I was in New York City for the very first time this last spring. It was a magical experience, full of everything I had ever imagined NYC to be: Broadway shows that took my breath away, sunshine in Central Park, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade at night, bagels and pizza and the bright confusion of Times Square. We walked for miles and didn’t see nearly enough, but we saw all we could and it was very good. Very tiring but very good.
One thing we felt we had to do, as Americans and as lovers of humanity, was visit the site of the attacks on September 11. We took the subway down to lower Manhattan in the middle of the day; we knew where we were going, but a nice man in a suit told us a completely different route to take. He said, “I didn’t want you to think all New Yorkers were rude.” And so we felt compelled to follow his directions.
It was cold and rainy. We went into the church nearby, St. Paul’s, an old stone church with scattered gravestones out front. We could see the site of the Twin Towers, but I had trouble picturing them there, picturing anything but the hole in the skyline. The buildings weren’t iconic to me when they stood; they just were buildings in the back of a chick flick romantic moment.
To get into the actual site, you go through checkpoint after checkpoint, standing in long lines to take your coat off and put it back on again. It was a weird sense of anticipation. The fences were so high, the area so secured. You had the sense that it was hallowed ground, but for me, it was like entering a temple or a mosque. I was a stranger; I could appreciate the beauty but not understand the depth of feeling.
Then you round the corner, inside the fences, and you see where the trees will go. Where the grass will be. Where the museum will be once finished. And then you see the two memorials, square granite fountains that don’t go up into the air but rather go down into the ground, a constant running water. Pools. Waterfalls. All the way around the rim are names, thousands of names, organized not alphabetically but by relationship and proximity. Co-workers together, friends, fire stations.
And I felt sad, but it was fleeting. I felt wet and a little cold, and also guilty. Because mostly I felt nothing.
One of the greatest tragedies in American history. It happened in my lifetime. I remember the news reports, the newspapers, the stories of utter loss and utter pain. I read just last year some first person reports of the panic and the deaths and how it was impossible to move on. I cried then, reading those accounts. But I didn’t cry now.
It felt odd that we were standing there taking pictures and these people were dead. And I felt bad that I didn’t feel anything other than guilt and shivers. I should feel something.
But here’s the thing: it happened 12 years ago. 12 years ago today. I was living in a small town in South Dakota on that day, and I felt the pain as keenly as I could. It’s okay that I don’t feel it anymore.
There are a lot of things to be sad about these days. Syria, and Africa, and Korea, and the little kids in our community without food to eat and the old men dying from cancer and the moms dying from AIDS and everything is so sad and broken.
Not too long after visiting NYC and a quick stop in Boston, there was an explosion at the end of the Boston marathon. And days later there was an explosion near my new hometown here in Texas. Before that babies were gunned down at an elementary school, and before that people in a mall, and before that folks in a movie theatre. It doesn’t stop; it just feels heavier and heavier. And it gets to be that we can’t move for the weight, unless we let it go.
Hear this: if you lost someone that day in 2001 and you are still grieving, that’s okay. Your grief is your own; you lost a part of you. 12 years is a long time, but it’s not 20 and it’s not 10. Carry on; continue down your path of grief and loss in the hopes of finding the way less tough as you keep moving.
But for me, I’m constantly trying to balance the feeling of deep loss and deep grief for the state of my world, with the recognition of joy and beauty that make life worth living. There will always be pain. There will always be angry mean people and terrible accidents and things you can’t control. But there are also sunrises over the ocean, and dancing to folk music in your kitchen, and the way artists paint the night sky.
So when I didn’t feel sad like I wanted to, like I felt I should, I instead walked all the way around both memorials. I let my eyes drift over every name. I let my momentary attention be my memorial in the way my tears wouldn’t be. I thought, at least I can give them a moment.
Then I moved on. Not because their lives were worthless or unimportant, but rather because their lives are done. It’s not fair but they are. And my life is still happening, for another second at least. So I will honor them, and all of those who are taken from us before their times and at just the right times and after hurting for a long time, with this life I’m living.
That’s all I have. That’s my remembrance.
My 2011 reflection on the attacks can be found here.