I visited the newly opened 9/11 Memorial and Museum back in September but struggled to really write about it at that time. It was a surreal experience for several reasons, although surreal doesn’t really seem like the right word. For starters, it was the first time I had ever visited a memorial to something that happened in my lifetime. In all my years of traveling, I have been to my fair share of memorials but most have commemorated wars that occurred before I was even born, the only exception being Martyrs Lane in Baku, which memorializes Azeris killed in the conflict with Armenia in the early 1990s.
Visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum also presented my first chance to really mourn what happened on September 11, 2001. I know that sounds strange to say, but I was abroad when the planes hit the Twin Towers. I saw the second tower fall on a television screen at a rest stop somewhere between Florence and Rome and had no idea at the time what was happening. My television in my Rome hotel room that night didn’t have any English stations and I fell asleep trying to listen to a British radio station on my Walkman reporting on the tragedy. I didn’t sit through the wall-to-wall coverage of the terror and the aftermath; on the contrary, for the next two weeks, I had to actively seek out new information. I didn’t experience the shock of the events surrounded by classmates or colleagues; I didn’t participate in candlelight vigils honoring the victims; I didn’t have friends and family around me to try to make sense of things.
So when I walked into the building that is now home to the 9/11 Museum, I was nervous about how I would react. Some exhibits were, at least for me, non-emotional: remnants of the towers, one of the fire trucks that was on the scene, a giant blue moral meant to depict the color of the sky. Others, touched me a lot more. Photos of the victims. Missing notices for those who would never be found. The stairs that many survivors raced down in order to stay alive.
Walking through the section that recapped how everything happened that day was the hardest and the most moving. Seeing media reports that I never saw before. Watching newscasters try to make sense of a national tragedy on live television. Following along almost minute by minute what the city of New York and then the entire country went through on that horrible day. I was so far removed from it all when it initially happened that seeing and reading all of it at the museum impacted me in a way that the international coverage I saw in Italy back in 2001 never could.
After what seemed like hours, I made my way back outside to the memorial that now stands in the footprints of the towers. This snapped me back to reality as the silence of the museum gave way to the chatter of the crowds outside. It wasn’t loud by any means, but there was a constant hum of low voices and the snapping of cameras that accompanies any tourist attraction, even a poignant memorial. I can’t complain, since I was snapping away too.
As I retraced my step back to the nearby subway station, I felt an odd sense of closure. The museum and memorial provided exactly what I needed to finally process everything, even if it was 13 years later.