The grief that I hear is my life somewhere.
Now I am speaking with the voice
Of a scarecrow that stands up
And suddenly turns into a bird.
This field is the beginning of my native land,
This place of skull where I hear myself weeping.
From "Listening to the Mourners"
I do not know where I was the moment that JFK was killed. I never will know. It is likely, I was out playing in the yard. I was five. Plucking daffodils maybe. I was too young for birds. I was not a fledgling street fighter or a gang member. I do remember watching my mother cry in front of the television that night or that week. Whether it was during the funeral or at the announcement of his death I cannot say. I asked her what was wrong. Her answer is lost. I think she wanted to spare me. What did I know of government? Of Presidents? How do you tell a five year old that a man in a building had cut off a line to the future that is now forever lost. I think she just shook her head and ruffled my hair until she composed herself.
The morning of the crashes, I was taking my daughter to school. They were reporting that a twin engine Cessna had plowed into the World Trade Center and that the building was on fire. In the car with just the radio, I had to make my own images. While we listened there was a rumor that there had been an explosion in the second tower. Even the first Cessna story had set off some ominous vibrations in my head. I had just checked the national weather radar before we left for school and I knew it was clear in New York. The second tower news meant that these were not accidents. What was happening was not clear but it began to pluck at something in my stomach. My daughter was not concerned when I dropped her off. She started her day at school as just another day. I don’t know if that was purposeful on my part or not. But I was the one that reached the televisions at the hospital and stared at them. I didn’t need to make images anymore. There they were. I was off on that Tuesday, so I could proceed home and watch and watch and watch. And I did. Apparently a common response: Americans lost in their televisions, looking guiltily around now and then for company, for other watchers.
Fascination was the initial response. Then fear. Then anger. Shock thrums in there somewhere as an undercurrent. Only briefly here in Arkansas was I afraid something dangerous could happen here. When the Pentagon plane came in I think everyone thought “how many of them are there?” “Is there something here they might want to damage too?” That passed as we watched the events unfold. The images growing more nerve-wracking up until the one that stopped every thought, the one that made me stare aghast: the moment when tower number two folded up and kept going down and down until it gave itself up into that huge plume of cloud and smoke, like some fountain of ash had been switched off and collapsed on itself, leaving an absence that choked off one’s air, leaving an unnatural window of horizon and sky along the line of the great city.
No one I have asked or talked to thought the buildings were going to come down. I thought that they were certainly going to have one hell of a time putting that fire out so high up in the ether. Who has been in an elevator with a 110 on its buttons? I thought they were going to need helicopters spilling water, the sprinkler of the Gods, hoses connected to what? Passing cloudbanks? The Empire State Building? The Empire State Building looked stricken and empty, backlit by strangling dust. It looked like a target. It had never looked like a target before. Staring at it, I was actually talking to the television. I was urging the small screen and its distant scrabbling beings to “go, go, go,” wringing my hands. And then when the tower suddenly crumbled in the middle of all those musings and plannings and urgings, well, then the fire became a minor thing. The fire was gone in gravity and catastrophe. Because I knew from my seat a thousand miles away that there had not been enough time for everyone to get out of that spire of a building. I knew, never having been to the place. I was not a New Yorker but I knew just from the universal human nature.
I pictured myself there, with the building rocked by something distant but impressive. If I worked there I would have been involved in the day’s work or daydreaming. I would have been trying to clear my desk when the building rocked and shimmied. I hate to start the day with a cluttered desk. I would have been doctoring my coffee. The people in the building that dissolved first had gotten to see the other building smoking and fuming its fluttered exhaust of paperwork and fire. How long did anyone have to watch that before you sentenced yourself to die. Watching-the-other-building time + deciding-to-leave time + discussion-of-leaving time + gathering-to-leave time + walking down 60, 70, or 80 floors: all that had to add up to less than an hour and fifteen minutes total. If not, you were going to be under the collapse. If not, you died under that replayed fume of concrete and metal going darkly and massively down, seemingly in slow motion but really oh-so-unreachably fast.
