Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The empty sky

Sheila hits the bullseye.

And, not to be crass, but there are two thoughts that need to just step off in regards to terrible loss: "it's time to move on" and "we have to get over it." I say this full well knowing that it these are usually my first reactions to a sudden, shocking pain, ever since I was a boy.

(At this point I ask only that you bear with me - I have an unfortunate choice between personalizing a great atrocity, or pretending that my own foibles and motives are the universal condition of mankind. To me, the less danger lies in the first course. If I must seem like a colossal egoist, I'd rather it be on appearances only, and not in truth.)

In 1986 I was rushed to the hospital with sudden acute appendicitis. While I waited I alternated tossing my cookies, folding in agony, and running a non-stop stand-up act for the staff and patients. This went on for about six or seven hours - writhe, hurl, one liner. The surgeon came, examined me, and wheeled me directly to OR. Later he told my folks that I was about 30 minutes from a burst appendix. I cracked a joke about that too.

My dad died in late 1991. No jokes this time, but no tears, either. To my shame, I admit that I've cried more about dead pets, schoolboy crushes, and the New York Islanders than I ever have about my father.

In 2001 I was working, a Tuesday then as it is this year; I heard about the first plane just before I parked. I thought that it had to be a freak accident. Then of course the second plane hit, and every television in the place was re-tuned to the various news stations. We had a number of guests in the building that day for meetings - I remember leaving my office to ask about the general hubbub, only to see the first of thousands of replays of the second Tower struck. I went back to work.

I was still grimly working as I overheard the conflicting details as they came out: who it could be (since there was clearly someone's will behind it), the planes unaccounted for, about everything else aloft being diverted to the nearest airport. The first notice I got of the first Tower's collapse was a general sigh, like a felt gust of wind, and I vividly recall a former coworker crying out into that silence, "They blew it up!" As I went around to the nearest TV I could see him ducking out of the room in anguish, his hand held over his mouth in grief and fright.

The entire building was dismissed as of noon. Up until the last moment I just kept working. I could think of nothing else to do, since sitting at my desk in shock or staring at the TV were obviously not going to help anyone.

To this moment, I still wonder if I shouldn't have just stopped for a minute, anyway. What I did then, as I was doing all my life, was "moving on."

We build these defenses for good reason; again, you all have yours, so I can only give you mine. Everyone has something different about themselves they are trying to protect. It got the job done in my case, by grounding me in something other than my panic. At 13 I couldn't endure just lying there in pain, helpless until the doctors came to decide what was wrong with me - and I didn't have a mature framework to handle suffering, either emotionally or intellectually. "Death" didn't mean anything at that point. At 19 it did, but knowing and understanding were obviously two different things, and the difference didn't come out until we got a personal visit. At 29, it was the sheer enormity of it all - while I stood alone, like the only tree in a square mile somehow standing after a tornado. Somehow, despite living my entire life within 50 miles of the World Trade Center, I knew none of the killed personally. Everything happened at a remove, and I never wanted to cross that distance. Because I would not suffer my own hurts, I could not suffer with others when they hurt. I built a cage to protect myself, and then found that I could not get out.

To not be swept away, one needs an anchor. My refusing to submit to fear or panic is useful, but refusing to feel it at all is a step too far. It makes the crisis itself an anchor, and I risk never being free of it. I can't be swept out to sea, but neither can I sail at will. It makes it hard to reach the far shore where our true home lies - where we will no longer sail but soar. Protecting myself from pain has also meant protecting myself from the best kind of joy, the startling happiness that makes one feel as if one has never drawn breath before that moment, the joy that changes everything - that sends a jolt through you akin to nearly falling from a great height. The few times I have ever allowed myself to get absolutely carried away, I have wound up landing far harder than I pleased. Naturally, people tell me that it beats the alternative - and for the record I agree with them, and have told it to myself many times - but like Tommy Lee Jones said in MIB when Will Smith told him that it was better to have loved and lost: "Try it." It is better, but it doesn't feel better.

That's why I feel like moving on is a trap. "Getting over it" doesn't feel better either. That is in fact the whole point to it - it usually means to stop feeling at all. The danger lies in not healing the wound one is so anxious to get over. Moving on tends to make such wounds permanent, disabling. It may well be that one has to drag oneself away from a fire on a broken leg in order to survive; it is much different to keep trying to walk on it after the fire's out.

There was no "stake" in 9/11 for me, and that may disqualify this entire post in some eyes. I won't deny it. Some people have actually gone through it all, and are ready to "move on." I have no desire to hold them back, just because I've held myself back in other ways. My flaws aren't anyone else's. I'm just offering what I've seen in the mirror as an example of what we put ourselves through in order to avoid going through our heartaches. A death, a sudden illness, a broken heart, a destroyed home... it makes one feel as if the world has stopped. It's awful, when one is reeling, to spend our dying strength against all that terrible, still mass. It's far easier to move on so quickly that it seems like it's turning normally again.

Don't let anyone do that to you, not even you. To honor what is lost, it is necessary to carry it somehow, to move with it, and not leave it behind to bind us to the past. Move on? I think I'm done with that. Rather time to double back and find what I've missed. It's going to take a few trips.

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