Wednesday, September 7, 2011

(Almost) Ten Years Later

We're coming up on the ten year anniversary of 9/11 and I've seen some writing here and there about it this week - reflections, analysis, the kinds of "I remember where I was" stories that I always thought would only belong to the generation who remembered the assassination of JFK.  (I have also seen some hideous, tacky, "commemorative" t-shirts and what I suppose is meant to be "collectible" gear at Michael's, of all places, and all I could do was groan inwardly and think, Seinfeld-esque, Oh, we're doing this, now?)

Anyway.  I remember where I was.  It was my birthday.  I was at school, teaching second grade.  I lined my kids up, eighteen of them, on the steps outside my classroom and marched them down the many hallways and stairs in the beautiful historic building to their music class, where they got out their recorders and sat obediently on risers before the teacher began.  Then I marched myself back up the many hallways and stairs, probably wearing one of the three pairs of Dansko clogs I wore pretty much every day, and when I walked past Debbie's classroom, it was empty (her kids were probably at art or theatre) and she stood still in the middle of it, staring at the television where the tower was coming down.

The rest of the day was a blur.  We tried to keep the kids from knowing that anything was amiss.  We left our lunch tables to sneak into a classroom and watch the news.  We cried and tried to hide it.  We fielded phone calls and emails from frantic parents, some of whom showed up in the classroom to take their kids home.  We had an emergency staff meeting the moment the last child had gone home at the end of the day, our head of school unable to speak without his voice cracking and the school psychologist prepping us on what to say and do when the kids returned:  what to tell them, how much to say, how many details to include, what to watch for.

What I had then - ten years ago - was a classroom full of second-graders.  What I have now is a second-grader right here in my house, asleep in her bed even now as the sky turns gold and I sit on the front stoop typing.  When I read these 9/11 memoirs and remembrances, I can't help but think how much has changed for me in those intervening ten years.  As surreal as those horrible and uncertain days seem in retrospect, it is even more surreal to me that the me who did not even think to hope yet for children of my own in 2001 would have two little girls ten years later, and would live in a completely unknown house in a completely different city.  I would have a baby on my birthday, on the anniversary of the event.

In the aftermath of the attacks, I remember hearing the sentiment that this was a world (so dark, so evil) into which it might be foolish to bring children.  I never agreed with that.  I remember thinking that there was nothing new under the sun, that there would always be darkness and death and heartbreak but also love and triumph and goodness.  It was never a question of bringing them into the world, but now that they are here, it is a question of how to tell them about the darkness.  It is a question of how to explain the death.  It is a question of how much to shield them from the heartbreak.  It is a question of how to raise them to love, triumph, and contribute to the good.


Jason's uncle passed away early this morning.  I have written before about how relatively untouched our lives have been by tragedy and loss, and even this loss is not really ours.  We are deeply sad, of course, because it is always sad to lose someone who you love and whom you have known for such a long time, but the loss really belongs to Jason's aunt and his cousins, to his uncle's mother and his uncle's many siblings and friends and sisters-in-law and neighbors who saw him regularly.  Which is why I was surprised to find myself tearing up this morning when Jason mouthed the news to me while he was still on the phone with his dad and again tonight at dinner when I explained his death to the girls.  They got quiet over their chicken rice soup.  We've talked all along about how sick he had been and about the battle he'd been fighting and especially lately about how sad Mimi and his family was, but I am not sure we had explicitly told them how it was going to end, once we both knew.  I explained that Jason and I would be going to the funeral and asked them if they had any questions.

"What time was it when he died?" Annie asked.

"I think it was really early in the morning, almost the middle of the night," I said.  I tried to say another sentence about how the nurses gave him special medicine so he wouldn't hurt and how his family was all around him but I had to stop and sit there, my eyes filling with tears.

"So, his heart just stopped working, then?" Annie continued.

I nodded and shrugged, not even totally sure what to tell her, or how much detail to give.

Jemma piped up.  "When people are really, really, really, really, really, really old, they die."

I nodded again.  "Yep, everybody eventually dies."

"Except for God.  And Jesus.  But they're the same person so, huh.  And Mary already died, but she had Jesus, so she had the magic tummy, right?"  Jemma's big eyes looked into mine and I smiled.  This is what people talk about, I thought, when they talk about the wisdom of babes.

Tonight I am remembering a man who took us out to dinner in Ann Arbor when we were much younger and poorer; a man who came to our first house in South Haven and demolished the old rickety deck before helping us build a new one; the man who loved to be outdoors and bonded with Jason over good food and drink; the man who will not get to see his grandchildren, with their big eyes and their many questions and their little hearts that moms everywhere draw and re-draw a slippery line around every day, trying to both shield them from the darkness while also teaching them how to live among it and be the light, shocked anew that the children they used to teach so confidently have been replaced with the ones who have so much to teach them.

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