My husband Brian and I fell into a kind of speechless shock, as if we might never again talk above a whisper.
On the phone, Phil told me that he was having nightmares, none of which he could remember. He mentioned the train he rode to work — the Metro-North, running along the same tracks as the train our dad once took into the city. From its quiet station in Larchmont, it ambles along toward Manhattan, rumbling along high trestles as it makes its way from stop to stop. God knows what kind of damage someone could do to that ancient latticework of struts and beams — a terrorist, for example, with a bomb, my brother said.
Phil had to ride that train to work every day. This was the first time in my adult life that I’d ever heard him worry out loud. For a moment we were children held inside his voice, its uncertain note troubling the air. He would have been as vulnerable as any seven year-old. I was no more than five when I last heard him sound like this.
Brian and I had been living in our house for nine months and we hadn’t yet set up cable service for our ancient TV. Print, online and radio news were more than enough.
Only one image spoke to me through the visual commotion. The man reading in the dusty street continued his vigil in soot and ash, intent on gazing at that charred paper, as if it might reveal some larger truth about what had happened. On Fulton Street, he became for me a pilgrim in the dust, reading a prayer for the thousands of dead who’d perished a block or two to the south of him. He called attention to the holy. He embodied the void.
Most Canadians in our circle weren’t seized by that American impulse to draw close to one another in the wake of September 11th. It wasn’t Canada’s crisis. It was a TV news special. I was grateful for the presence of Brian, who is also an American. Some friends responded with compassion to our shock, while others, for ideological reasons, withdrew.
It was time to go home.
We needed to bear witness, to confront a raw, unmediated truth, to pay our respects, to face the threat of death and stare it down. It felt indecent to sit and watch TV, to avoid this violation of the common body to which we belonged: its grit and smell, its suffering and loss, its connection with the ground of being. It was time to attend to the sacred, to prayer and ritual. I wanted to walk in the dust with the man in the picture.
At this point, no one knew if there would be further terrorist attacks. The U.S. struck Afghanistan and went to war. Autumn came, but summer hung on, as if the earth were stuck and wobbling on its axis, too much in shock to continue its normal progression around the sun. In the pit at Ground Zero, the fires had not yet been put out.
Previous photo © 2004 -2008, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved.