I’ve been struggling with this post for a while now. I knew I had something to say but the worm in my brain that tells me how to construct sentences was on strike. However, it was 9/11 yesterday, so I’ve run out of excuses.
My Dad and I came to visit New York before I moved here. We were ostensibly here for work, and to have a cheeky look at Columbia. We are foot-tourists. We don’t have a checklist of sights stashed in our pockets when we come to a new place, we go where we fancy. If we find ourselves near a monument or a fountain, a park or a statue we’ll have ourselves a little investigate. It’s all very enjoyably casual. That was how I knew the 9/11 memorial was important to Dad. He was very determined to see it.
They don’t make it easy. The entrance to the site itself is hidden around a number of corners, the signage guiding you across the many wide New York streets between you and it leave you plenty of opportunities to get confused and give up. You have to be looking for it to find it and you have to really want to go.
I wasn’t in the best shape. It was near the end of a long week of walking. I’d had to get new trainers with mega support in them and even they had ceased to take the edge off. My feet were throbbing. At the end of the day and overnight they would swell up so that the first steps of the morning were no fun at all. My knees and hips ached, the small of my back radiated a hot pain into my chest. My head was ringing, my eyes having trouble focusing. I wasn’t in possession of enough of my senses to be aware of how childish it was to want to give up on the memorial. All I knew was that I needed a comfy seat and a snickers.
This is another way I knew it was important to Dad. He’s been where I’ve been, in the swirly CFS world of painful exhaustion, dizzy and thick-headed. Nauseous and aching in your very bones. He’s usually the first one to tell me to rest. But not today. Today we were on the trail of the memorial.
After longer than I’d like to admit mentally griping about my own discomfort it finally sunk in that this was serious. I switched to stoic mode. We donated $10 each and rounded a thicket of barriers, presented tickets to about 6 different people, went through a metal detector, walked a gauntlet of police and finally made it to the site itself.
I had no idea what to feel. It’s quite a lovely space. Each tower is marked by a huge sunken arena made of dark stone, exactly matching the footprint of each building. Waterfalls pour day and night into the pools, which never fill up as the water drains into a large square hole at the bottom, where it is sent back to the top of the falls. The cycle is endless. Around the edges of the pools are broad metal plates with the names of the victims cut into them. It’s like much of America as far as I can tell, a place of great dimensions, vast and bold of statement.
I read about how the groupings of the names on the memorial match the groups of the people’s lives. Friends are with friends, families are together, the first responders are each in their groups, fire trucks, ambulance crews, police divisions. Some families have requested that the names of emergency service members who tried to save the lives of their loved ones be placed with them. It’s a wrenchingly beautiful gesture.
I trace the names with my fingers and grope around in my mind for symbolism to ease the starkness of it all. The eternally falling water as the cycle of life, never the same, never truly there and so never truly lost. But I cannot distract myself from people who are having their picture taken with the memorial. Smiling, arms around family members. Backpacking couples, the boys with their hands in the back pockets of their girlfriends’ shorts. Waving at the camera. It feels deeply inappropriate. People are taking pictures of the memorial itself, and that makes sense to me, many have come huge distances to see it and human memory is unreliable. Some are finding names. I try not to look at these people, try to give them a little privacy. I have been walking around the memorial without realizing it, as if my body were intent on reminding me it were alive, while my mind filled up with death. I run my hand across the warm metal, reading the names. So many.
I think I can handle it. I think about the spirit of America, the way she builds back up in spite of everything. In spite of fear and in the face of huge loss America continues to grow. America divides opinion, often very strongly, but no one could deny that it is impressive to stand so squarely on to such a horrible event in a nation’s memory. Not only that, but what has been built there has a value all its own. It isn’t just another building built to mask the space so people can forget. They have crafted a place where people can come to remember. To feel strong. That is how I felt while I was there. My problems are nothing in comparison, life goes on and it’s up to me to go on with it. I think all this, at least until I reach the first blue flower.
Someone has been circling the monument, placing blue flowers in the names of certain people. When I reach the first blue flower I see that the name has an addition: “and her unborn child.” That cracks my heart. I’m surprised at myself, that I hadn’t thought before about unborn children. I take myself off to sit under a tree and think about something else. I am suddenly and searingly disappointed in the human race, the way we fight. I am keen to get back to my silly little life without the deep, deep sadness of dead mothers and their unborn babies. I can’t even imagine the near edge of what their families must have felt and even that tightens my throat with anguish.
I don’t know how to end this post except to dedicate it to the memories of those who died and the honor of those who risked their lives to save others and to the spirit of this city that has taken me in, which is so strong. It makes me feel strong and I am grateful for that beyond measure.