Grief is a complicated thing. It’s not linear and despite the universality of death, our stories and our feelings remain very different. We grieve publicly and privately or not at all. We grieve via social media status summed up in the phrase “never forget,” or flag photos because symbolism is helpful to explain a lot of complex feelings for which we haven’t found the words. We grieve with anger or with calm or with humor. They’re all valid. I have always grieved with storytelling. I love stories.
I had written a lengthy post about being in 10th grade Paidea when another teacher came in and whispered something in my teacher’s ear. She put on the news and we watched, entranced and confused, until the news anchor used the word “nefarious.” My teacher wrote it on the board and said “Using Greek and Latin, figure out what this word means.” Someone piped up from the back and said “unspeakable evil.” I’d written about my mom pinning her grandfather’s FDNY badge to the American Airlines uniform she wore to the job each day where her co-workers had been murdered. I’d written about the eerie feeling of being on a camping trip the weekend after, and how we all slept long hours and sat on a dock with our feet in the water – thankful to be away from the tv and not feel guilty about it – when an airplane flew overhead and reminded us our world was an entirely different place now.
But none of that’s the important part of my 9/11 story. The important part is watching the 24 hour coverage of businessmen and women, dressed in fancy suits, pulled from the bones of a now skeletal city – covered thick in dust made up of bits of burned up documents and body parts and only thinking “How will this ever get cleaned up?” My friends on Long Island and in New Jersey were breathing in the dust, and over and over I didn’t think of the children whose parents had been killed or what this meant for the future of our safety. I just couldn’t understand how Manhattan could ever look right again. I still don’t understand how it does now.
But years later, on a college spring break trip to a memorial that was yet to be anything but a gaping empty hole and a wall, New York had moved on – as busy and hectic as ever. In what once was the shadow of the towers, a woman on her cell phone scarfed a bagel while running by. Here was the New York I loved, back on it’s feet in just a few years. Hurt, but not debilitated. I found the name of a family friend I had never known and rubbed my fingers into each indented letter of his name on the black granite in the way I imagined mothers did for their sons’ names, husbands for their wives, wishing so much those cold granite letters were a cheekbone or a dimple or that adorable crooked smile.
The train still stops right there, right at the base of the tower. As we turned to leave, the train arrived and hoards of people flooded the stairs, pouring on to the street with meetings to get to and mergers to discuss. Up the escalator, a young man with a giant bouquet of unusual, no doubt carefully chosen, blue flowers, rose to the top in a sea of black suits. His eyes were red and his hands were shaking, struggling to even carry the flowers that he held close to his heart and covering his face. It was perhaps her birthday, or their wedding anniversary. Maybe he was leaving New York forever and needed to say goodbye.
For a moment, we stood face to face and paused. The ash had circulated the earth at least three times by then, but the dust that remained in that hole in his chest and those little parts of her hands and feet would always be in Manhattan.