Fifteen Years Later, September 12 is Still “The Day After”

2001-colins-surprise-party-2
October 12, 2001

On September 12, 2001, I turned 17. That morning, my high school classmate Amanda and I walked into the conference room adjacent to the Principal’s office. We were on the morning announcement team, and this was where we performed our daily routine, doling out information over the school’s PA, such as the birthdays of students, sometimes real, often fake. I told Amanda it was my birthday. “That’s not funny,” she said. I knew. In somber tones, she relayed the information to the rest of the school. My classmates wished me congratulations under their breath. I don’t remember the rest of that day. I’m sure I went to cross country practice. I’m sure I went home after. I must have called my Grandma, who has the same birthday as me. But there were no celebrations. Not that day.

That was fifteen years ago. Today, I turned 32. I’ve been through a lot since then, as much as the marching of time permits. At the time of the attacks, I was applying to the United States Naval Academy. I graduated in 2007. After eight years of service as a Naval Flight Officer, I left active duty in 2015. I’m in graduate school. America has been through a lot, too. Since 9/11: two presidents, two wars and in the midst of an often baffling fight against fear and terrorism. No matter how much time passes, I can’t help but associate the attacks on September 11 with the day after. With one comes the other.


Of course, it didn’t used to be this way. My birthday used to be just a day. It was my day. Mine and my Grandma’s. As a child, I would pressure my mom to host increasingly complex birthday parties, which entailed pizza, miniature golf courses, and movie marathons. My annual birthday present list grew longer and more detailed. I would eat cake. And I would call my Grandma, who would be amazed at how old I was, and I would be amazed at how young she still was, to this day performing in ice skating competitions well into her 80’s. We planned to join forces on the TV show The Amazing Race. It was all the day required of me, or all that I allowed it to.


This perspective didn’t immediately change in 2001, or in the years that followed. I tried and failed to digest what happened. This understanding developed in increments. On the day of, the students looked to the teachers for answers and the teachers looked back to us; we gazed at each other in haunted reverie. As the years progressed, and I became older, my gaze solidified, albeit slowly. As I promoted to higher ranks, I better understood the role I played in the Navy, and the role the Navy played in the world. In order to successfully participate, I had to include into my orbit events and lives that I previously wouldn’t have. I couldn’t solve history—9/11 will always have happened–but, in the aftermath, I could do my part.


Now, I don’t try to compartmentalize the two days. I also don’t want to. Now, on September 11, I watch Youtube videos of the towers falling and read articles that give context as to where we are now. On the day of, I try to remember and understand. The day after, I give myself permission to celebrate. I call my Grandma and wish her Happy Birthday. I go out with my friends. Just because I move forward doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten. On the contrary. Who I am now is directly related to who I was before, of the time I served in the Navy, of who I was before the attacks. This time and growth has informed my understanding of 9/11 and of the current state of the nation. We have learned from the past; we won’t be defined by it.


On October 12, 2001, my friend Kelly called me. She and Mike were going to pick me up from my house. We drove around for a bit. After, we returned to my house. The lights were off. Kelly told me to walk to the dining room. When I opened the door, the lights came on. “Surprise!” I heard, and the lights came on. A roomful of my friends stood before me. My mom had organized the event. It was a replacement birthday party for the one I didn’t have. We ate pizza and shared jokes. We laughed and we celebrated. We still stood in the shadow of what occurred, but then, we always will.


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