My family has lived in Brooklyn since 1994, two months after I was born. My first memories were formed exploring the lush greenery of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with my brother, taking karate classes at a local dojo in Kensington with my sister, and getting on the subway to spend afternoons walking along the Coney Island boardwalk with my mother. Noticeably absent from these memories is my father, who worked 14-hour shifts at night driving a taxi and slept during the day before repeating the cycle. The only time I spent with him was at the mosque on the Fridays that I didn’t have school, when my entire family went for congregational prayers.
I don’t lament my father’s lack of engagement with me during my childhood. Every man has to make his sacrifices. But I do remember that the first time that I felt my father’s absence was twelve years ago, the day the Twin Towers fell. Like most other New York City students, I was sitting in a classroom when my teacher turned on the radio to follow updates on the situation after the first airplane crashed at 8:46 a.m. Seventeen minutes later, the news came through that Flight 175 had crashed into the South Tower.
Within the hour, my school’s principal had canceled classes for the remainder of the day and asked every student’s parents to pick up their children. Waiting outside with the rest of my class, I watched as the schoolyard gradually emptied, until there were only 20 kids left. It was unsettling to feel how barren the building was on a weekday morning. It was even more unsettling to hear my mother ask herself, “When is he coming home?” as she rushed to hug me and take me home.
Thankfully, my father had still been in Brooklyn because of an errand he had forgotten to take care of the day before. Had he followed his routine schedule, he would have been just exiting the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel when the first tower collapsed, blocks away from what would become Ground Zero.
Every year on September 11th, I bear this sobering reminder that my father, in many ways, was lucky. This year, however—for the first time—I truly understood how others were not.
Reflecting on the tragedy, LeeLee Borzak, BC ’15, posed a question on Spectrum: “Considering I had no formal connection to New York until I started college, you could say I don’t really ‘get’ September 11th. But does anyone actually ‘get’ it?” It’s a question I wrestled with a lot after attending the Interfaith Vigil held on Low Plaza, last Wednesday night.
As a representative of the Muslim Students Association, I took part in reading a list of names of children who died that day, a gesture made to honor those who would have been our peers. As I slowly pronounced each name I read, I tried to keep my tone as stable as possible to mask the small pauses I needed to figure out how to say some of them. I’m certain I made more than a handful of mistakes in the process.
Maybe that’s why I started sobbing silently in front of the sundial after the ceremony concluded, holding up my hands to direct my regret in prayer. Maybe it was the realization that it was shame I felt in reading those names that led me to cry last night, trying to find solace in the company of a friend. I can’t really say for sure. But as I write this reflection, I know that the essence of my grief lies not in the pronunciation mistakes of my tribute to the victims of September 11th, but in the their absence, their inability to correct these mistakes. It took me 12 years to arrive at this realization, but I am humbled to “get” just a little more of this tragedy every time I try.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore. He is a deputy design editor for Spectator.
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