*Warning: This post may not be suitable for the tender-hearted.*
I never understood the old folks.
As the youngest in my family by about a hundred years, I spent a lot of time playing on the living room floor while the old folks sat around and talked about everything under the sun. So many times I heard them talk about things that had happened long before I was born. Sometimes it was the day Kennedy was assassinated, or Martin Luther King. Other times it was some various disaster: the storm of '47 or the Chicago fire. Or the day man first walked on the moon.
"Oh, I remember exactly what I was doing when that happened," someone would say. Then they'd usually describe it, usually in great detail. Others would nod and join in, comparing the minutiae of the moment.
I was always amazed at how a person could recall such tiny, intimate details regarding a time so long past. Even down to my mother talking about the soup suds on her hands as she ran out the door. How was it even possible to have a memory in such sharp, immediate focus?
September 11, 2001.
Did you just go back? A simple, unassuming number, that's all. And yet, you remember, don't you?
So do I.
The alarm clicked like it always did right before the radio turned on. I groaned and rolled over, I'd let my husband get the snooze, I just wanted those nine more minutes of sleep. The quilt over me was soft, and warm, but the sheets under my feet where I moved them were ice cold.
Irritated that there were voices on the radio instead of music, I wished the DJs would just shut up and play something with a tune.
Freddy didn't turn it off quickly enough, he hadn't even stirred. I knew if I wanted those extra minutes I was going to have to hit that snooze button myself. Even before I could reach it, I knew it wouldn't do any good because now I was awake enough to have to pee.
As if the words being said had somehow switched languages, like a picture coming into focus, I suddenly understood what I was hearing.
"…the Pentagon has been bombed." The voice went on, almost shaky, to describe details. "And now we're hearing that a plane has hit the World Trade Center."
"Reports are saying that this was an attack, not an accident."
The rest of me froze, but my eyes, so sleepy and blurry a moment ago, flew wide open and stayed that way. Every grain in the white spackled bedroom wall stood out in super sharp focus. Every muscle in my body went rigid, tensed and waiting for the moment to jump and run. It felt like if I moved, I would somehow let go of the string that held the world up.
"Are you hearing this?" I whispered to my husband, aware that his body was a taut as mine.
"Yeah," he said, sounding disgusted. "This has got to be a sick joke."
I threw the covers off and ran to the living room, forgetting all together that I needed to use the bathroom. My husband followed two steps behind.
The pictures filled the screen on every channel. Smoke billowed, people running through the streets of a city I'd never been to.
Another plane headed for another tower, a billow of flame and black smoke, and the feel of the world crumbling out from under my feet. It didn't matter if it was two thousand miles away; the people in those pictures were my people. I could do nothing to help but to watch. Watch and pray. And pray. And cry.
My cheeks felt cold before I noticed they were wet.
I cried out loud in anguish as we watched the towers fall. And we couldn't watch them just once. I had to see every replay, had to prove to myself that this had really happened.
And there were voices, always voices, commenting on what was happening even though they knew no more than I did. They had the sources, and I needed to know. I needed to be there, from two thousand miles away, I needed to be there to send my prayers and my strength to the people so distant. I had to help hold the world together. I couldn't look away, or it just might fall...
Now, my dear readers, if I have done my job as a writer, you are feeling very uncomfortable right now. I'm sincerely sorry for that, but I've done it for a reason.
If your character is ever in a moment like this – what do you think they will remember in ten years, or twenty, or fifty, about where they were. What did they feel, physically as well as emotionally? What tiny, normally unnoticed details will they recall as bright as day? Did they smell the smoke, hear the twisting metal or shaken voices over a radio wave, struggling to stay calm?
It's not our job to be gentle, it's our job to write in a way that cuts down to the bone – to the cold sheets and the static-y radio station. To put our readers right in the dusty streets with that character.
To make them really, really uncomfortable when necessary.
It's not easy. Right now my heart is aching and tears are running down my cheeks, just like they did that morning. And from this moment till the end of eternity, I'll be able to answer that question with the same startling kinds of details that the old folks did. I'm grateful to finally understand. Though it hurts, and probably always will, it has given me incomprehensible ammunition to draw upon when the plot calls for it.
Now, if you will excuse me, that is quite enough of that for today. I think we should all go watch a really funny comedy.