Sept. 11 is a special day Jon Rothstein and his grandmother will always share.
It’s their birthday.
Rothstein, an Ithaca College sophomore, started his day off a year ago with a call to his grandma to say “Happy Birthday.” He then went to his usual 9:25 a.m. class with no idea that the day would hold a special significance for anyone else.
But then, Rothstein said, “A kid came in late [to class] and he said, “Did you hear a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center?”
The professor continued the class, Rothstein said, and “I couldn’t really fathom what was going on,” he recalled.
On another hill, another birthday was beginning. Maeve Gallagher ’03 sat down for her shift at the Straight ticket desk, when her boss came in and announced news of the terrorist attacks. They turned on the radio to listen.
“Peter Jennings stopped talking when one of the towers fell,” Gallagher recalled. She was startled because “news people, they don’t stop talking.”
Rothstein spent the morning trying to get a hold of his cousin, who worked in New York City.
“Once I found out the people I cared about were safe, I remembered, ‘today’s my birthday,'” he said.
As the day went on, he tried angrily to understand the personal significance of what had happened. “I just kept saying to people, “Why? Why? Why does my birthday have to be ruined forever? Why my first year in college?”
Gallagher’s friends and family didn’t know what to say when they called to wish her a happy birthday, she remembered.
“On birthday cards I got after the fact,” she observed, “no one would write the date.”
A year later, the date that was once so personal to Gallagher and Rothstein has turned into a euphemism for terror and tragedy.
“It made me sad largely because that day would always be associated with something of that magnitude,” Gallagher said. “Just seeing it on posters and T.V., hearing everyone say ‘nine eleven’ is very odd.”
Some of Rothstein’s friends have tried to soften the significance of the date, telling him how their fathers were born on Dec. 7, the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
But, Rothstein says, “It does matter. The great thing about a birthday is that, up until last year, it’s your day. On Wednesday, it’s not just going to be any other Wednesday.”
Both Rothstein and Gallagher have had to reconcile feelings of guilt and ownership over the day.
“I just kind of learned that I had no right to be selfish,” Rothstein said.
“While we worry about our grade point average and having a car at school and our internet hook up, these people can’t sit down with the people they lost. I trade in having Wednesday as my birthday versus losing people in the tragedy. It puts what’s really important in life in perspective.”
Gallagher agreed. “It’s such a trivial thing to be upset about after everything that’s happened.”
Besides, she said, “Your birthday is only really exciting when you’re young and you have your My Little Pony birthday parties.”
This year, however, Gallagher is excited because she turns 21. What will she do to celebrate?
“What normal 21-year-olds do on their birthdays–stay at home and knit sweaters,” she joked. Her friends threw her a surprise party last night, the last thing Gallagher was expecting.
A year later, Rothstein and Gallagher wouldn’t think of editing their birth certificates.
“The 11th is the day I was brought into this world,” Rothstein said. “I don’t celebrate my birthday on a different day.”
“It doesn’t suck,” Gallagher added. “It’s not as big a deal to me as it is to other people. In the grand scheme of things, it’s only a day. It’s still the day I was born, nothing changes.”
She said also that she wouldn’t want to change her birthday, yet she would consider celebrating on a different day in the future if it made the celebration less awkward for other people who didn’t feel like being happy on Sept. 11.
It will “make things a little more complicated, but it’s not the end of the world, for me,” Gallagher said. “It’s still my day.”
Archived article by Heather Schroeder