Category Archives: Memory Suite: 2001-2002

Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 15 of 15)

In the days following 9/11, I’d gazed at a photo of a solitary man reading, and so I tried to find understanding in the pages of a book. I began James Agee’s autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, but I couldn’t finish it. The writing was beautiful and tender, yet at that moment, I couldn’t bear to absorb the death of a father and husband, the pain of a family’s crushing loss. It wasn’t the right choice of reading matter, but it turned out that no book was. For several months after the attacks, I felt too raw for the depth of written language. Only music could take me to a deeper place, past the overwhelming grief and panic.

It was appropriate that we concluded that first anniversary with a concert at Trinity Church on Broadway at Wall Street. Along with works by Mozart and Bach, Poulenc and Elgar and Copeland, the concert included a vocal composition by Samuel Barber. A coincidence: Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is the prose-poem that opens James Agee’s novel, the book of death and remembrance that I’d put aside. The sung work was the concert’s finale, a haunting creation, profound and sad, yet attuned to the mystery of what it means to be alive.

Agee describes a summer evening, the front-porch setting in a small southern town, seen from the point of view of a young child who notices every detail, from his father’s mundane coiling of a garden hose to the stars “wide and alive” above him. As he and his parents lie on quilts on the lawn, “they are not talking much and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all.” [1]

In that poignant year, I, too, pondered my origin in a simple family, which, like most, had no spectacular accomplishments or dramatic failings, and which, like each, shares in the mystery of our brief passage through this world. For the most part, our lives are lived far from great events, and with or without calamities, life and death continue. Many people died on September 11th, 2001, but not all of them died in the attacks. Some died of disease or old age. In a random gift of nature, many others were born on that sorrowful day. In James Agee’s words:

 By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away .  [2]

My year of vigil came to an end, but not my writing. Words echo the mystery of why we are here, and how we endure. Words leave me at one with the dazed man who, on the morning of the attacks, stood in the dust to read, to understand, to ask again and again what happened.

*

These reflections are written in memory of all those who perished on 9/11 as well as for my late brother Phil and my departed friend and teacher, Sister Eileen. Thank you for taking the time to read them.

___________

  [1] James Agee, A Death In The Family. New York: Vintage Books, 1967, p.7.
  [2] Ibid.
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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 14 of 15)

In the Village, we bought a bouquet of lilies and zinnias for my old friend, Sister Eileen. They echoed the flowers blooming in my garden on that summer day one year ago. A gust of wind threatened to snatch the huge bouquet from my hands as it pushed us toward Washington Square.

At Eileen’s house, the wind blew through the open window, catching papers in the empty corridor, swirling them in spiral eddies around the floor. We wondered whose spirit was in the wild air. The dead at Ground Zero – I’d heard it said often enough that day. Don’t be so sure it isn’t, said my cousin later.

 *

Eileen was late for our visit. When she arrived, she seemed somewhat disoriented, frail and tired. We wondered if she were becoming forgetful, if our arrival had slipped her mind. If this were so, she didn’t let on. Having taken a leisurely walk home across Washington Square, she was pondering the memorial mass she’d attended at NYU. The beauty of the liturgy had touched her. Sem-pi-ter-nam — she drew out the Latin word in the prayer for the dead, savoring its promise of eternity. She was not alone in her reflections. On that first anniversary, every church in New York City had opened its doors in welcome. Museums offered free admission; musicians filled concert halls and played in the parks. In the face of indignity, the city offered beauty. Eileen welcomed the flowers.

My oldest friend was seventy-seven years old. She would have three more years to live, and we would have three more years of her friendship. Like my brother and my parents and the lost souls of September 11th, she has left us. I could not have imagined her loss or my brother’s as I gardened on that sorrowful day the year before. Trying to grasp the deaths of thousands in my native city, I’d been too stunned to think about buds opening, flowers fading, the truth that nothing holds fast.

…More tomorrow.

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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 13 of 15)

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.

…More tomorrow.

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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 12 of 15)

In the shadow of my brother’s death, it felt appropriate to go to New York City for the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Brian and I were in a somber mood, touched by a personal loss that felt entangled in a larger calamity. Three weeks after Phil’s funeral, we went to Manhattan.

We stayed with my cousin Mary Ellen, whose presence linked us both to  shared history and a poignant anniversary. In her dining room, she displayed an old postcard on her antique cupboard. Created by the artist Michael Langenstein, it showed a dreamlike, holographic image: the Twin Towers in the desert beside three pyramids under a full moon. Written in several languages, the caption on the back read Two in Time. The shimmering hologram invited verbal play. In time, two… There were many unpleasant ways to complete that sentence. Two in time will perish. Only this was an image of eternity. Pick up the card, view the hologram from another angle, and the towers reappeared in a new light, eerie, cosmic images as permanent and silent as the pyramids or the moon.

