Lost at the heart of the 9/11 attacks

(Michael Lyons/Ryersonian)

I am very, very late in meeting up with my family. As I run down Broadway, I curse myself for miscalculating the time it will take me to get to Lower Manhattan. I’m boiling, but it’s only March. Here I am, rushing through Tribeca, a dumb Canadian boy with a sweater scrunched up in one arm and, in the other, a messenger bag overloaded with souvenirs from my morning’s pilgrimage to Greenwich Village.

Just a little more than 10 years earlier, I was in my middle school’s library in my small hometown of St. Stephen, N.B., which sits next to the border with Maine. For some reason, the librarians, or maybe my teachers, had set up a TV. The news was on. I remember commenting to my best friend about how stupid someone must be to fly a plane into a building. Someone must have explained to us what had happened, because later that day, as I was walking home by myself, I was terrified that someone was going to jump out of the bushes and murder me. There was a nervous tension everywhere, as palpable as if an electrical current were buzzing audibly through the wires overhead. When I got home, I found out that the border had gone into lockdown on both sides. My dad, who was born and raised in Maine, worked on the American side of the border. I was terrified I would never get to see him again.

I’m in New York, it’s 2012 and I’m lost. I can’t for the life of me find the entrance to the 9/11 memorial site where I am supposed to meet my family. I’m 15 minutes late already, so I rally my courage and approach a member of the New York City Police Department who, despite my assumptions, is extraordinarily kind and polite as he gives me directions.

I find my two younger brothers, along with my mom and dad. We head inside, through a security screening that rivals an airport’s. I take off my shoes, my belt, and my shoulder bag; everything and everyone must go through a metal detector. The red, white and blue is freaking everywhere — flags, colours, typical America. Security is unnerving, and then, we’re led through a twisting, claustrophobia-inducing series of wire walkways because construction is still happening on every side of the memorial.

Inside is a completely different story.

The plaza is like the most peaceful of gardens. You would never guess you’re in New York, despite being surrounded by skyscrapers, cranes, and crazy busy streets. Sounds from the city are dampened by the trees that line the plaza. The urban din is sucked into the still waters of the memorial pools.

Where the twin towers once were, there are two deep, twin waterfalls. They are made of black stone with a reflecting pool at the bottom and a square centre that silently suctions up water. It appears bottomless. Interestingly, the stone was fabricated at the LaCroix Granite Factory in Quebec City, then shipped to New York. The waterfalls are hypnotizing, simple, elegant.

At ground level, the pools are lined with the names of the dead. Whether they died in the World Trade Center, in the planes, or were first responders, everyone is remembered. My mother goes around both pools and finds her own name, along with my youngest brother’s and mine. It’s eerie of course, because of the precision of the sameness. “Michael J. Lyons.” My middle name is Joseph. I find out later he was a 32-year-old firefighter.

We spend a while moving around silently as a family, lost in our own thoughts. I do two circuits of both pools, reading random names. I scowl at people standing in front of the memorials, smiling and taking pictures; it seems creepy and disrespectful. In some places, flowers, notes, or pictures are nestled into the letters. What inspires the worst, deepest, soul-tearing sadness is that a couple of the names mention the victim was pregnant at the time of her death.

We lose my father in the crowd and spend an hour looking for him around the plaza. It is a surreal feeling, and eventually we leave, only to get lost once again in Lower Manhattan before making it back to our hotel room. Like on Sept. 11, 2001, I am reminded of my childish anxiety and thoughts of never being reunited with my father again. Without incident, he eventually sheepishly walks into the hotel room. He has been lost himself.

Maybe it all means nothing, since firefighter Michael J. Lyons and I never met, nor were we related. He died, I didn’t. There’s no connection between us aside from our names. Maybe it was a kind of penance for my mother — who seems to feel some slight survivor’s guilt — finding lost ones, who by perverse coincidence, bear the very names of herself and her loved ones.

But for me, the memorial reflects the deep, unfathomable, unspeakable sadness that is like a scar engraved into our minds. Like every unjust death and violation of safety and life that has happened before or after the 9/11 incident, the attack affects everyone. It reverberates through time, colouring both history and the future.

Today is Sept. 11, 2014. It is the first time in the last 13 years since the attack that Ground Zero will be open for the public. The names of the more than 3,000 dead will be read aloud.

If you ever get the chance, visit the memorial. Feel whatever you feel, but I hope this story gives you a small comfort and reminds you that you will never be alone in your reflections.

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