September 11, remembered

The ghostly columns are officially called the Tribute in Light. I can see them now from my window. They rise four miles into the sky and are visible 60 miles away. They go up at sunset on Sept. 11 and gradually disappear when dawn brings another day.

The first few years after 2001 I used to watch the memorial service at Ground Zero. Though I had a tenuous connection to two of the victims, I knew none of them personally. Still, my tears welled up as fathers and sisters, uncles and daughters and friends read the names of their loved ones who were vaporized in the 9/11 holocaust. In more recent years (since an old high-school friend discovered me on Facebook), I read the poem he wrote on the first anniversary of the attacks. The image of rose petals fluttering from the heights to the ground is especially poignant.

Two years ago I wrote my impressions of the National September 11 Memorial. I had been invited to a tour guided by the architect who won the competition for its design. The seemingly impossible challenge that Michael Arad set himself was to represent absence, the emptiness left in the spirit and on the ground after the incineration of the people and the towers. How do you render what isn’t there? How do you depict nothingness? Arad’s solution is moving and brilliant. 

I was not in New York when it happened — I was with seven other New Yorkers, and all of us were reeling from shock and pain. We had to reach our children, but we were sailing in the Aegean and our cell phones couldn’t get through. We finally managed to connect by triangulating with my nephew in Italy who related news from New York.

My husband and I were more fortunate than our friends in our return trip. We left them in Athens; they eventually were able to get to London and then home, weeks later. The grounding of all flights for five days created a backlog whose effects were felt for weeks afterward. Our tickets routed us through Rome on Saturday, the 15th. We were rushed onto the plane, only to sit, waiting. The captain was ready, the door was closed, and we were pulling away from the gate, but the airport officials in New York hesitated to give us permission to land. Some time later, they finally gave us the green light, and we took off.

We landed in a deserted airport. There was NO ONE at JFK International Airport but a very few customs and immigration officials. “Welcome home,” said the official at passport control. That was all he said as he waved us through. No waiting and jostling for position at the curb, because no vehicles were coming to pick up nonexistent passengers. An even bigger shock was the empty highway leading out of the airport. The traffic on that road NEVER goes faster than 10 m.p.h. Devoid of crowds and traffic, this looked nothing like the city I know so well.

For about a week, New Yorkers said hello to each other, greeting every stranger on the street. Because we weren’t strangers. We felt such a strong sense of community, an affinity that extended among black and white, rich and poor, the young and the elderly. We were all New Yorkers, Americans, and we were all united in both our suffering and our determination to keep going. And then Pres. G.W. Bush told us to go shopping.

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