Like many, I suppose I knew in that instant how many firefighters were gone. I knew that they had to be going up into the building as fast as they could, they had to be rushing against the grain of fear and common sense. Fueled by duty. The horrified witnesses coming out confirmed this. No helicopters were buzzing around with waterspouts. The firemen were going way up inside to fight the fire in the heights of the building. And thinking of the motions, the noise and confusion, thinking of them taking those stairs as fast as they could dragging hoses and axes and gear. And then thinking of them not going anywhere. It made one weep. It made one weep with hopelessness, helplessness. It made one cry alone on your couch.
Several years ago I visited Poland. I was going to see a friend who was in the Peace Corp. He was working in the Ukraine. We stayed in Krakow after we pulled him out of Russia for a few days. Krakow is just down the road from Auschwitz. And we decided to go to the site that has been preserved all this time as a standing memorial to what happened there. It was a long bus ride. But it was a partly cloudy and cool day, mostly pleasant. The sun kept breaking out and surprising you on the way, even after we were in the grounds themselves and walking among the plain brick buildings. There were majestic trees, a breeze was blowing. Inside the long hallways were pictures and pictures and pictures of the dead. From before they were “the dead.” The bunks. The canisters. Rooms full of hair. Why didn’t they keep the birds away from this place? The grass was green. Even on the paths that led to the actual underground incineration rooms and bunkers the grass was green and a few small flowers bloomed.
I am not Jewish. I have no one connected to the war itself. I knew no one who knew anyone who had ever been to Auschwitz. It was all a distant and historical fact, a place from the lessons of history. In short, I thought I was just a tourist, I thought I was disconnected. But as I walked around, as I peered into these lost lives and their many evidences I was bent over by a hot ball bearing in my gut so hard I had to go and gasp outside under the trees for air. I was buckled over and weak. I would touch the trees for support and then jerk my hand back knowing they had been there at the time. Stolid botanical witnesses, now so undecorated with birds, their sap was tainted. Nearby Jackdaws or some such dark bird pilfered the trash cans. Those clean gravel paths and their rows of razor wire surrounded me, dead roses were laced in the wire like failing gifts, the clinical images of humans straining to stay humans: I was astonished. My body was astonished that my eyes would bring me to such a place.
I remembered page 961 in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I checked—it was exactly the page number. I had recalled it after all these years. It is still the most horrendous thing I have ever read. Surely it ranks as one of the most horrifying printed items out there. I do not want to know if there is worse. It is the first person description of the events at a slaughter. A slaughter of around 5000 people, it turned out, when I went back to check it. People doing things so counter to the day-after-day reality of normal life that it folds the gut up. It is as close a thing as I know to flying a plane load of innocent passengers into a building: a man sitting smoking a cigarette on the side of a pit, waiting for the next line to form, a girl weeping in disbelief. It was not an act of war. It was a sideshow of inhumanity. An inhumanity that takes the pins out from under your legs.
When the second building came down I was lost to the day then. Alone in my home I cried several times and thought of my mother weeping in front of her television those years ago. It is one of the rare memories I have of my mother weeping. They all seem to have been associated with death. I was glad my daughter was at school, wiping at my eyes and wondering what I would say. What was I doing? I had things to do that Tuesday. But they all became nothings and notions of less. Getting gas, running errands, doing paperwork: they felt so small. I could not do them. I paced and sat and watched instead. I lost no one I knew but I was incapacitated by the possibility of it and the inhumanity of it, of those firemen so still beneath that smoke.
Days and weeks later, I have heard of many who, like me, could not turn back to what they were doing. The level of this same kind of thing that must have been happening in New York. That is what I kept thinking of: the higher degrees of confusion even closer to the blast zone. I heard the story of the woman who helped create the cover of the New Yorker for that week. She was sitting in the subway when the man across from her began trembling and crying. She asked him if he was okay and he said that he had been on the 67th floor. The thousands of people who could now transmit so much emotion by just saying 44th floor or 57th floor. Everyone would know what that meant. Even people in Arkansas, Colorado, Texas. It is the hot ball bearing rolling inside the stomach again.
