We remember. We will never forget. People die, and these are the collective vows we take. The death of 20 million gives birth to Armistice Day. The death of over 600,000 gives birth to Decoration Day and Memorial Day. The deaths of nearly 3,000 gives birth to a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims of the Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, which gives birth to Patriot Day, which gives birth to a National Day of Service and Remembrance. We promise to remember, but it’s a promise we can’t keep. At least, it’s a promise I can’t keep.
I walk across the campus of my Wisconsin university on this perfect September day—the green trees getting ready to explode into reds and oranges. My phone vibrates in my pocket with a message from an old friend, whom I once served with in a war. The text reminds me that 15 years ago, I walked across the campus of another Wisconsin university, restless, dreamy, sheltered, and naïve. I remember I was often bored—and worse—I was lonely. I loved trouble, but the world around me loved rules. I remember Mary Oliver’s poetry, how it was love at first read. I remember her generosity, which felt like consolation back then: You do not have to be good.
And now, I stuff my phone back in my pocket. I remember that in addition to the books I need to pick up for my final year of law school, there’s also the bus pass that I need from a building across University Drive. My VA appointment went late, so now I’m moving faster than I’d like, and my back is sweating. I don’t have time to text back right now. I need to get home, because my youngest of three daughters has a big day, and she is very excited.
Driving home, I remember that 15 years ago the attacks of September 11th, 2001 inspired me to drop out of college and put on a uniform, and in that uniform I fought in some wars. I can measure the years by the uniforms. I remember that the BDUs didn’t breathe because they were stiff with starch; the DCUs were the best, comfortable and worn; the ACUs fell apart too easily; the ABUs were too heavy and scratchy regardless of the weather; the ABS-Gs weren’t bad in the winter, but they were far too thick in the summer; and the OCPs were just a churched-up ACU.
When I get to our apartment, I forget to text my old war buddy back, but I am in time to walk my little girl to her first day of preschool. My wife—my best friend and a veteran herself—has braided her hair, filled her backpack with supplies, and adorned her with a sparkly headband. Out the door we go, and my wife and I each grab one of our sweetheart’s hands. “Okay,” my daughter says. “One, two, three, jump.” It’s a request. Someday it will be the last one, and we won’t even know it.
Her mother and I share a look over her head. We don’t have to speak; we can feel how ephemeral this is, and I can feel a mixture of panic and dread because the school is right next to the apartments. We can walk as slowly as we want to, but it won’t stop time. “Okay,” I tell her. “One, two, three, jump.” She jumps and my wife and I hold her hands up and let her swing between us. “Wow, that one was really high,” she says. While the adults try to dawdle, this little girl puts her head down and pulls us. “I’m going to learn how to read,” she tells us. She is so excited.
I remember that before September 11th, 2001, I thought the world was one way, and after, I thought it was another. If my life were a timeline in a history textbook, it’s a tick mark with a caption, pointed out as a significant event, a seminal moment worth remark if only for how it directed the tick marks that followed.
We promised we’d never forget, but should I tell the truth? There are plenty of things I want to forget. These days of remembrance—what should I remember? Should I remember the dead I never met? Should I remember the thousands of American dead or the millions of foreign-born dead? Am I to remember my dead friends? Should I recall the good times that we had or the ways that they died? And how should I do either when I can no longer picture their faces? Or having written about war, am I bound to tell of my despair before you tell me of yours? Am I to remember—as the work piles up and the calendar fills and the world goes on—that there is no end to war, no end to sadness?
I have too much to remember to remember it all, and too much that I want to hold on to. I can still feel the panic when I think of how my oldest daughter arrived: the emergency surgery, the month in the NICU, and the silent days spent sitting with my wife until we could scrub up and go visit her again. But I can also still feel the marvel that my baby was smaller than my hand. I can picture the summer sky when my middle daughter was born eight years ago and the way the fireworks lit up that July night to announce her arrival. I remember that when my youngest daughter was born, being tired of so much death, we chose a name for her that meant life.
I remember 9/11 filtered through a television screen and magazine covers. I remember the wars only when they leak out from behind the partitions I’ve built.
But I remember the wife since my youth on my skin, in my heart, in my bones. A white dress, a black suit, just babies ourselves. With her, I cannot regret any years that followed, though there may be much to regret. Like all the times I said goodbye, betraying my little girls with a kiss at every departure. The way my little three-year-old buddy woke up at 4:30 one winter morning and stood silently holding my hand as I brushed my teeth and shaved. Like a little sentry keeping watch with me, until I put her back down, kissed her goodbye and stole out into the dark to get on a plane to the desert. Again.
I would walk on my knees for a hundred, a thousand, a million miles through the desert repenting if I could. Instead, grace will have to do.
And now my wife and I are stuck in the entryway to the school with all the other parents, not wanting to leave just yet. The teacher has them line up against the wall, decorated with glass mosaic figures and the words Teach, Hope, Dream, Love, and that’s all we can hope to do with these little ones. The mosaic of children line up against the wall like fresh recruits, all kinds of different colors and sizes, and our little one gives us a thumbs up and an enormous smile that lacks any hint of self-consciousness. She turns to follow the teacher, and with all the kids in this new line, she stares down at her feet. Like boots learning to march, they have all forgotten how to walk.
Mere seconds out the door, I put my arm around my wife, and it feels like home. I remember that I spent a dozen years in a uniform, but now I’ve spent longer in her arms. The tears have already begun streaming down her face. Those dozen years haven broken my own eyes, and they’re leaking too. They’re always leaking now. I don’t know why I feel so ambushed by today, but as I walk home to a house without kids, I have a hole in my heart the size of a Boeing 767.
I sit at my desk in the basement with a pen and a notebook for a while—it’s what I do when I don’t know how or what to feel—but it’s almost too quiet to work. I try to remember, try to keep my promise to never forget. It’s not an easy thing. So much has changed. But some things haven’t; the number of notebooks I’ve filled has grown larger, but Mary Oliver still sits on my shelf and her wild geese still fly in my heart.
I remember that 15 years ago, when the towers fell, I wrote a poem that remains in a steamer trunk in my basement as evidence, so there’s that. Perhaps I thought, If I can’t remember, this page remembers; this ink remembers. Perhaps I thought, I must bear witness for those that come after me. But I cannot say for sure because my memories are now are more like memories of memories.
When I put the pen down, we pick all the girls up. As their mom makes dinner, we run through the parking lot, through the playground, through the woods. The youngest cannot quite keep up, and she’s tired, so she huffs and puffs and holds her arms up. I hug her tight as I carry her home, her face buried in my neck between my t-shirt and my beard. And I whisper a little prayer of thanks because these days aren’t over yet, and I pray that these days right here are the days I remember.
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Matthew J. Hefti is the author of the novel A Hard and Heavy Thing. He spent twelve years as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan four times. While enlisted, he earned a BA in English and an MFA in Fiction. He is now in his final year at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He has contributed to the anthologies See Me for Who I Am (Hudson Whitman), MFA vs. NYC, Retire the Colors (Hudson Whitman, forthcoming), and The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War (Pegasus, forthcoming). Among others, he has been published in Electric Literature; Vol. 1 Brooklyn; Literary Hub; and War, Literature and the Arts.