Monday, September 12, 2011

My painful recollection

I did not watch the news coverage of the tenth anniversary of the attacks. During the entire day, and the days leading up to it, I maintained a defiantly flippant attitude towards the proceedings. "I'm so over it," I said. It had been ten long years since that horrible day and I had long since turned a corner. In my mind, it was so far away and I didn't want to remember any of it.

The reality is that I was, and still am, far too near to it. This feeling was confirmed for me when, prior to the start of the thrilling Jets/Dallas game, the TV camera panned to an image of a soldier in full dress uniform, located in Brooklyn Heights with a perfect view of Lower Manhattan. He was standing ramrod straight, a trumpet in his hand. There was no distracting crowd, or tourists, or any other human carnival to divert our attention. Just a soldier with a trumpet and a pristine skyline. And then, he raised the horn to his lips and blew 'Taps'.

Barely three notes had drifted out over the Hudson River and in a rush, the feelings I experienced that day welled up in me. I was alone at that moment in my apartment, my wife having gone to the game with her father, leaving me to complete some important work for my job. And in that second, I felt more alone than I had in a decade. Through a painful divorce, through a re-structuring of my life and friends, through the loss of my mother, I hadn't felt that alone and small. But watching this defender of our walls pay solemn tribute, not to other warriors, but ordinary citizens of the world who had lost their lives in horrifying fashion, made me feel naked and vulnerable as an innocent baby left alone in a forest, the sun setting behind him.

Walking through the streets of Manhattan on that day was at once a terrifying and life affirming experience. There was a thick shroud of fear and uncertainty covering the landscape as all of our touchstones were turned around. Everything we had known and taken comfort in was wrong, all at once. The avenues, always a rat's maze of north and then south and then north, were all moving in one direction. The people, throngs and hordes and teeming multitudes, were walking uptown like zombies, lurching and moaning. They streamed out of the buildings in Midtown, looking for an escape and joining with the dust covered downtown workers who were stumbling their way to safety. The hazy thoughts of the crowd floated up out of their heads, through their ears, until they joined in a cacophonous cloud of noise above the streets. A deafening roar of confusion. There was no clarity that day, or the day after. There was no water to wash away the dust and no drink to drown the empathy for those who burned. All we had was a memory of the life we had only a few hours before.

In the ensuing years, I only got closer to the events. I moved into Lower Manhattan and lived there for six years. I discovered that one of the victims was a High School classmate of mine. I worked in the World Financial Center for three years, looking down into the pit of rubble every day. The water has never come to wash away the dust. It has only been absorbed into the soil of our city and bonded with our bones. We breathed in the bodies of the victims and forged our resolve in the furnace of a burning pile of the rubble that was our previous existence.

We've moved on in the trappings of life now. Widows have re-married, posessions have been sold and address books have been updated. But in the mind of the generation that lived in it, and for the citizens of this great metropolis, the day will go on forever; a neverending hum deep behind the walls of our homes.