One year ago, I wrote this story for my email list. I sent it on my birthday which is the 11th of September 1977. This year, cable news organizations remember this day as the 10th anniversary of my 24th birthday, or so I like to tell myself. Someone on Twitter (Julia Smith) asked if I would re-publish the email, and that's what I'm doing below. I had completely forgotten I'd written it, but there's nothing I would change.
Here's an audio version of the story that ABC News Radio published in commemoration of the other September 11.
This is a story.
September of 2001 was an intense month. I was living in Boston and working at a strategy consulting firm. I’d just been put on a project for a cable company that wanted to enter the local phone business, and I was pulling serious hours.
Rather suddenly and somewhat out of nowhere, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. She went through an accelerated diagnosis and treatment near her then-home in Attleboro, Mass. just south of Boston.
I actually remember telling the company librarian the name of the hospital where my mother would be treated, and she warned me, “That’s a terrible hospital,” but I didn’t know what other choice we had and chalked her attitude up to her being a bit crazy and from Rhode Island.
My sister, Belinda, had flown in to be with my mother through the surgery, and we were playing tag team with mom care. I would work during the day then take the commuter rail down to Attleboro to hang out in the hospital with the family in the evenings.
Near my birthday, my sister had to return to her work and life, having burned various levels of vacation and sick days. On the morning of September 11, I was excited to spend my birthday with my mother, not in the hospital (which it turns out, was indeed quite terrible), but in her apartment.
As I’d done scores of times before, I boarded the commuter train at Boston’s South Station. Just as we pulled in to Attleboro Station, around 8:45am, I got a phone call on my cell from my friend Stacy. This was a memorable moment for several reasons.
One, I had a cell phone. It was my first cell phone, and I got it after being stranded in the Philadelphia airport and watching cell phone owners use their magic powers to book all the best flights and hotel rooms, forcing me to take an overnight bus. “Never again,” I told myself.
Two, Stacy was calling me from San Francisco, which meant it was 5:45am there. Upon seeing the Caller ID, I thought, “Yay! Stacy is such a great friend. She’s calling me extra early to wish me a happy birthday!!”
“A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” she said, confusing me greatly because that sounded not at all like “Happy Birthday, Baratunde!” She didn’t know what was happening. No one did at that point, but she told me it was on TV.
Normally the walk from the Attleboro train station to my mother’s place is about 20 minutes, but that morning, I made it in just under 15. Even though I covered the distance in record time, I couldn’t move fast enough for how cut off I felt from the world. This was pre-iPhone and pre-Android people! There was no streaming media on wireless devices. Dear God, there was no Twitter!
As I arrived, my mother had the TV turned on just in time for me to see the second tower get hit. We watched the news for perhaps 30 minutes as various announcers fought to fill the time with information when there was no such thing available.
Unable to make sense of what was happening, unable to reach New York friends by phone and unwilling to watch traumatic images on loop without the benefit of new information, we made the best decision of that day: we turned off the television, left the apartment and went to a park. I figured I could engage with the news from my Internet command center back in my Somerville apartment, but I’d spend this day in the sunlight helping my mother heal and enjoying her company.
That’s just what we did.
The way we acted on that day became my model for how to interpret my birthday on every 9/11 since. Other people have always felt some sympathy for me, wondering how I could celebrate life on such a day of death and destruction. I see it the other way around. How could I not celebrate life on such a day?
If ever there were a time to soak in the sun, enjoy the air and commune with humanity, it is on this day which was exploited by a small group initially that morning and then further exploited by many more over the years who have sought to keep us in a place of fear, a place of terror and a place of horror because they had their own ends or because they lacked the imagination to do anything else.
Today, let us be creative. Today, turn off the instant replay of destruction. Go outside. Take deep breaths. Spend time with those you love, and celebrate life.
Besides, from a strictly chronological perspective, my 9/11 came first.
This was a story.