Even 7 years later, it's still strange to have my birthday also be a national day of mourning and remembrance. In some ways, it's even stranger because I wasn't in the country on that 9/11. I'd flown from Hartford to LA on September 6 and from LA to Bangkok on September 7, with the 15 students I'd be spending the semester with and two of my three colleagues. We arrived in Calcutta on September 10.
India is either 9 1/2 or 10 1/2 hours ahead of Eastern time, depending on the time of year (and still, after all this time, I still can't remember which is when), so most of my 9/11/01 occurred when it was still the middle of the night in the US. We sent the students out exploring in the morning (absolutely terrifying for them) and then went with them in the afternoon. We helped the girls buy salwar-kameez sets so they'd have some Indian clothes to wear when we got to Varanasi. It was still monsoon season, so very hot and humid out, and we were all hot and sweaty and jet-lagged. At some point in the late afternoon, I was sent back to the hotel, and a bit later, my birthday was celebrated with these 18 people I barely knew. I was summoned to the hotel room Dale and Bantu (my male colleagues) were sharing, where everyone was crowded in. (We were staying at a hotel primarily for businessmen, so it was all pretty nondescript.) There was a cake with sweet white icing, and everyone sang "Happy Birthday." They gave me a few little presents--some flowers, some cotton handkerchiefs, one of which I still have. (I don't think they gave me the handkerchiefs for any particular reason, only that there seemed to be a large number of handkerchief sellers out on the street that day, and they probably just got tired of saying no, they didn't want any.)
After my little party, everyone was hungry for dinner, so we went to a Thai restaurant Dale knew. It took a long time for our food to come, and I still remember the last moment Before--when one of the restaurant guys went to turn the TV on, and I was hoping he wasn't going to put a Hindi movie on, because the TV was right next to us, and I didn't want to eat dinner to a blaring Hindi movie soundtrack.
As it turns out, we didn't eat dinner at all. Once the TV was on, once we saw what was happening--the BBC had a message across the screen that what we were watching had actually happened and wasn't a movie--many of our students fell apart. We took them out, in groups, to try to call home, but all of the international lines were busy. We eventually found an email place that had enough terminals for most of us, and we sat there, writing home, checking in, not knowing what else to do. When we got back to the hotel, we crowded into one room again, just as we had a few hours earlier, but this time it was to watch the news on TV.
We left Calcutta the next night, on an overnight train to Varanasi, all of us still stunned and not at all sure what we were supposed to do, 10,000 miles away from home when something so horrible and so unimaginable had happened.
But the semester went on. And just a few weeks later, when we were up in the mountains, we were walking somewhere, and I overheard a bunch of students having a conversation about bad things happening on people's birthdays, mostly along the lines of, "I have this friend, and her boyfriend broke up with her on her birthday! Can you believe it?" And I had to say, "Um, I think I win that one no contest." And at least one student said, "Wait, when's your birthday . . . Oh, yeah. Right. Okay."
Still now, when I tell people when my birthday is, they often cringe and look sympathetic. One of the nicest things anyone said was my oldest childhood friend (whom I've known now for 40 of my 42 years, which I find just astonishing), who wrote to me and said, "September 11 will always be your birthday first." I appreciated it especially because she lived in lower Manhattan at the time.
Yesterday's birthday was pretty low-key. My office surprised me with a pink birthday cake and a lot of popcorn (harking back to my ode to the popcorn-wallah, which was published in the Christian Science Monitor almost exactly 2 years ago) and a gift card to the movies. I got some cards and phone calls. Alex is going to make me a birthday dinner this weekend, though he's promised to avoid the tofu and the daikon this time. I asked him if I looked 42, and he said sweetly that I didn't look a day over 27, which I said would only hold true if I wasn't in the same room as any 27 year olds. But today, a colleague who wasn't around yesterday said happy birthday, and I said that after all the hoopla around turning 40 (see Emily's gorgeous cakes below), 42 wasn't very dramatic. And much to my surprise, she looked genuinely shocked when I said I was 42 and said that she'd thought I was around 25 (even better than 27!). Admittedly, I don't think I look 25, and in lots of ways, I'm very glad not to be 25, but still--it's kind of nice to be taken for 25 when one is actually 42 and a day. Even if there weren't any actual 25 year olds around for comparison's sake.