The True Meaning of Why We Can “Never Forget”

I’m at Manhattan Regional Airport in Kansas. As I walk towards security, I see the memorial, small and simple, a plaque with some words and another plaque with some pictures, and an unusual object that I can’t make out at first.

The object is L-shaped, rusty metal, thick on one side of the L and slim on the other, and in the few seconds I have to walk past it, I realize it is a piece of the debris. Debris. An actual piece of the wreckage.

This is the closest I’ve come to it so far, and the familiar ache surfaces, the ache I have whenever I see the images and see the names and faces of the people, and suddenly the words “we will never forget” take on new meaning.

There’s the obvious. We will never forget what happened. It’s memorialized. Every year on this day we mark the event, as we should.

But “We will never forget” means we can’t forget. I avoid media on this day because seeing the images and hearing the sounds is as painful as it was on the day it occurred. It’s as if the attack is happening all over again. It’s as if people are being burned alive all over again. It’s as if the planes are crashing and those enormous towers are falling all over again. There is an ache, and it will always be there. I couldn’t forget about it, even if I tried.

Anyone old enough to remember that day may (or may not) have some of that ache, and for those that do, that is a hard thing to forget, impossible really. The ache is no better today than it was fourteen years ago, and nothing will change that.

I imagine that it won’t be the same for my kids. They will watch the documentaries and the movies made about it, because they won’t be able to imagine what it was like, what it was like for some of us to witness it on television, unable to comprehend what was happening in real-time, watching thousands killed in a horrific manner, to watch our world change in a single weekday morning and fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of this event we couldn’t even imagine. Fear of what the future held.

Some who remember that day won’t need help imagining what it was like, and no matter how many wars are fought and speeches are made and people are killed, we will never forget because that ache never goes away.

I don’t know what it’s like for the families. That’s a whole other ache of which I know nothing. I have the deepest respect for their ache and how they choose to live with it.

But I have my own ache and I could never figure out how to live with it.

It’s not that much different from the ache I get whenever there’s a mass shooting, or when I heard about the Syrian boy who drowned fleeing his country, or when an earthquake happens pretty much anywhere, or when children are murdered or kidnapped because they went to school. I never know what to do with that ache either.

For now, all I can do is accept the space it carved in my soul and to turn toward it fully. To bear witness to the suffering and open myself to the sorrow. Maybe then I can hear it’s seemingly incomprehensible message. Only then might the path before me become clear.

Photo by Luiz Felipe on Unsplash


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