After election 2016 I went to New York City to visit friends in an attempt to heal my wounds.
I was touring the city with Ilenia. Ilenia was, or I suppose still is, my “host sister”. When I was in high school I wanted to get away from Los Angeles to figure out if my burgeoning depression was just a result of my surroundings or something that was inherently wrong with me, so I did a study abroad program in Italy to find out. I was assigned a family in Sicily, and that’s how I came to live with Ilenia and her family for a month and a half of my life when I was 15.
I hadn’t seen Ilenia in over a decade, so when she told me she was going to New York City on vacation and asked if I would accompany her I agreed. I figured she might need an NYC tour guide, and I know NYC only second to LA.
One of the things we did together was visit the 9/11 memorial. I was internally against the idea, but she wanted to go and tickets were included in a tourist guide pack we had bought.
The first thing we visited were the two black square fountains in the ground that outlined where the original buildings had stood. The energy in the place was eerie. There was a heaviness hanging over us, and it was palpable. It made the trauma more real.
9/11 happened when I was 13, in 8th grade. I remember feeling pretty numb and nearly indifferent the whole day. I certainly wasn’t sad or scared, more just uncertain how I was supposed to feel. I don’t remember exactly what was said about it but I remember my history teacher, Mr. Giambra, explaining the horror and significance of what had just happened. When I got home the TV, even Nickelodeon, was not showing normal programs. I wondered how long that would go on for. I went on “Neopets” instead but all anyone was talking about there on the chat boards was what had just happened so I got off the Internet. I didn’t think the adults were overreacting, but the events were also so far away and I was so young that I couldn’t really comprehend. All I knew was that we were safe in California.
When Ilenia and I went down the escalator into the actual memorial or “museum,” I felt like I was descending into one of the scariest places I had ever been in my life. When I was 13 everything had felt so surreal and far-away, but being in the actual location of the fallen towers in December 2016, only a month after another American tragedy that had effected me directly, the events of 9/11 no longer felt so impersonal. Instead I felt like I was there on the actual day, which I suppose is the point of the museum.
I did my best to look at the artifacts and to honor the memories of those who had lost their lives, but I started to have a panic attack instead. I was sobbing. I felt overwhelmed, and all the emotions I was unable to feel in 2001 when 9/11 happened came to the forefront. I was finally grieving what I had been unable to as a kid.
Ilenia saw me being a mess and I tried to explain to her. Ilenia speaks pretty good English, but somehow there still seemed to be a disconnect in our communication, which had less to do with the words themselves but more how different our life experiences had been. My unbearable sadness wasn’t just because of the museum, though it was that too. It was how real all this inescapable horror was. I wanted to leave. I just wanted to be above ground and get some air.
Ilenia tried to comfort me, but also attempted to explain that this was not just an “American” thing but rather the history of the world. Horrible things had always been happening in Italy and Europe, apparently. I felt like her message to me was essentially, “get over it, you aren’t so unique” though she never actually said this. What she did say was, “If Americans want to help make the world a better place then they don’t have to learn other languages. It’s fine for them to only know English. But they should know what’s happening in the rest of the world, and read other news, read other history.”
I thought her words were wise. She was asking me to put something in perspective. I kept thinking about the election of 2016, and how awful it had been. I felt like this was something Ilenia, and for that matter a lot of Americans, didn’t seem to understand. I felt like no one fully understood how traumatic, awful, and dangerous it was that Trump had won. Everything was at stake.
I saw this which only made me cry more. I felt like America was being tested again, and I hoped that the fabric of our democracy was indeed as strong as this wall and that it could withstand the Trump presidency, which still felt as surreal and unreal as 9/11 had to me when I was young.
Ilenia and I walked into a room of the museum that had images and worst of all audio phone calls from people who were trapped in the building and trying to connect with 9/11 victims on the actual day. The room itself was super crowded. I started to feel faint and overwhelmed, and so I left Ilenia alone in the room and sat on a bench for the rest of our visit. I just physically couldn’t take anymore in, even fifteen years later the place still felt like death.
I asked one of the volunteers who worked there how she did it. She was like a nurse to me, someone who deals with unspeakable pain and trauma on a daily basis but somehow manages for the greater purpose of healing others.
“It is sad,” she admitted. “I was fortunate enough to not have any family or friends effected, but I’m a life long New Yorker and I will always remember the day.”
It seemed she had some distance to bear her job but not enough to not feel like she should avoid the work she was doing.
When we finally left I was so grateful to breathe the cold air. Ilenia patted me on the back as I finished crying. I hugged her.
“Thank you for being my friend all these years,” I said, and meant it. I tried to explain to her how cool I thought our friendship was, that we were helping each other to heal in ways, and that she had come back into my life at a very meaningful time. Ilenia had always been in love with America, and I had always wanted to be less American. She knew more about America than I did. She knew that we were the only country in the world to advocate for the “pursuit of happiness,” which was something I didn’t know. Not that we pursued happiness, because god knows I have, but that we were the only ones. She was helping me to know and understand my own country.
I didn’t leave the museum feeling better about anything, mostly more horrified, but I also felt more aware of the gift that life is, because that’s what death will do to you. I left the museum thinking about the great slurry wall, and the foundations that endured in the face of unspeakable trauma.