Wednesday, January 5, 2011

In Memoriam


In the summer of 2002 I flew to New York for a vacation.  It would be my first time back in the city since I’d moved away.  The landing approach to Newark Airport was where I caught my first glimpse of the World Trade Center site.   Even though it had been months since the bombings, a small, thin, column of rising smoke and dust, could still be seen.  Gazing out of the window, I recalled the endlessly replayed scenes of collapsing concrete and smothering dust that had shrouded everything in its path.

I closed my eyes.

The day I visited ground zero, was a disturbing one. Tourists were everywhere, scurrying around the protective fence line looking for gaps so they could take pictures of the damage.  As a New Yorker, all I could think about, all I could sense was what wasn’t there.  My anger escalated the longer I stood there.  It was projected in multiple directions at once; at the terrorists and also now at the tourists that were gawking at the concrete crater.   Somehow, I felt it was completely disrespectful for people to stand there casually eating hot dogs and having their pictures taken.  At least ten street vendors were selling all kinds of clever T-shirts.  

Insane.

What happened here was no accident, nor random tragedy.  Deliberate, sinister intent flew those airplanes into the buildings and now this spot was turning into damned Disney world.  I felt that this place deserved the same solemnity reserved for war memorials and concentration camps. Suddenly, I felt off balance.  I was disoriented for a moment and then it slowly dawned on me why. Everyone around me was looking down at the wreckage; I had been looking up at the empty space. 

The buildings were gone.  

Bright sunlight poured down on Broadway where it hadn’t shone for many years. 

The twin towers (as most New Yorkers referred to them) had not been mere landmarks but served as tremendous anchor points for the entire island of Manhattan; for all of New York City.  You could never be lost in New York when you could see the towers.  Without them the entire island of Manhattan was now free floating and somehow set adrift.  I knew exactly where I was standing but I was still lost.

I decided to change my perspective and walk around the block.  When I came to Trinity Church’s St. Paul’s Chapel I stopped.  Covering the walls and makeshift fences was an amazing collection of signs, photographs, flags and personal items from all over the world. It was as sad as it was fascinating.  The entire area had been transformed into a spontaneous memorial site.

 Once again, my mind drifted from presence to absence.  What about all the people that weren't there that day. Where were their shadows? I tried to think about everyone that didn't punch their alarm clock that morning, sip coffee, kiss someone good bye and go to work.  So many names were on those signs and photographs it boggled my mind.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine who those people were, what they felt when the insanity struck.  I imagined the ones killed instantly to be the lucky ones, compared to those that were burned alive in elevators, or sat, hopelessly waiting for help in the floors above the impact zones. What about the ones that were able to call their loved ones and tell them goodbye? Such gruesome, modern theater thanks to technology.  I looked back to the sky and tried to imagine what horror there must have been inside the burning towers, the kind of horror that drove people to voluntarily jump to their deaths hundreds of feet below.   I thought about the sights and sounds of bodies thudding on the pavement and I could almost see their shadows rapidly approaching the ground.  I shivered just a little.  I wanted to empathize, not just sympathize. I wanted to feel everything that happened there so it would burn an impression in my psyche.  I stood in sunlight but it should have been in the shade of their shadows.  Where were the people…the buildings... the dust, all that dust...?  I knew I couldn't change what happened, but I wanted to walk away from there doing their memories justice, in my own small way.  I tried to mourn each one by acknowledging the pain of their sufferings in my heart.  

I read something a long time ago that was written by a rabbi that had been an army chaplain during the liberation of the concentration camps.  He had entered the death camps with his unit and came across stacks and stacks of bags marked "DÜNGER" (Fertilizer).  When he opened one he realized that they were filled with the dust and ashes of the crematoria. He plunged his arm deeply into the bag, up to his elbow to feel it, grab as much as he could so that he would never ever forget what he’d witnessed.  Perhaps that is what I was trying to do, as I stood there staring at the sky, I’m not exactly sure. For me, the dust somehow connects the tragedies. 

If you visit the area now, I am sure things are much cleaner.  I have heard there are even organized tours.  I will not make political commentary about memorials in Manhattan but I will say this:
With any tragedy, particularly those that underscore the human capacity for cruelty, we must find a way to honor the legacies of those who died.  
We must incorporate those who died into our hearts and souls, and to let them lead us to act in ways that will honor them. We must allow them to inspire us to fully embrace life to the extent that they were denied and to work to prevent the endless repetition of history.


Note: According to Trinity Church’s website, “Opened in 1766, St. Paul's Chapel is Manhattan's oldest public building in continuous use - a place where George Washington worshiped and 9/11 recovery workers received round-the-clock care”.

2 comments:

Oatie said...

A very chilling and gutwrenching recollection! My cousin was in the Pentagon when the plane hit there, luckily she was on the other side of the bldg. Having been to that memorial and shedding tears over lives lost, I understand the want to empathize and sympathize. Having 2 brother active Army, I have experienced that side of it as well... we have lost some great friends to this. Very well written!!

7e522008-cf5e-11e1-a304-000bcdcb471e said...

Great reflection Stacey. I was in Manhattan that day on the Upper East Side. I scheduled to work at the Hospital for Special Surgery installing a digital XRay unit. I was watching the news as they reported on the first tower being struck and thought it was a tragic accident. I saw the live feed of the second tower being struck and knew then it was something altogether different. As I walked to the hospital from my hotel, I remembered passing people crying and asking me if I had heard what happened. At the hospital, we all crowded around the radio and couldn't believe our ears as they announced the fall of the first tower. All the staff were on alert waiting to be called to St. Vincent's downtown to help with triage...but unfortunately, the call never came. It took a while for all of us to realize there was no need to triage because there were so few survivors. I'll never forget the stream of people walking over both levels of the Queensboro Bridge trying to get out of Manhattan. Then later the eeriness of the quiet streets. No cars, no taxis, no buses running - the streets were empty. It was like the end of the world.