The candle warmed my face. It was a breezy night, one of the first that really felt like fall, and the flame danced and sputtered in front of me. Other candles came to life, bathing the gazebo an eerie glow. I thought how strange it was that this was the first Sept. 11 I’ve observed by lighting a candle.
I guess that’s how it’s done in the civilian world.
Each Sept. 11 on the Florida military base where I was stationed, life stopped for a moment. No one was too busy to pause and remember. But there, we had reminders every day—our camouflaged uniforms, the Rotator shipping out a new group on deployment, bringing a group home. The routine absence of family and friends. The memorial outside the chapel, the plaques in the air park, the streets bearing names of those who would never return.
When I was in Afghanistan, we held a remembrance ceremony on the helipad—the only space large enough for our formation—ducking from dust and gravel kicked up by the rotor blades of incoming helicopters. We didn’t have to work to remember there, either; each of our lives hovered in the aftermath. If we got too comfortable, there were 17 faces to bring us back, watching us from behind frames on the conference room wall, under a sign that read "Fallen Comrades of Paktya Province."
Out here in the real world, reminders are scarce.
Even I often get distracted. I stress about schoolwork and my new internship and the cat hair that clumps in the corners of my living room. Then I see a news report on Afghanistan. Or another name. Or something unexpected that brings me back to camouflage and dusty helipads and faces on a conference room wall.
Sometimes it’s more comfortable to forget.
Today, flags flew at half mast, and the TVs at my gym streamed footage from 11 years ago. But traffic swirled around our little vigil, students chatted and laughed on their way to class, the metallic bing! of bat-on-ball rung out from a baseball game across the park.
There weren’t enough candles to fill the star etched into the gazebo floor. I wished there were. With two empty tips, it looked like a feeble effort; a tribute made and then hastily forgotten.
I knelt at one edge and tipped my candle, letting a drop of wax stain the concrete. I set the base of the candle on the drop and held it until wax merged with wax and it stood upright on its own. The crowd thinned. The moment had passed.
Adjusting the shoulder strap of my knapsack, I walked down the gazebo steps, back into the real world. I turned once before leaving.
My candle was lost in the collective glow, a small marker of light, of stillness on a busy city night.