The surreal horror of the 9/11 attacks is the Kennedy assassination moment of my generation. Everyone remembers where they were when they first knew.
This came up on Thursday night. I was with a lovely bunch of writer friends and I happened to mention I was reading Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday. This wonderful novel recounts one man’s thoughts over the day on which a huge post-9/11 Stop the War march took place in London. Someone mentioned the imminent tenth anniversary of 9/11, and all spoke about where they’d been when they heard about the attacks.
I knew exactly where I was. Juliette and I were at Addenbrookes Hospital on the children’s oncology day ward. She was ten months into her chemotherapy – bald and puffy from steroids, and was lying on the hospital bed watching cartoons when Steph phoned me and told me to switch the channel – there had been a horrific accident in New York. We were both watching live as the second plane hit.
The monthly treatment days at Addenbrookes were always a long, tense round of blood tests, meetings with consultants, lumbar punctures and then often a long wait for the intravenous chemo. September 11th 2001 was just one of these days. The six-bed ward was full of children, all hooked up to assorted jewel-coloured poisons which dripped slowly into their veins. The horror of what was unfolding outside that room seemed in painful relief to the mute drama of our children with cancer.
I didn’t mention any of these thoughts on Thursday night. Increasingly I don’t, in normal conversation. As much as I want to talk about Juliette, such memories seem melodramatic. They weren’t. At the time such a day was simply and horrifically normal. The only reference I made was to wonder whether such a huge, shared tragedy makes it easier or more difficult to cope with your own grief. I can only imagine that at times I’d feel swamped, irrelevant even, but I suppose at least no one is ever going to forget.