Never forget. This is what we’re told about Sept. 11. Most Americans cannot forget. The images of twisted steel and equally twisted faces have grabbed our memories with a grip that will not ease.
What we remember differs from individual to individual depending on how close we stood to the epicenter. My dearest friend on the East Coast, who was working in the adjacent building, keeps the memories that news coverage cannot convey — the moans of breaking metal, the smells of a city block ablaze, the breath of a stricken populace racing by.
My dearest friend on the West Coast remembers only that her local Starbucks didn’t open that morning.
I, protected by the tall walls of a midwestern college that fateful day, have a dimming recollection of canceled classes and a candlelight vigil on campus. But 9/11 has been a day of seismic change and terror for most of my life. Because my brother was born that day.
Shaun was the second and final child my parents had, and as he grew, he made it his life pledge to prove the playground taunts that first is the worst and second is the best.
If we had been a normal family, I would have excelled at everything I did, like firstborns naturally do. Shaun would have been left in my dust to marvel at how fast I ran, how high I jumped, how rapidly I completed times tables. Instead Shaun outran me. Outjumped me. Out-times tabled me. Out-mostly-everything’d me with the exception of watching Phil Donahue all summer long.
To add insult to injury, he also slept with my friends every now and then.
It took adulthood for me to comfortably settle into my role as the less impressive child. I grew content with the fact that I never would be greeted by my parents’ friends with, “We have heard so much about you!” I learned it was best to shake their hand and then step far to the left so as not to be struck by Shaun’s dazzle like shrapnel to the thigh.
Once I embraced my position, it allowed Shaun and me to become friends. We would email each other with trivial notions. We would call each other just to check in. I would hang up happy to have heard from my brother and only vaguely impelled to cry into a pillowcase of surely lesser thread count than his.
Then the 9/11 that all of us remember — and cannot forget — occurred.
Like many Americans, I was paralyzed by the enormity of what had happened. I couldn’t stand by, satisfied with mere missives detailing how I was just at the trade center a month prior. I wanted impact behind my actions, and so I did the only thing I knew I could do to help those who had been injured. I called my local Red Cross and signed up to donate blood.
I phoned my parents to tell them that their daughter, their firstborn child, was serving her country.
“That was thoughtful, dear,” my mother said distractedly. “Your brother signed up for the Navy.”
Shaun didn’t just sign up for the Navy that day. He became a Navy SEAL. A real one, too, not even a Demi Moore one. The sequence of calamitous outcomes on 9/11 urged him on through icy water swims, thigh-chafing runs, and exercises utilizing the sort of logs that soldiers of yesteryear used only to build forts.
He has now completed tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as top-secret missions in locations that I can only reveal were not Ohio. If he was ever away too long, allowing a layer of dust to settle on his majestic accomplishments, he would arrive, virtually by submarine, at a reunion or wedding that no one had ever dreamed of him attending.
Just like that, the unintentional one-upmanship returned to our relationship.
On my son’s third birthday, I gave him a plastic pirate ship. My brother handed him a skull-and-crossbones patch taken from the jacket of an actual Somali pirate. When he came to visit me at the media firm in which I worked in New York City, one of my superiors who had only stopped asking me to fetch his coffee upon my promotion to group director had to steady himself against a desk when faced with Shaun’s glory and muscles.
It was on Sept. 11, 1981, that Shaun was given life. It was on Sept. 11, 2001, that he became larger than life. While most of us do our best to get through this day, straining to remember how precious it all is while also trying to blot out how quickly, and without warning, it can all come toppling down, Shaun immerses himself in this day. He remembers why he committed himself to protecting people he will never know. He remembers why he spends so much time away from his family so that others can keep close watch over theirs.
He never forgets. And because he is my brother, I never do either. And also because he has a tattoo of the World Trade Center across his forearm.