*

My cousin and I sat with Brian at an oak dinner table with huge lion’s-claw feet. It had once belonged to our grandmother, Nana — the same table where our mothers did their homework while Nana studied with them, working to improve her English; where we sat as children on Sunday afternoons in Nana’s old house on South Oak Drive in the Bronx, nibbling biscotti and absorbing the grownups’ passionate views of the world. On the night before that first anniversary, we sat with the ghosts of our parents, aunts and uncles, reminiscing as the shadows fell.

It was a warm late-summer evening. The windows were open to the slight breeze, to the voices and street sounds below, to the sultriness of a city night with its complicated scents and tastes, to the breath of memory in the night air.

 *

We sit and talk about simple things, about summer evenings in the Bronx when we were kids, how my mother would visit my godmother, Aunt Ursula with me in tow. Alongside my cousin’s house on Bartholdi Street was a tree heavy with ripening peaches, and their plump, juicy globes perfumed the air. I felt sure I was the only child in Westchester County who ventured into New York City to pick fruit. Along with gardening, Aunt Ursula and Uncle Chris loved animals and had a cat. Having no pets, I used to catch fireflies in their garden and put them in a jar with holes in the lid. When we’d return home, I’d shove the jar into my bureau drawer, hoping that the following night, the lightning bugs would sparkle again. Instead my mother would discover the critters lying in state under glass, alongside the tidy pile of socks and fresh-laundered underwear. I don’t remember that it made her angry, because she always took me back to my aunt’s where I’d capture another jarful of small, lit creatures. I never tired of these visits: the sudden bump of the car wheels over cobblestones as we entered the Bronx, as we drove through night in the old streets of childhood, derelict and loved.

There’s a skein of memory that I share with my cousin. One of us holds it in outstretched hands, the other picks up the strand of a story, preparing to knit it into some scrap of reminiscence. On this evening, we recall how our mothers were close, how they spent their teenage years in Nana’s clapboard Victorian house with its enormous beech tree, its grandiose black fountain topped by a fat, naked cherub, its wooden gazebo where years later, we kids would play games and munch crusty-rolled sandwiches fat with salami and roasted peppers. When my Aunt Ursula married Uncle Chris, she moved a few blocks away to the tiny brick house on Bartholdi Street with the peach tree in the garden. I continued to visit with my family until I left for Toronto, feted by my aunt’s banquet of homemade ravioli and savory sausages. Three years later I returned for her funeral when she died of a stroke at the age of fifty-five. I never went back again.

Aunt Ursula’s in the room as my cousin and I play cats-cradle with memory, a gentle back-and-forth from hand to hand. Once upon a time, our parents grew up, raised their families and lived out their years on earth. They have returned to be with us, on New York City’s shadowed night.

…More Tomorrow.

 

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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 11 of 15)

In late summer, my brother went into the hospital, suffering from pancreatitis, and we flew to White Plains to see him. Although he couldn’t speak to us, I felt certain that he was aware of our presence, that he must have felt our affection for him. He’d get well and we’d celebrate together at Christmas, relieved that this crisis had passed. Yet my brother had been ill for many years and he didn’t allow us into that part of his life. Hoping for the best, Brian and I had offered encouragement whenever we could. It wasn’t enough.

We flew back to Toronto. It was a Monday morning, August 19th, and that evening, my brother’s heart stopped seven times. He was revived each time but one. We were told that he fought hard to live. Knowing Phil, he didn’t want to leave us, and he didn’t leave this world in peace.

When my brother died, I remembered my illusions about those charred buildings at Ground Zero — that soap and a scrubbing brush might just scour them clean.

The truths that are the hardest to face are the ones that make you feel helpless.

 *

We drove back to White Plains for the funeral. At the service, I was asked to be a lector. The text, from the Wisdom of Solomon, read “The souls of the just are in the hands of God.” After a year of such calamitous loss, I would have preferred that Phil’s soul remain with us. Maybe it has. It’s said that for a writer, the dead never die, never stray too far. Words are a gift of resurrection; they return the dead to life, and they act as prisms refracting pale light into a range of colors. This may be true, but I’m not yet certain if these words are large enough to embrace Phil in his complexity — sometimes infuriating and always human, yet in the end, his deepest self unknown.

There were days when I felt that my brother was a victim of 9/11, and that this horrible shock and its aftermath pushed him to a premature death. This is the novelist’s instinct at work — trying hard to piece together broken shards, to coax meaning out of the random details of two senseless tragedies in the same year. I’ve stopped myself from doing this. Some calamities mean nothing. Their horror is their truest lesson, and our unflinching gaze at them is our only hope that they will never happen again.

Brian and I once hoped that we’d retire close to Phil and Joanne. Now we’re left to remember my brother in his kindness, his humor and intelligence, his soft-spoken generosity. Often I wish I could talk to him. Sometimes in my heart, I do. After so many years of absence, I’m not sure where we’d discover common ground. Even so, his presence would have been a comfort.

…More tomorrow.

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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 10 of 15)

Church photo © 2001 Lee Briggs. Used with permission.

