Never The Last

Twenty years after 9/11, very little is different. But everyone is changed.

11 September Home and Way team
Virginia DiGaetano and his brother with the New York Yankees home and away kits. Photo: Virginia DiGaetano.

Ginger, they’re gone.” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“Ginger, find a television somewhere. The Towers. They’re gone. They’re gone.” 

Though they gave me the name, my parents have never called me Virginia. Even in those moments when they would have used my full name to indicate the gravity of any number of crimes I committed, they never did. In fact, her calling me Ginger instead of Gin was a clear indicator that something had gone terribly wrong. The phone connection was terrible, partially due to the heavy breathing of the receptionist who manned the front desk of the hotel where I was living in Bangkok. Almost no one calls me Virginia, even now, save for a few people. But that is another story, for a different day.

I did as my mother said and left in search of a live news feed even though what she had said was, in the truest sense, incomprehensible. I had heard wrong, or she had exaggerated. It was six am on 12 September 2001 and there was not a cloud in the sky anywhere over Bangkok. It was uncharacteristically blue, clean and crisp. In the twenty years since, almost everyone I have ever heard, in any corner of the world, described the sky the same way. 

It was six am on 12 September 2001 and I was in Bangkok, twelve hours ahead of New York. I found a cafe decorated with white and yellow plastic flowers. There was a television perched above the counter that was playing a continuous video loop, under which a banner of Thai characters paraded across the screen. I could not say which one was more foreign because the images did not look like images that I could reconcile with anything that my brain registered as possible. I saw a tower standing, a tower that I knew as well as I knew the smell of my mother’s perfume. And then a plane that was too close, too close to be accidental. And then impossible, unthinkable, impossible violence. Against a perfect, cobalt blue sky. 

The Towers, Ginger. They’re gone. They’re gone. 

I stood and watched it over and over again as people lined up around me ordering watery, overpriced lattes made to mimic an episode of Friends that would have been set somewhere that I also knew. Other people occasionally looked up at the same screen, and some of them looked back at me, perhaps knowing that I had just been woken up by my mother in New York. No one spoke to me and it was only when I tried to move my feet from the lucite floor that I realized I wasn’t wearing any shoes. I didn’t know where to go. 

I called my brother because despite how different we had always been he was and is my totem, the only way to be sure that I still exist. He has looked for and found me in some of the most dangerous situations that you can and probably will imagine. When I left New York for Asia (another story, for a different day), he bought us two New York Yankee jerseys: the home uniform for him, the away dress for me. Same team, different stadiums.

In those days one had to be lucky to catch someone at home, and my brother picked up almost immediately. I heard his voice distorted by grief, the particular warping that renders the vocal cords hoarse, and emits octaves both higher and lower than they should be. He told me that he’d walked down the Grand Concourse, our Grand Concourse, and watched fighter jets scream overhead. Everyone was afraid of everyone else: palpable, thick fear. The news was telling the world that it was terrorism, Muslims, a holy war. He asked me what it all meant. Can you imagine? My brother, who knew exactly what to do at any given moment, asking me what it meant? I had known pain, and I had seen carnage. But my heart had never broken before, not like that. Because if my brother didn’t know what to do, then we were adrift. We were drowning. 

Phone calls were an expensive endeavor in those days, and I didn’t have enough money to talk for much longer. I left him without any answer, and I went to a church to pray. It wasn’t a thing I did very often, but there wasn’t anything else that I could do. Over and over, I said the same one, sobbing every time I hit the same line. 

Forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive those who trespass against us. 

I wanted to believe that now, finally, enough people had died. Not knowing anything much about the world except that I bounced around on the surface of it, I said that prayer in the vain hope that this would be it, the last tragedy. The one that showed those of us who hadn’t ever lived it what terror felt like; the one that made us realize how profoundly those who did live through it were marked, forever. I wanted so badly for it to be a turning point, a moment of recognition. Because enough people had died. 

Later on, I would be reminded of what the indomitable Eudora Welty once wrote: “Never think you’ve seen the last of anything.” Never the last bullet, or the last bomb. Never the last broken promise. Never the last body. 

