Paper Rain

I’m sitting in my dorm room alone, scrolling through Facebook posts about 9/11 on my laptop. My room is dark, save for the sliver of light that peeks in from behind the door I had propped ajar to cross-ventilate the stale air. Some laughter emanates from the kitchen down the hall and a slight breeze eases through the sheet of rain outside and through my window, rustling the loose papers on my desk.

My father’s clearest memory from the fateful day fifteen years ago is that of the sky raining paper. From the sky, he collected memos with post-it notes still stuck to them, financial documents, personal notes, empty pages — all of which had flown over the East River from the towers. I had never remembered the paper storm until he told me about it one day, years later, at his art exhibition dedicated in memoriam, when I was old enough to understand the horrors all over again, but too old to remember anything other than fragments.

The first moment I recall was looking out the window of my kindergarten classroom. The sky was a mix of warm hues and the sound of my teacher singing and playing guitar is white noise. The next image I remember is of my father whisking me away with a strong hand into the streets, where the air was clogged by dust and the sky was dark and a stark contrast to the papers whipping through the air and falling fast. The next thing I recall is walking up my stoop, still hand-in-hand with my father. He sits me on the sofa inside, in front of the TV, and leaves me for the kitchen, which is under renovation and exposed to the storm outside. I turn on the TV and watch the towers fall again and again. In slow-motion you could almost see every beam and every window crumple and collapse in the black cloud of embers.

In recounting the story to myself and others over the years, I’ve realized that certain things that stuck with me never happened that day. The sky out the window of the classroom could not have been the color of sunset in the late morning, when I was picked up by who I’ve always insisted was my father, but was actually my mother since he had been working. Then there was the paper, which I could have seen that day, but which had been incorporated into my memory with my father’s retelling of that day.

As a neuroscientist, I know that flashbulb memories, while vivid, are not stable in time and are easily tainted each time they are accessed. But I grew up in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, and having a memory of 9/11 is important to the collective conscious of New Yorkers. So if all I remember are colorful falsehoods, I cling to them, because even if you can’t recall a thing, you’re not allowed to forget.