This weekend is a convergence of many different memories for me. My mother’s birthday was September 12. For the most of my life, it was the main focus of activities (other than school starting) in September. Until 2001. For 82 years, September 12 was a day my mother looked forward to. For the final seven years of her life, it was just the day after 9/11.
During my mother’s lifetime other tragedies held the same level of attention that 9/11 holds currently. There was Black Tuesday (October 29, 1929), and Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), Roosevelt’s death (April 12, 1945) and Kennedy’s assassination (November 22, 1963). Days of individual and collective suffering. Irrevocable changes to the lives of so many people, and days that continue to be remembered because of that suffering and those changes.
Making Sense of Tragedy
Making sense of tragedy has challenged poets, musicians, playwrights, and journalists. But there really isn’t any sense to be made. Loss is experienced at an individual as well as collective level. There is no objective way to capture the possibilities of how one person may have changed the world for good or bad. There is no objective measure of grief.
In spite of the teachings of countless spiritual guides, I harbor the belief that nothing bad is supposed to happen to me or those I love. And when it does, I am shocked. When it happens to a person I hold dear, it taps into the undeniable reality that it WILL happen to me someday. That powerful deniability contributes to the collective suffering after an event like 9/11.
Just Another September Day
The awareness that sometime between 8:00 am and noon on 9/11 they would be among the 3,000 people who were to die was then held only by the hijackers and a few psychics. The convergence of political ideologies, religious fervor, economic and social suffering, was not in the minds of the majority of those who never lived to see 9/12. They were just living their lives. Just another September day.
Tragedy and disaster are often catalogued through archival footage, monuments, and days of remembrance. D-Day may be ancient history for most, but the photo of General Dwight D. Eisenhower speaking to Army paratroopers before the invasion on June 6, 1944 is unforgettable. The video of the plane hitting the North Tower has become a key memory for our times. In psychologic terms, it is called a “flashbulb” memory. It captures a moment that emotionally was shared by millions. It is etched into our memory banks even though we may have been miles away from New York or the Pentagon or Pennsylvania.
I did not know any one personally who died in the Towers or from the post-event exposure to all the toxins. I experienced 9/11 from a distance, emotionally numb from the visual of the plane hitting the North Tower that was shown over and over throughout that day and in the days that followed. I shared in the collective shock and grief experienced by all who watched.
I have heard many people say, “I can’t believe 20 years have gone by!” The ritual of asking “Where were you when the Towers came down?” triggers memories that are increasingly vague and no longer carry the emotional shock. When asked that now, my story line is more about how my mother’s birthday celebration was sidelined and how I was inconvenienced and my plans upset by the shutting down of plane travel across the country that delayed my return home.
The stories change with the passage of time. Since 2001, other tragedies have occurred and lives have been impacted by disaster, violence, and death. This weekend, however, our stories of how life changed for Americans in the days after 9/11 are focused on what has unfolded since the 3,000 souls perished as a consequence of an intentional act.
How we make meaning of this depends on how we make meaning of loss on a daily basis. The older I get, the less I am afraid of the actual moment of my dying. Instead, I find myself negotiating with how long I might suffer or where and when I might be allowed to leave these mortal coils. Because I am all too aware of the fragility of life, I do my best to remember that it is not a given and that my plans may not work out as I intended. I try to be grateful for every moment, even those moments that are physically, emotionally, or psychically painful.
If you ever have the opportunity, I encourage you to visit the 9/11 memorial in New York City. I also encourage you to visit other memorials and carry with you an awareness that all memorials represent a way for those of us who are left behind to make meaning out of tragedy and give purpose to our continuing to live in spite of our loss.