I was in Kanchanaburi in Eastern Thailand when George W. Bush declared that the country, my country, would be going to war against Afghanistan as retribution for the grievous injury that our body politic had suffered. The words were different, over the weeks preceding the official statement. As I recall he pledged to do things like smoke ’em out in what would be “the only war of the 21st century.” I tried to join humanitarian missions on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and was gently reminded by compatriots at the US Embassy that I would be on the wrong side of things if I were to pursue it. No matter, I had almost no viable experience and none of the organizations readying for the impending crisis were much interested in having another misguided twenty-something in the way. 

I watched the first bombs fall on cave complexes with names that no one else knew from a posh hotel that overlooked the River Kwai. The famous bridge that spanned it, known as the Death Railway, had just undergone a restoration and was open to the public. Over twelve thousand men had died during the construction of it, prisoners of war from around the world who the Japanese put to work during World War Two. Their deaths had also not been enough.  

On the other side of the world, I saw scene after scene of people I might have ridden the 1 train with down from Van Cortlandt Park, or changed for the A train with at Broadway Nassau. Their faces were ashen, their eyes hollow. Men and women sifted through twisted metal and forged ahead whilst fires raged underground and toxic chemicals unknowingly crept into their bodies, and they would have kept going even if they did know because no one could understand why some had lived and others had died. Everyone had a story of someone who should have been there but wasn’t, just as there was a flyer posted at Trinity Church for someone who should have made it home but didn’t. The names were innumerable, the carnage unbearable. And I was not there. 

People have often asked me if I miss New York. They can almost never understand how I would choose to leave it, how I could come from there and live anywhere else in the world. I have developed a convenient battery of responses to these questions: I tell people that “I don’t miss New York, because New York doesn’t miss me,” or “New York is a great place to be from but not a great place to be.” These are lies, carefully crafted to be equal parts witty and contemplative. They are meant to shut the door to any follow up, and often succeed in doing so. 

The truth is that I wasn’t there when the very worst thing that could have happened did, when the horrific gash ripped into the belly of my home. My eyes did not squint from the smoke, nor did I choke on it: I did not have to run in fear as fighter jets screamed overhead. I was not there, and just as one who is not by their loved one’s bedside as they take their last breath, I committed the terrible betrayal of absence. For I have heard it said that to be present is to love, and to love is to be present. I was neither, and the shame of it has haunted me for twenty years. I did not hear my own home cry because I was thousands of miles away, sleeping soundly. I looked up at the sky and saw only blue. I do not have survivor’s guilt, because I was too far away to ever even conceive of danger. On that day, 11 September 2001, I stopped being from New York. I stopped being from anywhere at all. 

So if you should ask me again whether I miss New York, please allow me a few moments to collect my thoughts. I won’t lie to you again, but it might take me a minute to tell you that yes, I miss her terribly. I miss her more than I have ever missed anything. And maybe one day, I’ll find a way for her to forgive me. 

_________________

On 8 September 2001, I celebrated two years off of drugs, an accomplishment that felt then like a lifetime. My parents called me as a reminder, perhaps to make sure that the tally was still valid. It was the first time they’d called since I’d been in Asia, after almost a year. I knew the house they lived in, but it was not the one where I had grown up. They too had changed the details of their lives, quickly and without regret. Maybe the old house had too many bad memories. I always hated that house and blamed it for all the discord anyway. I was glad they’d left it, even though I had left it myself many years before. It was the first time they called, but not the last. Three days later, my mother’s voice, strained by grief. They’re gone. And just like that, a hole where my heart used to be. 

