Remembering Tragedy

I live in Manhattan now, so I try to explore something new every weekend. One cold and cloudy January morning I visited the Ground Zero Memorial.

Its subterranean museum is the most solemn place I have ever been. And the most solemn area within this most solemn of museums is the austere dark room where white names illuminate the black wall. A calm feminine voice reads one aloud. Then come the picture, the birthdate, and the inevitable date of death: September 11, 2001. A relative or friend describes the individual, not as one among thousands, but as a distinct one, one who was loved.

Pictures line an alcove labeled as possibly disturbing. One woman holds down her skirt to preserve her modesty before jumping from a high floor. Another man dives into a free fall, looking utterly in control of his fate. I can’t help but feel that he is brave but also a fool. Then I hate myself for thinking such a thing. I ask myself how I would have acted in the same situation. I do not know. We do not often think about how to confront death.

In another corridor I watch people pick up telephones on the walls and listen to messages on the other end, walking away with stoic faces but watery eyes. At some strange level I feel compelled to listen. The phone beeps in my ear like the message is for me. It is a man calling his wife. He tells her his plane has been hijacked. And that he loves her.

I have to hold back my tears. What else could he have said besides “I love you?”

That question has haunted me for weeks. If I knew I my life was about to be cut short, how would I say goodbye? It seems that any words besides “I love you” would be pointless. I love you. I love you so much. And yet those words don’t convey enough.

Riding up the escalator from the dark museum, I feel heavy. I have remembered a tragedy so massive it hasn’t sunk in, even after 13 years. It never will. But I also feel light. Somehow the world is still turning. Some of us are able to live in a state of happiness despite the horrifying events occurring all around the world, painful events that cannot be softened by romanticizing them or trying to explain a deeper purpose behind them. They simply are, and we have to remember how abominable they are in order to ensure that such abominations never happen again.

A mosaic of individuals’ recollections of the sky’s color on September 11 line one wall. A quote from the Aeneid, nestled between the ceruleans and azures and ultramarines, will stay with me forever: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

23 thoughts on “Remembering Tragedy

  1. I didn’t get to the memorial the last time I was in N.Y. Thanks for your beautiful description.
    Also, I applaud your approach to a difficult topic; that of general human loss and how one would handle such a horrific situation. Such a refreshing contrast to the us versus them conversations floating around out there.

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  2. Great description of a memorial I will probably never get to – but has inspired me to see if I ever get to NYC. I believe we should try to respond to human tragedy caused by other humans with understanding, forgiveness and love. I hope that I would be able to do that. For it is only love that can save us from escalating violence and horror.

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  3. A moving post, I am sure listening to those phone messages must be harrowing and the unimaginable feelings all involved must have felt, words would struggle to define such emotions. That era defining event is perhaps the only time I have felt like I am actually living through a proper piece of history.

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  4. I remember sitting on the step of a bus as it drove past the World Trade Center a few years before their destruction, and marveling that no matter how much I craned my neck, I could not see the tops of the buildings. Now those tops are ashes drifting around the world.
    It is good to say “I love you,” and good to say, “I forgive them,” but we must educate people to convince that we are all one humanity, that separating us into particles of ashes does not tear us one from the other, and that we can find a way to live in peace on this blue planet.
    Thank you, Tom, for your thoughts here, and thank you for the follow on my blog.

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  5. Good post. Thought provoking.

    I think saying “I love you” is a gift for the survivor.

    My Baha’i faith belief is that when we pass to the next realm we are without ego and have an understanding of how our lives and deaths impact others and those who die in such tragic ways understand they contributed, through their sacrifice, to humans beginning to realize that we are all interconnected just as Sharon Bonin-Pratt said in her comment above.

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  6. Your account is very moving. I never cease to be appalled by the enormity of this slice of history, and I wish I were gifted with such a capacity to forgive as that which, it seems, NYC possesses. I am not. For me 9/11 remains a stark reminder of what can happen when we bestow the benefits of civilization upon those not civilized or advanced enough to use them peacefully. The evil that men do lives after them – that at least is true.

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  7. Very thoughtfully written. As they say, “if you forget the lessons of history you are condemned to repeat them”. Horrific as they may be, we have to collectively keep them alive so that we, and others, may learn from them. Hopefully!

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  8. “… horrifying events occurring all around the world, painful events that cannot be softened by romanticizing them or trying to explain a deeper purpose behind them…” True for 9/11, true for the dying babies in 3rd world countries, true for the unfortunate driver in the wrong place at the wrong time. Your keen sense of observation – as shown in that quote from your story – is an epiphany I didn’t personally grasp until I birthed my children and forever felt my heart to be on the verge of exploding from the pain I will eventually not be able to ‘protect’ them from. But the first part of the above sentence “Somehow the world is still turning. Some of us are able to live in a state of happiness…” is what makes us try each day to find the beauty and witness the magic – because the world is still turning. Thank you for your beautiful words that describe so much more than just 9/11.


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