light of the pandemic and the horrors of the past year, I’ve decided to try to see the numeric curse through a different prism. Perhaps it’s a reminder of the fragility of life — a daily reminder, albeit a rattling one. But a reminder nonetheless that not one day should be taken for granted. Not one breath that we breathe. Not one moment with a loved one or a treasured friend. Perhaps this daily and weekly code of gratitude, however unsettling, is what is needed to help that message sink in. Though I try to see it through an uplifting light now, there’s still always that moment when seeing those numbers jolts my soul with sorrow. I desperately hope that on this 20th anniversary of 9/11, those who are suffering the greatest losses from that day know that the rest of us don’t need daily reminders of the sacrifice and sacredness of the lives of their loved ones. We, too, will never forget.
Kendra Gahagan ’93 is a producer and writer who lives in Boston, Massachusetts.