The story of my life
right out of my body
flames will grow
Lives were lost, we say of catastrophes. On September 11, whole people were lost too, swallowed up in flames that destroyed even the planes that fueled them, pulverized in debris, dispersed over two rivers in two separate cities along with the ashes of paper and clothing, the gases of combusted building materials, insulation, plastics and polymers. Thousands of vanished bodies entered New York's atmosphere that day, penetrated the carpeting of nearby offices and apartments, rose into the nostrils of the survivors and observers, drifted into gutters and settled in harbor sediment. Disappeared, yet part of everything.
Until that day I really didn't understand what it would mean to lose a loved one's remains in a disaster. I shook my head when I heard about a bombing or an airline disaster, but the knowledge didn't reach my gut-I can only, helplessly, invoke the body here, that repository of metaphor.
I was home with my husband the moment he died, in January 2000, well before all this horror. With the hospice worker I unclothed him, bathed him, dressed him in his white wedding suit, and tried to close his eyes. The blue sea I had fallen in love with had blackened (blood congeals in the cornea soon after death) and the stubborn lids refused to budge under my fingertips. So when the men came to bag his body, it still stared out at the remains of its life: the tasteful living room strewn with baby toys, the coffee table adorned with favorite books and CDs, a vase of yellow tulips, and the hospice worker clutching a shoe box of medications no one would be needing now. For the life of me I wanted to weigh down those dead eyes. With coins, say, as some cultures do. Or with stones, as do others. Or to cover his face and body in a shroud's caul, that symbolic gesture toward the natal sac and life's renewal.
After September 11, I came to appreciate the luxury I had to even consider my options.
The body is so particular, so very personal. Each body is a map of one life experience, never to be repeated, the mediator of that person's daily pain and pleasure. The physical signs of our bodies as we grow older-birthmarks, scars, wrinkles-show us and our beloveds where we have been and what those places did to us.
So when a body is annihilated, where does the life experience go? We have no record of the person's existence, in the form of remains, no way to examine the finished map, so to speak. Open-coffin funerals and wakes may seem ghoulish to some, but the intent of them is to drive the finality and reality home: Here lived this person, here is our proof this person is dead. This is a particularly important ritual when a death is sudden and violent, a ritual no less necessary for being difficult to enact.
To say nothing of the rape of the soul torn abruptly from a murdered body. If suffering is intended to teach the soul about itself, as we are told from so many pulpits, what good was something like September 11? What can a soul learn from its body's frantic search for an air pocket in a darkening inferno? What lessons does the soul draw from the headlong pitch out a window to the concrete more than one hundred stories below? The sick eternal moment of watching the ceiling fall in over you, your last glance at the neatly kept desk, the family photos and In-Box marked Urgent, the benign face of your computer showing the curved, colorful insignia of your software, as if this day will begin and end like any other?
I have heard of Orthodox Jewish ambulance corps in Israel who descend on bombing sites to collect every little piece of a human they can find. I am ashamed to say I have found this somehow funny, laughing with my still-attached head at what hits me in my still-intact gut: laughing in discomfort at this desperate act of respect toward the body, the willful urge toward tikkun olam, repair of the world, expressed by scouring the ground for dead fingers and toes. As if each body were a world, each self a complete civilization, and every miniscule part indispensable.
I am not laughing now.
The obituaries that followed for months after September 11 never failed to mention the lost pleasures and preferences of each person who vanished: gardening, sailing, mint chocolate chip ice cream. It reminded me of the ways we grieve and recover from grief. With food. With touch. With nature. We may immerse ourselves in baths at night or watch cartoons with our children in the morning. We may force ourselves to swallow just a few bites, nursing that tender lump of sorrow that never leaves the throat; or we may gorge ourselves on potatoes, gravy, chocolate, casseroles and cakes brought by friends. We may sit in the same chair for hours looking out the window, then notice a robin in the yard. We may walk with no direction in the evening, find ourselves in front of the apartment building we lived in as newlyweds, and sit on the grass unashamedly to weep. And find that the grass is wet, and feels so good.
Slowly and not every day, but more and more, we give in to the simplest pleasures again, permitting them to become more shaded and complex: new habits, new work, new love, new life. We throw this tapestry over our loss, which remains like a hole in the floorboard that's never repaired but is known to us.
Then comes a day that we crave something our loved one would have wanted, and we feel not pain but joy when we indulge. Tasting with our mouths what she cannot taste, feeling with our fingers the velvet of his daughter's skin. Yes, our bodies are exquisitely peculiar to each of us, never to be repeated again. But we know-because of our sorrow, and because of our pleasure-that our bodies are not wholly inviolate either. The bodies of our lost loves have passed through us in some way, and through our bodies they sometimes live again.
At the bottom of Manhattan is a clean, scarred excavation pit where something new will rise soon. Across the river from me at the Pentagon, the white walls show no sign of breach. Last year the rescue workers opened up these wounded places and crept inside, offering the hard labor of their own bodies to recover what they could of the lost. The effort was twofold: cleanse the sites of their horror, and somehow restore order to the broken families who awaited word of what had been found. As I thought of the workers waving flashlights over the inner depths of these manmade hells, I was reminded of a ceremony the Buddhists enact when a loved one has died violently: You must return to the site of the death and call the confused soul out with lights, then lead the soul home to be honored. My prayer for the families of 9/11 is that their memories and future joy be such beacons, leading their loved ones home.