At 0630 PST on September 11, 2001, I was sound asleep. Twenty-years-old and in my third year of college, I'd hit the snooze button a couple of times trying to get a few moments rest before a busy day. I had classes that morning, and was scheduled to work late that afternoon. I had just been awarded a promotion at an NBC affiliate in my hometown and was enjoying my new position on the news desk as a content producer. The hours were long, but it was interesting.
Everything changed when my phone rang early that morning. My boss was on the other line.
"Aly, I need you to come to work immediately," Michael said.
"I can't, Mike, I have a lecture I can't miss and have to give a presentation in my photography class."
"You won't have school today. Get your ass to work," his voice cracked uncharacteristically. After a moment he added, "I need you here. Don't turn on the TV, don't turn on the radio. I need you here now."
I knew something was very wrong. We hung up and I ran to the TV. As soon as the image came into focus I was out the door. I don't even remember getting dressed.
That day, I sat in an edit bay watching and cutting reels as live feed came in on 12 screens from twelve different channels. My job was to edit the images coming across the wire and select content that was usable on the evening news.
Somewhere around the sixteen hour mark, Mike realized I hadn't left the bay all day. He told me to go home and when I refused, he handed me a camera bag and told me to go blow off steam. I drove around in circles, photographing every vigil, meeting, or gathering that I could find. I photographed empty streets and silent restaurants. I sat in my car and ate a quesadilla from Taco Bell while listening to Weezer. "Buddy Holly" filled my car in the dark parking lot and I remember thinking it was too much for the moment.
I got home that night, the adrenaline wore off, and shock set in. I remember crumpling into a puddle on the floor of my parents kitchen.
"It's so bad, Mom," I said through my tears. "No one knows how bad it is. We can't even show it all on the news."
My mom hugged me and said "We know it's bad. It's okay. We know."
The photos I took that night would later earn me national recognition as a young photojournalist. But the images I cut from the reel that day were etched into my nightmares for over a decade.
Some of the images that were censored that day are public access now. Images I watched in real time. Husbands, mothers, babies.... Now they are pictures in my kid's history book. Right there on the page.
Two years after 9/11, I wrote a short letter to a soldier. We had gone to high school together and I wanted to thank him for his service. Two years after, that we got married. I have watched my soldier go to war more times than I care to remember and I've welcomed him home more times than I expected.
I still get dizzy and nauseated if I dwell on 9/11. I can't drive past a memorial without catching my breath. I can't look at footage or watch Hollywood's make of it. I wore the same belt to work every single day for twelve years. Something about that belt felt like my bulletproof vest. I unceremoniously took it off and left it on a bench in Central Park on January 31, 2013 while my husband bought us hot cocoa.
I think about THAT day almost everyday. A lot of you can go about your year and your lives and this is the one day that you stop to remember. But for those of us who are close to it - those of us who have lived with and loved the fallen - this isn't a "day to remember".... Remembering is a life.
9/11 shaped my ENTIRE life. It's directly and indirectly related to my profession, how I met my love, where I live, how I raise my children, my future, my dreams, my nightmares. So, yes, remember today. Remember the innocent, the widows, the orphans, the heroes. And tomorrow.... Say a prayer for those of us who sometimes wish we could just forget.
I originally wrote this five years ago and, bit by bit, I've included more of my story as time heals my heart. While 9/11 is still a part of who I am - as it is part of every American - it doesn't define me anymore. Some of the greatest freedom I received was a few years ago, when two counselors gave me permission to forget. Not forget the sacrifice, the fallen, or the experience. But to forget the horror reel. Forget the fear and grief. To stand up straight and say that terrorists don't have the authority to impact my day-to-day life anymore. My purpose on earth isn't to make sure everyone remembers. We ALL remember. My purpose is to offer hope and healing to the hurting and freedom from fear.