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A Day That Never Ends

September 11, 2003

9/11, that wordless collection of digits that once meant only dialing for police or fire help, is proving a difficult day for Americans to mark, commemorate, honor, observe or even forget. Say 12/7 or 7/4 to most and you'll get a stare before possible recognition of the Pearl Harbor and national birthday dates. Say 9/11 to most anyone and recognition is instant: That was the awful day exactly two years ago this morning when most Americans watched jetliners become missiles, towering skyscrapers turn to rubble and the nation's surviving innocence go up in that poisonous black smoke flowing from Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and a wet Pennsylvania meadow recovering from strip-mining.

The country's incomplete emotional recovery has proven more varied, nuanced, mixed. In those few lethal, riveting moments, so very much happened to those involved, those watching, to the world, individual psyches and how we travel, think of the world and the future. It was surreal, our minds struggling to digest first a merely horrible accident, a passenger jet accidentally hitting an immense office tower. And then, wait a minute, another one hitting another tower? That's not an accident then but what the -- No! -- the Pentagon too. And someone said a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania. But no video of that impact, so it stood smaller until elevation to heroic tale.

Our lives changed in grandiose and picayune ways. Maybe families fly less but hug more. Maybe, especially after hearing the trapped victims' last, brave answering-machine messages of love and farewell, we appreciate the banalities of routine life more, even returning safely from work each day. Few can glimpse a jet over any downtown without recalling. Today, any explosion or blackout anywhere requires immediate official reassurance: no known ties to terrorism.

One day we were still children; by the very next noon we were weathered adults with a too-vivid experience of tragedy too large to mentally digest just then. Perhaps still. We each processed the events our own way, even though we each saw the same thing at the same time. Most lives moved on, as the president urged, because fear cannot reign. But memories cling. That's the point of memories. "It's harder this time," said one teary-eyed woman watching those familiar images the other day and leaving the room prematurely.

So how do we mark and process such a day? With dignity, determination, a stubbornly potent sadness, to be sure. But for now, we also endure the anniversary the same way we witnessed it -- quietly overwhelmed, somewhat puzzled and simultaneously alone together. It's a weird feeling not being able to close the awful thing off mentally through a kind of national funeral because the aggressive deeds' effects still unfold. It also seems, however, that such inconclusive feelings must suffice for now.

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