Saturday, September 10, 2011

...two anniversaries and the twin towers

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. 

But again and again we avoid the long thoughts…We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find.

 But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. 

The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.  

Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces

A sweet friend is aching. Samille’s a mama whose son lives and works in New York City. She worries for his safety in the wake of the recent terrorist chatter. I am reminded that on September 11, 2001, six degrees of separation was a luxury experienced by few. 
We all have personal stories of that day. Where we were, what we were doing. Those days live within each of us with a clarity that defies the passing years. Here is my story.
My husband was flying that morning. At least he was supposed to be. I received a text message at 6:26 a.m. that his plane had engine trouble on take-off and he would call in twenty minutes. I recall giving thanks that the pilot had been able to stop the plane on the runway, that all were safe. The call came and John told me that he was booked on a later flight. My work day had started early, with emails to be read and answered before meeting with hospice workers later that morning. My mother’s health was failing rapidly. John suggested that I meet him at the airport to talk before the meeting. I drove there and we discussed care options. Then we walked down the jetway, the last morning I would make that trek as a non-passenger.
I was aware that my husband had stopped. He motioned for me to come to the wall-mounted television we had just passed. As we stood there, we watched the second plane hit the towers. The small crowd gave a collective gasp and within seconds - or so it seemed - an announcement blared over the loudspeaker.  We were asked to leave the airport. Then the awful words. “The U.S. is under terrorist attack.” 
During the drive home, we talked with both of our children. Our son, married and living in Tuscaloosa, filled us in on television reports. The Pentagon had been hit. We arrived home to hear that another plane was missing. Our daughter, an Auburn architectural student, called us from Newbern where she was building a house as part of the Rural Studio program. She knew her dad was scheduled to fly to Washington and was worried. John and I thought immediately of our brother-in-law, an American Airlines pilot. We contacted John’s sister who was unable to reach her husband. He was flying that morning. His route, the LA/Boston/LA run. Hours would pass before he was able to call home. Their son, a Navy pilot, was attached to a ship in Norfolk. When we heard that the military had been given the go-ahead to shoot down civilian aircraft that didn’t respond, our hearts fell. Father and son, both in the air possibly. We didn’t know. 
I met with hospice that morning.The nurse said that the examination did not reveal signs of active death. I was told ‘three-month life expectancy’ with the caveat that anything could happen. After returning home, I continued answering emails and working, one eye on the television. The planes hit over and over and over again in countless replays. Disbelief. That night, and the following, emergency calls came from the nursing home. On Friday morning, Mother died. 
We planned a small graveside service in Georgia. Only those within driving distance would be able to attend. I have little memory of the service, almost complete recall of the 9/11 events. That the macro (global) outweighed the micro (personal) was troublesome. A mother’s death is about as personal as it can get. But conversations with friends gave a bigger view of those days. Everyone was impacted, knew people affected by the attacks. Macro and micro didn’t exist. We were a collective family. We all had a desire to connect with loved ones. To discover the fate of those in harms’s way. To commiserate with strangers.
During that week, I learned that a co-worker’s brother, who worked on the top floors of one of the the towers, was miraculously alive. Upon arrival that fateful morning, he was asked to meet a client downstairs for breakfast. But he would not be able to reach his family, already mourning, for an unbearably long time. Another friend and co-worker received word that her brother at the Pentagon had survived. But we also learned that the brother of a News reporter died in that same attack. Lynn Angell, Alabama native and Auburn graduate, also the wife of Frasier producer David Angell, was returning to Los Angeles with her husband following a family wedding on the Cape. A metal plaque in her honor now hangs on the wall of the church where her mother and I were both members. I cried as I watched families post photos of missing loved ones on utility poles in New York City. I cried for the families in the Middle East. I cried about everything.
When we finally spoke with my brother-in-law days later (stranded in New Jersey, unable to rent a car to drive home to Texas), he described what he had heard in the cockpit. Loud screams over the radio. On the radar, the erratic flight pattern of a lone plane. Later he would discover that, as he flew a holding pattern that morning, he had witnessed the last minutes of Flight 93, the missing plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 
Nine months after the attack my husband died. Three months after that, I lost my home in a storm. As I looked down at the mud, sewage and wreckage, I saw a metaphor of my family of four. The main load-bearing wall lay shattered. The other three struggled to bear the load. I had memorized "No Man is An Island" by John Donne in high school.  Now I lived it:

No man is an island, entire of itself.  Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.  As well as if a continent were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thy own were...

All of these events have merged. Every September, the memorials transport me to those dark days. Just as they do for you. Now we have reports of a credible terrorist threat wrapped around this anniversary. And life goes on. I have re-married, the unexpected gift of Bill and his family. My son and his sweet wife gave me a grand-daughter. My daughter and her husband delight and enrich every day.
And, today, September 10, is another anniversary. One that, this year more than ever, re-frames my story. My father would have been 92 today. He was a sweet and gentle man. A veteran, quiet about his service in WWII. If he ever met a soul he didn’t like, he kept it to himself. He is with me in every moment. How special to celebrate this day each year in the face of other memories. To give thanks for his love and guidance, to remember his hugs, his precious smile. 
Ten years later, our personal stories - with greater context - are emerging. We both celebrate and struggle that we are not separated by six degrees, or even one. We are brothers and sisters, all of us. We may be separated by distance. We may pledge allegiance to different flags. We may kneel and pray to different gods. Or not at all. As my friend, Mary, who has been visiting the Middle East, wrote this week: 
I go to Masada tomorrow. Zealots, noble, who can say? The conflicts here are deep and religion is who you were born, no matter what you believe. We have a history with this land that most have not seen. It is a burden for all who live here. Peace is a distant dream and we are not deeply civilized. Shalom.
The doctrines and dogmas that we collectively embrace sometimes divide and create fear, a fear of those who do not espouse the same beliefs....just as the desire for power automatically creates a win/lose scenario. All families struggle with shadows and pain.  The truly dysfunctional dig deeper holes. Oh, to be more deeply civilized, Mary. To choose win/win, each giving a little for the greater good. The dream is distant...but worthy. Today, I invite you to recall your own stories and, with this, to find healing. There is room at the table for everyone. 
Daddy, you would have invited everybody to the homecoming and dinner on the grounds. Today, in the pre-dawn hours, you came to me and reminded me that weeping may endure for a day but joy comes in the morning. Bless your sweet heart, not stilled by death. The song continues. And it's lovelier than ever. Because, frankly, neither you nor I could carry a tune in a bucket. But we had great fun not harmonizing together.

The rest of Donne's poem has taken root as well:
Every man's death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind.  Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Thank you. And blessings, y'all. Peace. Shalom. As-Salamu Alaykum.
Love and light to us all.

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