They Say It’s Your Birthday
by Jill MacGregor
My birthday is on September 11th.
So, as a friend recently reminded me, I can make this September 11th the 10th Anniversary of that September 11th—or I can celebrate the 10th anniversary of my 39th birthday.
It will probably end up being an odd mix of the two.
Having my birthday on Sept 11th reminds me of how connected we all are—often by the most contradictory of feelings.
It reminds me how we’re connected by healing, by outrage, by grief, by loss–by resurrection and rebuilding and making all stronger. You hear the stories of people, united in grief on that day, coming together each September 11th to volunteer, commemorating the day by helping others.
Back then, if there was some reason I had to offer the date of my birthday, people used to actually wince.
I stopped celebrating my birthday on that day for several years. Just couldn’t do it.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I know so many suffer from what happened on September 11th in a very real way. What I experience is a mere inconvenience.
Something happened not long after that day and, I bet if we each thought about it, we’d all have an oddly, similar story. Initially, it seemed like I was just doing an everyday thing. But when I look back at the experience, it feels very different.
In Washington State, you have to renew your license on your birthday, every 5 or so years. And, strangely enough, I had to renew my license that year, weeks after it had happened.
It was a time when we all moved more cautiously. We were quieter. I remember having a *duck and cover* feeling the first time I saw a plane in the air after September 11th.
It’s easy to forget how it was—how we were during that time…when we were all in mourning.
So, I find myself at the DMV to renew my license and it feels utterly unnatural to do something so mundane, weeks after something so enormous has happened.
There is no wait, no line.
The man behind the counter calls my (unnecessary) number and I approach. His manner makes me bristle—I feel he would be the same if he were in a bar fight or at work. He asks me why I’m there—without making eye contact because he does not care and I am that unimportant to him. I begin to categorize him as the stereotypical DMV employee who hates his job and everyone he comes into contact with, just doing the bare minimum until quitting time.
I notice that his thick, rough accent is definitely from New York.
And then I think, “HE IS FROM NEW YORK”.
The thought catches me off guard, as if I am encountering something mythological that I have only heard of in stories. He might as well have been a unicorn. Which is stupid because one of my best friends in from New York and regularly says things like *cup of cawwfee* and *paawk the caah*. But, anyway…
I feel myself soften, thinking about his family and friends. Is he still waiting to hear about people? Did he lose people? Family?
I smile at him but it doesn’t matter because he’s still heads down. I hand him my expired driver’s license, he glances at it and he stops.
He just stops.
He’s noticed my birthday.
I can tell that something has shifted in him. He looks up at me and makes eye contact. But it’s not casual. He locks me with his eyes and they are so surprisingly blue. I was so surprised by the softness of his blue eyes. And as he begins to talk to me, his voice is suddenly soft, too. He’s not saying anything really important—just DMV stuff—but there is suddenly a gentleness about everything he says to me.
And he never looks away.
“Your birthday,” he says. It’s not a question. There’s no *dot dot dot* after his words.
“Yea,” I respond.
“You’re from New York,” I say and it’s not a question.
He lifts his chin, his version of a nod.
We look at each other, quiet, taking in the living symbol we seem to have become to the other.
I am the day and he is the place.
“Have you heard from everybody?” I ask him.
At this point, I really would like to hike myself over the counter and hug him because I see him steel himself. He pauses; putting his emotions in locked boxes before he speaks.
“Still waiting on a few,” he finally says. “And my brother.”
My eyes get shiny–but they used to get shiny a lot back then. Because at that point, it had been weeks and it was becoming very clear that if you hadn’t heard about someone, you weren’t going to.
I nod at him, not looking away. Because there were two conversations that were happening at that moment: the one with words and the one without.
I didn’t offer platitudes or false hope. We just held each other’s gazes and nodded.
There was nobody in the DMV and, being genetically predisposed to NOT taking a good picture, he let me take my picture about 8 times until I “didn’t look as if I’d had a neurological event”, as we say in my family during our photo opportunities. He gave me tips for taking the best DMV photo—chin up and out—and we sort of…played. We were silly.
Taking picture after picture in the very empty DMV.
It was a needed break from all of the heaviness and sadness; in the last place you’d expect it to happen–with a stranger I never saw again, but think of often.
If you’re looking for ways to volunteer in your community and mark September 11th in your own way, you may want to start here:
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