Twenty years later, they have moved a few more times, over states and into their later lives. And I have celebrated twenty more times the first day after the last day I used heroin and cocaine. I have done so in different countries and with different people. I have cooked and been cooked for, cried and laughed, felt both gratitude and guilt at my own survival. I don’t know if I am better, and I am certainly not healed. I cannot say how different I am but undoubtedly, I am changed. I do count it as a victory, the petering out of a 20-year protracted conflict that has gained tremendous ground even while much of the original territory I fought for may have been lost or ceded to the memory of all that I did and did not do. It isn’t my victory alone, and that is why I am writing this. It is a victory of the people who fought with me and for me, with absolute miraculous and awesome power, whether it was in a higher power or law or nature or random odds. I don’t know if any of those people believed in me, and if they did I don’t know why. I gave them little evidence of anything but the contrary. But if they did then eventually I did, and somehow we made it through. Scarred, bruised, fatigued, and weary, but persistent nonetheless. And so here we are. 

Of course, over the uneven macadam of twenty years, even the healthiest relationships have to pass through their own peaks and valleys. Even those relationships where everything goes right and everything is reciprocal: over two decades someone will outpace someone else, and someone will start to feel left behind. In the best cases, we grow old together. In the less rosy scenarios, we find a way to coexist without too much damage. In some of the rest, we run too far and fast apart. In the worst cases we incinerate ourselves, blaming each other for the blisters. But everything, everything, must and does change. 

I cannot help but look at the small war that I have fought within myself, against myself, and look at the parallel line I’ve run with the war that started and now ostensibly “ends” twenty years later. I never went to Afghanistan, though not for lack of trying in those early days. But I went on to study politics, in large part because of those days when I watched a war begin with no conception of an end, ever more stunned that no one seemed to notice. I would learn later that this is known as path dependence. It is also the tragic consequence of blind vengeance. No one knew what to do in the days after 9/11, but someone had to do something. There was enough of a link to a regime that hardly anyone had heard of and no one would miss when they were gone. It helped that the Taliban were extraordinarily brutal towards women and had imposed a perverse interpretation of Sharia law in the country. Of course, it had been so for seven years previous, but poetic license applies just as evenly in war as it does in theater. For they are, after all, one and the same. 

Twenty years later, to the surprise of no one who might have given it a closer look, the Taliban returned to claim the seat of government after a not hard at all fought battle that saw them rapidly gain ground until they strode into the capital city of Kabul. Under the guise of a kinder, gentler junta they launched a charm offensive where they assured international viewers and listeners that they would respect the rights of women, minorities, and would look for a more inclusive way forward. Early indications show that there is cause to be suspicious. Yet they have emerged from the past like Britney Spears and Bennifer to remind us all, once more, of the simplest truth. Never think you’ve seen the last of anything. 

By all accounts, the situation looks incredibly dire and feels unmistakably like stepping back in time. But change is sneaky that way: none of us knows that we’ve undergone it until it comes time to look for it. Afghani women have taken to the streets at tremendous risk to their lives because they won’t tolerate being relegated back to the middle ages, despite the best efforts of a rebranded Taliban. Perhaps the latter is not different at all, but the former is profoundly changed. For we get and give out news more quickly than before, exponentially quicker than we did twenty years ago. We bear witness in real time and send out data immediately that circles the globe. This may ultimately mean the difference between a country that disappears back into the ether or one which emerges with a modicum of dignity and connectivity to a world that has exploited it like the vast reserves of cobalt upon which it rests. Like the cobalt sky that was shattered. And America, if there is a possibility that the nation we flattened manages to rise again, we would do well to keep quiet. We’ve let ourselves and each other down too many times already. Never the last word, never the last broken promise. 

Yet of all the truths, there is still one which manages to persist and poke its head through the muck and mire. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for. In those twenty years that have since passed since 11 September 2001, Good has proliferated, in abundance. I won’t give you heartwarming examples because I want you to think of your own and I know that you will, just as I will. Because though we have lost, and we have fought, and we have suffered, and though that refrain of “never again” has been disproven too many times to count, we do keep inexorably going. Because it’s never the last time you’ll meet someone who takes your breath away, and never the last time that you’ll find yourself celebrating one more year, one more day. There will be more things that matter, and in twenty more years we will meet back here, you and I, back in that place where my heart used to be, where my heart might one day be once more. I will wait for you here and though they are gone, though so much is gone, it’s never the last chance to start again. 

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