Millions of people, including my children, have been born since Sept. 11, 2001. This year, I find myself wondering how to tell them about that day and those that followed. Maybe the most we can hope for is to pass on a few memories of New York then.
All of the photographs that sprouted on lampposts and walls — smiling faces snapped on vacations and joyous occasions, suddenly underscored with wrenching, urgent words, and question marks that pierced like hooks:
HAVE YOU SEEN OUR MOTHER?
HAVE YOU SEEN MY HUSBAND?
DO YOU RECOGNIZE OUR SON?
LAST SEEN 8:15 A.M., SEPTEMBER 11.
PLEASE CALL. WE ARE DESPERATE TO KNOW ANYTHING.
The air downtown: thick, stinging, gritty, and filled with fragments of life still floating from the world as it was shortly before 9 a.m. on 9/11. Atomized smithereens of bricks, glass and steel, office papers, coffee cup lids, half-bagels with a schmear, Yankee hats, wedding bands, sugar packets, shoes and human slivers in a stinging, silvery vapor that made you cough and cry.
A New York police officer gave us a ride toward ground zero and ticked off the names of friends who had run into the towers and vanished. She began to cry. I took out a handkerchief. And we both began to laugh — carefully, shyly, but finally a full, throaty, sturdy New York laugh at a cop and a citizen unashamedly sharing a handkerchief to cry.
There were the police dogs that prowled over colossal piles of smoking brick and steel, sniffing for survivors, and after a few days, just human remains. To keep the dogs at such grisly work, hour after hour, their handlers had to make it a game, and reward them with treats, pets, laughs and kisses. They had to act like the only happy people in New York.
And the crowds we joined along Canal Street standing day and night to cheer emergency workers going in and out of ground zero. Saluting actors and athletes suddenly seemed a little shallow; we had seen so many real heroes run into fire and lift up the wounded. We felt hurt, weary, grateful, faithful and proud.
I think of W.H. Auden's poem, September 1, 1939:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.