Sunday, September 11, 2016

We Have This Magnet

For whatever reason, I can't sleep.

I don't think it has anything to do with the date, really, although today marks the 15th anniversary of a day filled with unimaginable grief. I cannot believe it has been 15 years. It feels like yesterday. And in the most cliched way possible, it feels like a lifetime ago. I was a totally different person living a completely different life, incapable of even imagining myself with a child and a husband. But sitting in the absolute quiet of our house at 2 AM, I'm surrounded by photos and artifacts of our 10 years of marriage...a marriage, it could be argued, that was made possible by 9/11. A terrified 20-something interrupts her sowing of wild oats to return home, to the safety of family and friends and finds a job where she meets a woman who introduces her to a soldier, who is deployed. This marriage brought to you by Operation Iraqi Freedom. This country has been at war for longer than we've been married and for much longer than our son has been alive.

And this brings me to a most troublesome question. How do we, as parents of children who were not there and will never understand the terror we all felt that day (and can still feel acutely if we close our eyes and think about where we were, who we were with), try to explain the importance of this date? The details are gruesome and heartbreaking. The answers are vague and sometimes contradictory. The grief is still hovering, just below the surface. But if we don't talk to our children about this day, then they will read someone else's account of it. It won't be our version and it may even be wildly untrue. Where do we begin and how can we find the words to describe the unspeakable?

When Blue was not quite 2, Neal and I took him to NYC to visit Shana over Memorial Day Weekend. While we were there, we visited the newly opened 9/11 Museum. Neal and I tried to keep Blue quietly entertained in his stroller while still digesting the overwhelming number of heartbreaking stories and first-hand accounts of heroics. Blue didn't know or care what we were doing. He was hungry, thirsty, sleepy, bored. But we wanted to walk the halls and hear the voices because they have shaped our world into what it is today and will continue to do so, even after we are gone. The 9/11 Museum stands as a physical reminder of one of the darkest days in our nation's history. It is there for us to visit, for us to take our kids to, to start the conversation with a generation who feels ambivalent about planes crashing into towers, fields, the Pentagon. And, much to the dismay of many New Yorkers who relive 9/11 on more than one day each year, they also have a gift shop.

As we exited the 9/11 Museum main gallery, Neal said to me, "Let's go into the gift shop." We bought a magnet. Because we always buy a magnet. The refrigerator is a scrapbook of our excursions all over the world. Seeing it everyday is a source of pride for me. We travel, sometimes far, and we have this magnet to remember the trip. Even when the 14,000 pictures of Yellowstone are still floating in the cloud, we have this magnet. On our way out of the museum, we were stopped by a reporter from The Wall Street Journal. In response to the outrage New Yorkers felt about the museum gift shop, she was doing a piece about what items people purchased and why. I gave some long-winded answer about how I didn't take a single picture in the museum out of respect for the deceased but I wanted something to remember the trip. I wanted to have some tangible item to hold and reflect on our visit. My quote got boiled down to "I wanted to have something to remember our trip." As you can imagine, I was skewered in the comments. I don't even read them anymore, although somehow new ones pop up. (I don't know how someone manages to find and then comment on a story from 2 years ago, but...they do.) At the time, Blue was basically fresh from the womb and I knew nothing about raising a child. I assumed, although had trouble visualizing, that someday we would talk about 9/11, even if it was in the most perfunctory manner. He would have questions and I would give him the best and most age-appropriate answers I could. He doesn't have questions yet, which is great because I don't have any answers, age-appropriate or otherwise. I tried looking on Amazon. I searched "Children's Books About 9/11". My search returned several National Geographic kids' magazines about wild animals and one illustrated book called "I Survived." I'm not sure what I was expecting. Maybe just a very basic, highly glossed-over introduction as to why everyone is so damn sad today. Not too scary. Not too complicated. Just enough to teach some empathy for those who find September 11 to be a particularly challenging day of the year.

What I do have is an answer to that reporter. Because I always have the perfect witty remark about 2-3 years after the fact. We bought a magnet to start the conversation. Whenever our son is ready to have it, we can start with this magnet that shows the last World Trade Center beam on it. And we can talk about what happened to the buildings around it and the people in those buildings. We can talk about the firefighters that are surrounding the beam and the flag that is waving from the top of it. There is no greater gift than something that triggers an honest conversation with a child who wants to learn. We have this magnet and someday my son, who was born 11 years after our country was attacked, will ask what it means. It's a reminder of our trip, but also what we've been through. And I will have answers for his questions, I will give him my account of that day.

***For the record, when I searched Amazon for a children's book, it also directed me to the 9/11 Museum Gift Shop, which now hosts an online site where you can view the entire product list. I checked their inventory for a suitable book. Nothing. However, they have expanded their line of 9/11 memorial trinkets to include several woven throws, some imported Italian marble tiles featuring photos from that day (including a "The Muddy Teddy Bear", "The Ghost PATH Train", and a photo of paper confetti...and, let's be honest...ashes, floating through the sky), as well as posters, t-shirts, keychains and bookmarks. At the risk of sounding just as judgemental as the commenters on The WSJ article, I can't imagine setting my sangria down on a coaster with the Ground Zero Bible page on it or curling up to watch "Castle" under a woven throw of the World Trade Center cross. I feel they may be crossing the line of what's appropriate for this generation who is still reeling from the events of that day. I think we should leave the line of memorial housewares to the future generations. It will happen. Our growing collection of battlefield coffee mugs is proof.