I have seen people seeking solace in patriotism and in prayer. I say, use what works for you. Speak to God like I spoke to that television with my urgent instructions. Though I keep getting the sense that all these are just motions to stray us away from explaining anything. Who explained the pits from page 961? Who soothed who with the exact explanation for planes flying into roomfuls of businessmen just doing their daily routine, planes suddenly blanking them to silence by all that fire and speed? Exploding lives like glass onto the streets below? I think of the soldier in a recent book I read who was explaining the failure of his pocket icon, his protector. The icon had only failed him once in the war. Bolstering his faith, he was showing the scar on his foot where the bullet went in. He was explaining such wounds. “God,” he said, “must have been looking away.”
And the mother of Passenger Burnett’s children. His name was Tim or Tom or Richard. Perhaps it was all of them. A father on a flight in circumstances that are almost beyond imagining. The dream that wakes you in a flail and sweat. I think of him. Burnett being one of the men who likely redirected the planned crash of the flight in Pennsylvania that went down in a field instead. His wife had to tell the children that their father was not coming home. He had three children. One of them asked if their father was in heaven. The mother nodded yes. I don’t know how she did this. I don’t know how she had the strength to even nod. What fuel was she running on? But one of the daughters asked her then if, since he was in heaven now, Mommy, couldn’t they just talk to him on the cell phone again? At times, I wanted to go there and offer her everything I have.
And there were the other times, perhaps the worst of times, when I pictured myself in charge of one of those responsible for the incident. I pictured myself tasked to handle a hijacker or a hijacker’s accomplice. I am the man alone in the room with them. And I have my fists and my feet, my knuckles and my nails. And I must decide what I will do with them, what is the right thing to do with them. One does not need knives to stare down the possibility of that vengeful alternate self in the eye. Fingernails and teeth is all it takes. The flag cannot help you then. You are alone with yourself. It is you and the whispers of Gandhi and Christ against the scarecrow bones that shelter the inhuman trickster that started it all. You against the bones that shake, the ears that hear.
There has also been the undertow of guilt at doing the normal things. I have had this guilt. It must be what drove all those people to go east to do whatever they could. The guilt that filled the Red Cross vans. It is what drove the health care workers to the hospitals and the makeshift receiving areas in New York. The ones that surely formed the saddest sight of the entire news media experience: thousands of doctors and nurses waiting and waiting for those who could not come. The waiting being so much better than doing the small other things in our lives. Until the waiting was just waiting and the smoke still unfurled.
And certainly there lies the dilemma. Here was what would make things go back to what they were. Exactly those things that are guilt inducing. Brushing your teeth. Making coffee. Sitting on the back patio among the last summer flowers. Helping with a homework problem. Pointing out a butterfly tattered to his last flakes of winglift. Fingers plowing into dirt. The smell of a child’s hair. For these are exactly what the ones who were crushed under the rubble would want to see and feel again. Helen and Angela and Julia and Mark and everyone chatting in the stairways leading out of the World Trade Center. Afraid, yes, but surely I would have been talking to the people moving with me. Touching a shoulder, whispering together, the people all waiting for that door that led out onto the street. Turning stairway and stairway down and down looking for that light from outside. All wanting to go back to the normal.
One does not come from near death wanting to save the world. One comes from near death to see the faces of family doing the everyday tasks. We live to grate cheese. To peel carrots. To see the small feet below the edge of the nightgown. To stroke the cat. To get the mail. To wallow on the lawn with the red dog. We live on to trim the hedges and select a shirt for the day. It is what we do now. In order not to scream. In the name of continuance. We close down the shutters and pull back the sheets, we feel the cool pockets beneath the blankets pressing down on our toes, we flick off the light and try to sleep in the dark while we forgive ourselves over and over for not being able to stop what we are doing right now and begin what is necessary to bring them all back.