In May of that year, I returned to New York City, this time with Brian. The tree behind Saint Paul’s Church was in leaf. Rhododendrons were in flower up the street at City Hall, and wild roses were blooming in Battery Park. We saw the leaves uncurl, the flowers open. To this mystery, we also bore witness.

In the park, we sat by the water and ate lunch, watching the kids line up with their parents for ice cream and boat rides. The crowd was subdued. We felt how still the air was.

 *

We visited Phil and Joanne in White Plains. Over dinner, they described a local candlelight vigil, held to commemorate the dead of 9/11. Phil spoke about how moved they’d been by the hundreds of people who’d assembled in the dark with candles lit. As a participant in many such vigils and demonstrations, I’d never felt free to share with my brother their impact on my life or the wondrous sense of community that they generated. Many of these gatherings had addressed my own fears of a runaway arms race, and my brother, for much of his life, had found fear an inadmissible emotion (As a Reagan Republican, this particular fear made little sense to him). Now life had, for a moment, shifted us from separate islands toward a common shore, a depth of truth.

That evening I took a picture Phil and Jo. This was to be our last meeting and the last photo I’d ever take of them together. It sits now, framed, on the mantel in our living room. Before it is an unlit candle.

…More on Monday.

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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 9 of 15)

Italian-American kids absorb a lot — maybe too much — about the rites of death and burial. From my childhood perspective, my parents visited the cemetery much too often, laying wreaths and attending memorial masses. On the other hand, we kids were seldom made to take part in these rituals. The dead were, for the most part, elderly relatives we’d never known, and my parents were seldom grief-stricken, always concerned with doing the right and respectful thing, a responsibility they took with utmost seriousness. Example is everything, and after the attacks, no one had to tell me what to do. It was instinctive, a shred of vestigial Italianness to observe a period of mourning, to honor the dead, to pay one’s respects.

Prayerful ritual begs the question of faith — not doctrinal faith but mystery, the connective tissue of life itself. I was raised in the Roman Catholic church, a faith tradition which carries with it a sacramental view of the world, one in which everything in the created order is a sign inviting us to enter into a deeper reality, one which connects us to each other and to every living thing. Ultimately we are one sacred body, and we live and die in each other. In this context, the attacks of 9/11 were a violation of the holy, a sacrilegious act. To this truth, I wanted to bear witness.

With this in mind, I went downtown again.

 *

Since our first visit the previous fall, they’d built an elevated observation platform on Fulton Street, just to the south of St. Paul’s Church, spanning Church Street. The visitors in the long line were quiet, even reverent. It felt as if I’d stepped from the crowd on Lower Broadway into an eerie stillness, made more so by the odd refractions of daylight in the emptiness up ahead. A policeman moved us along toward the ramp with the gentle sense of order appropriate to a gravesite. His words were kind, as if each of us had lost someone here.

The tall wooden hoarding running alongside the ramp was covered with graffiti. Someone had drawn a tiny replica of the two towers, placing within each rectangle a cross, a Star of David and a crescent. The scribbles on the hoarding included prayers, but also greetings. Be strong, my American brothers, read one. Your friend from Israel. Opposite the wall was the elegant spire of St. Paul’s, and behind the church was a bare tree etched into the sharp blue of the sky. I heard a woman whisper, “Do you think that tree will ever bloom again?” In spring, I thought, I’d come back and answer that question for myself.

The police officer allowed us up to the platform, one small group at a time. I found a place along the wall facing the Hudson River. Unlike the previous fall, it was possible to see down into the pit. What had become of…that big sooty building, Number Five. The one that looked like…the back of a dirty old fridge. Not words, just the static of my nervous system, my panicky brain trying to sort things out as fast as my eyes could see them, trying to register what should have been obvious last fall. No, not soot, nothing the Sanitation Department could scrub clean. Not salvageable, not even by God. Charred and burned in a terrorist attack — a total of seven buildings, plus the Greek Orthodox church at the southwest corner of the site. All the burnt-out wreckage had been cleared away.

Down below were workers in hard-hats, backhoes and grapplers beeping and rumbling, the enormous foundation wall exposed and Manhattan’s bedrock below it, the gaping holes dug into the subterranean levels of the plaza, seven stories deep. Before us was a desolate grave.

To the west were the World Financial Center and the forlorn shell of its Winter Garden. Corners clipped off, windows punched out, the cladding-draped structure of the Deutsche Bank on the south side of Liberty Street — damage beyond naming. Surrounding the pit, these injured buildings carried the breath of the missing and dead. Awful in the truest sense: full of dread. Yet I felt safe confronting the truth at Ground Zero, and it was for the safety of truth that I’d come — to pay my respects to the presence of lives whose dust was in the very air I breathed.

We were standing in the soul’s dark night. On either side of me, cameras were flashing, as if their owners understood that, too.

…More tomorrow.

Photos: (2) courtesy of the New York State Education Dept (3) Heather Cross, 2002, licensed to About.com (used with permission).

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