I remember the day perfectly, September 11, 2001. It’s a day I’ll never forget.
I was a child at the time, around 9, when my entire school gathered in our library to watch live coverage of the Twin Towers. Our teachers tried to explain what was happening. I approached my guidance counselor and told her I thought my uncle Tommy worked at the towers. Later, I asked my mom if it was true; that her brother was there. She said yes.
For months, my dad came home late each night because he, my grandfather, and my aunt searched every single hospital for Uncle Tommy. But they never found him.
It took me 17 years before I finally got the courage to visit the National September 11 Memorial by myself on the anniversary of the attacks. Prior to last year, I had always commemorated the anniversary in my hometown, surrounding myself with family and friends. I figured that’s what Uncle Tommy would have wanted.
Working my way through the crowds, I was scared, sad, and every emotion in between. To my horror, I was met with conspiracy theorists yelling in my face and proclaiming that, “there was a third tower,” “the government did this” and finally, “the Twin Tower attacks never happened.” As a New Yorker, I’m usually not fazed by people waving signs and yelling, but this was different.
I was overwhelmed by their hateful words, and I broke down. All I wanted was to grieve in peace. I found an NYPD officer and told him that all I wanted to do was see my uncle. The officer helped escort me through security and to the table where family members were allowed to check-in.
I entered the site, and the tears fell down my face as the names were being read by other family members of the victims. I found my Uncle Tommy’s name — he was in the second tower — and I found a little peace, touching his nameplate and thinking about what a wonderful man he was and how proud he would be of me. I thought about the last time he spoke to me, my birthday, a few days prior to the attacks, and how excited he was to give me my gift (an American girl doll I’d wanted for ages.)
As I had my moment of peace, I had a flashback to a previous visit to the site. On that day, I was standing over my uncle’s name, teary-eyed as a tourist physically pushed me out of the way to snap a smiling selfie. I’ll never forget that moment. How could someone be so happy as they stared at a mass grave? Did they not know that was the base of the Twin Towers? How could they not understand? This was a place of mourning, not a scene for an Instagram moment.
Now, 18 years later, I work just steps from where my uncle’s life was taken. So I visit him frequently, because the memorial is all I have. There is no closure, and no body. It’s almost as if my uncle vanished from the planet. Thanks to DNA analysis techniques, I have some hope that one day my family might get a call saying, “We found something from Thomas I. Glasser.” Until then, all we have is our memories of Uncle Tommy, echoing from one September to the next.