They will ask us: “Where were you and what were you doing that day?”
What concerns me is that no one will remember to describe the weather. We’ve seen the adjectives “clear skies” and “crisp,” even “a balmy September morning.” But the beauty of that day surpassed any I have ever recalled in my life.
Other than temperature, clouds, lack of precipitation, or the absence of haze, smog, or fog, there is something indescribable about a memorably beautiful day. It’s more than the color of the sky; it’s the depth. It’s air so pure and so clean it can’t be sensed, and so alive it seems to do the work of breathing for you. It’s how you realize that every other day before it was just an ordinary, sluggish, muggy day that existed only for the utilitarian purpose of spinning through its orbit to get to this day. It’s one of those times you can almost feel the magnetic pull of the earth’s rotation as you imagine yourself whirling through the most delicious color of blue you’ve ever seen.
And then there was the empty sky. It was as if the birds, had they possessed evolutionary memory, could have recalled that this was the domain of their ancestors. Overhead was eerily and completely quiet, and almost no one living under it could remember ever seeing it that way before. Had it been overcast, we might not have appreciated the beauty of an already dazzling sky enhanced by the absence of aircraft. It was as if the stratosphere reverted back to the pre-historic era before flight, while the rest of the earth below hurled itself into the dawn of the next terrible age of destruction. The silence was magnified by the realization of the awful reason it existed, but even that was not enough to detract from the awe-inspiring beauty of the sky that day.
To get home, I sped across the ravines and hills and prairies of Illinois from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. A group of farmers were standing in a field attending an agricultural demonstration on seeds, and I wondered: how could anyone think about growing things on this day? But they were gathered there in their dirt, with their thrashing machines, seed-posters, and the seed-company representatives, appearing oddly normal. They may have been the only optimists in America that day, as they assumed that we would all live to see the harvest of their next planting season.
Most of us who remember that day will remember every moment of it, an extraordinary feat in itself, seeing as how we continued to go through the motions of the mundane activities that define our refined culture. We will remember insignificant, unimportant details, and remember them especially because, in light of what had happened, they really were insignificant and unimportant. Etched into my mind is an image taken from a helicopter of a woman in a business suit looking out from the ruins of what appears to have been the 80th floor—ceiling and walls gone. She knew there would be no rescue for her. She was one of thousands who had no rescue that day.
And the backdrop of all of this, the ugliest thing that had ever happened in our collective lives, was the most beautiful day I’ve ever had the privilege to experience.
Since then, clear azure-blue skies on days in late summer stand like mental monuments: they will always make me remember, in flashes of recall both visual and visceral, those people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.