In the darkness of the following morning, Brian and I awoke to the sound of choppers overhead and the droning of pipers marching toward downtown. Crowds were gathering and we joined them. We made our way to St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, just north of Ground Zero. It was at Mass that we heard the bells toll, remembering when the first plane struck the tower. It felt safe to be in this reverent place, where horrific memories were held in check by the ancient boundary of ritual prayers and readings, the sign of peace, the breaking of bread. The rites brought serenity, but they didn’t erase the anxious mood of the city, the troubling sight of armed police who’d formed a barricade across the street, whose permission was required to enter the church; the ch-ch-ch-ch of army choppers and the disquieting knowledge that the murder of thousands could never be redeemed.
After Mass, we stepped outside, blinded for a moment by brilliant sunlight. The narrow street in front of the church was jammed with onlookers, media trucks, cop cars. The hoardings that had obscured our view the previous fall had been removed, and we could see toward Ground Zero where loudspeakers were broadcasting the names of the dead. It was as if the church had cracked open, spilling out raw grief, unmediated by symbol and ritual. We listened.
How very quiet the city was.
We left, walking south on Broadway toward Trinity Church. The crowds were so thick that the police asked those walking south to use the sidewalk and those walking north to use the street. Everyone moved in silence, with an intensity of thought and purpose that reminded me of that bleak walk to Ground Zero the previous fall. Bearing witness, as if we were shouldering a weight of bricks. At Liberty Street, near the southeast corner of the site, we stood together in silence.
Next to me was a woman weeping and crossing herself, and near her stood a pensive kid, the Stars and Stripes wrapped around his head like a bandage on a wound. There was silence everywhere, a straining for something well beyond the ear’s reach.
In that barren space, the names of the dead were drifting down on us and into the soot and dust of the street; over the subway and the coffee shop and the great rusted cross mounted on the foundation wall of the World Trade Center — a cruciform chunk of the towers’ steel, a microcosm of its suffering. People wept. What bleak, rock-bottom barrenness I felt, what inconsolable loss, as if we were here to experience in ritual the soul laid waste like a city.
The sounds of a violin drifted out of the pit. The roll of names continued. There was a wind, but it sent up dust and filled the eyes with grit, reminding us of the frail state of our city and of our mortal selves. Dust you are, the prayer goes. To dust you shall return. A bell tolled, a bright silver sound, a scouring clean of illusion. It felt desolate, Ground Zero in my soul.
The wind rose where we stood, where the planes struck, as if the dead were troubling the air. For an entire day, many of us thought of the dead, counting the losses of the year gone by, hearing in them the sorrowful echoes of personal grief or misfortune. Now my brother was also of the dust. I sensed he might have been proud of me for coming to this observance. Yet that offered no comfort.
In every life, we hope to lay down our burdens and when we can’t, every new grief embodies our loss of illusions: the partings of friends, the profound loss that is the death of parents and of loved ones, the end of the world we knew. One September morning, a catastrophe drew me into a year of reflection, into contemplating mysteries too large for my mind to encompass. At times like this, ritual embraces us. At times, it is all we have. Sometimes there is no solace, and all we can do is stand together and keep vigil, in the hope that solace may come.
Cross photo © 2004 -2008, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved.