Friday, September 11, 2009

The American People in their Righteous Might*

* Title from a speech by FDR immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor

Eight years ago I was so pregnant I was at that "oh no you didn't go and make me move, now I'll have to sit on you and crush you" stage.

When I woke up that morning, I lay on my side, the left, of course, with my knees slightly bent, of course, and I contemplated the floor. Was it going to be easier, I wondered, to maneuver the upper half of my body upright first, or to kick my legs hard enough to get momentum to drop them over the edge of the bed to help hurtle me into a standing position?

In the end, hunger is what really got me out of bed that day. But still, I moved at the speed of snail.

That's why I was still in my car zipping through Salem, slowing only to consider stopping for a pistachio donut at the greatest little bakery right before the historic square. In my mind, the morning is molasses slow motion and details are vivid. It was a gorgeous perfect New England fall day. Brilliant sky, crisp air with sunlit warmth. I glanced to my left as my car slowed for the curve and checked out the window display for the Salem doll lady, then swung my head to the right to drool over the gorgeous Victorians. The witch museum off the square was preparing for Halloween. Not a morning like any other, a sharper more perfect morning than any other. A day that should have been as spectacular as the weather, as the coming season with all its fun and treats and special moments.

NPR chirped the news in my ear. I turned off to Marblehead, and as I drove into my work parking lot I felt so lucky: I was pregnant, healthy, had a great job, lived in the most beautiful place in the US, had a great husband and life was good.

That's why I was so stunned, so disbelieving when the newscaster stumbled over his words and said, "This can't be right...we're getting reports that a plane has struck the World Trade Center...we don' t understand the report, we need to check, we'll keep bringing information..."

That's the moment the day started to move in fast motion blur.

I actually ran into my office building, the first office was the film guy. He had all sorts of TVs and equipment and people were crammed into his office.

"Oh my God," I said, "They're saying...planes? In New York City?"

"I know," my coworker Frank said, "We're watching..."

And the bodies parted and we turned to the television just in time to see the second plane hit. There was a long, loud audible inhale, and maybe a short scream, but what I really recall was the publisher's long low moan. "My son," she said, "My son is in that building!" She hurried from the room and it was so, so quiet until several people started murmuring oh my god.

The newscasters were talking about Boston, about threats and planes to Boston, to the Financial District where my husband worked.

I tore my eyes away from the television and hurried to my office. I called my husband, "Oh my God did you see?"

We spoke for a few minutes then he said there was a commotion outside his office. He came back a minute later, "There are military planes flying over my building," he told me, "What is happening?"

"You should leave," I said, "I heard they're shutting down the trains."

"I don't know," he said, with that reluctance of people who've been through too many false fire alarms.

A minute later I heard urgent shouting behind him. "What was that?"

"A fireman," he said, "He told us all to get out, now, not to shut anything down just go."

"Do it," I said, "Run as fast as you can to try to get space on the train. Get off at Swampscott," I said, naming a stop significantly south of us, "I'll drive to get you."

"I'll call you," he said. But cell service went out and it was the last I heard from him for hours and hours.

Nobody understood. Nobody comprehended. But urgency began penetrating the shock.

I drove to Swampscott and waited. Much later than expected, the train arrived, so full that people stood on the steps, clinging to the rail, white-faced, silent. People poured out. "There he is!" an older woman said out loud. "Oh I'm glad," I said. "Do you see your husband yet?" she asked. "No, no, not yet." Her son joined her and they lingered beside me until I burst out, "Oh thank goodness there he is!" She smiled at me and left, one happy end to one story that day.

Every architect in America who watched the news that day knew what was coming. The World Trade Center towers are standard lesson in architectural school. My husband predicted nearly to the minute when the towers would fall, and how. Later, I heard countless architects share the same story.

So much grief and anger. So much sudden comprehension. So much seeing what would happen next with deep dread. So much so unavoidable. So much anger about what could have been, or should have been, known and avoided.

My sister-in-law called. She'd been rounded up by the FBI. That's how she phrased it -- rounded up. "I stood behind him in line," she said, "The terrorist guy, the one who flew the Boston plane. He was right in front of me." She was terrified and the FBI kept questioning her. They took all her bags -- briefcase and purse -- and her car. She cried. Not from fear, but because she had nothing to tell them. She wished she had something to tell them.

We all wished we had the right words that day, the ones people wanted to hear.

I remember being so confused by my shock. "It's not like it's the first time this sort of thing has ever happened," I kept saying.
"Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounding determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God. "

--- Franklin Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor speech, December 8, 1941
The truth is, history and past events not withstanding, it was unprecedented, what happened that day.

Shock became anger, anger became action, action became war, and then the losses compounded, as did the deep divisions, and the cementing of opinions and sides.

Eight years later.

That baby is nearly eight now. My baby, I mean, not the war.

But you can't hardly think of ages without realizing that we've been at war my daughter's entire life. That children her age are missing someone. I read an essay today by a 9/11 widow. She has meticulously architected, in her mind, her husband's death, and her own life to this day.

This morning, on another 9-11 -- which remains, no matter what, not just any other day in September, not any other Friday or birthday or deadline or any event, special or mundane, Nine Eleven -- I felt sluggish as I did eight years ago. I pushed myself around the track, though, bribing myself with an episode of This American Life: "Fine Print." They interviewed an Iranian man who had been seized, imprisoned, tortured and forced into a false confession about conspiring with Western Powers. Western makes me think of cowboys, which isn't too far off if you think more deeply about how the West was won. Western makes Middle Easterners, okay, Iranians, think of 1953 and how the West won then, too. They have not forgiven or forgotten, and it lends credence to the false confessions, which are actually well-planned and profesionally delivered.

Omid Memarian's confession was well-planned and professionally delivered, despite his best attempts to surreptitiously poke sticks in the spokes.

He said that he realized, a week or so into his detainment (such a word) and torture, that he wasn't even the real target -- the perceived threat. He was merely an innocent bystander, so to speak, a tool to threaten and get at the real targets and true perceived threats. He sounded put out, and humiliated. To go through all this and just to be a tool.

Sort of like the people in the Towers, on the planes, in the field in Pennsylvania. The people lost in 2001.

Memarian falsely confessed in 2004, his country ramping up its anti-Western strategy, possibly as a direct result of US actions -- although they seem to dislike the British as intensely -- which were a result of the 9/11 attacks which were a result of...

War is a Mobius strip.

So here we all are, eight years later, continuing to feed in on ourselves, feed on ourselves.

Memarian also said that while he was being tortured he thought, "I don't want this to become that divisive moment, that defining moment, not for me, not when I'm only 30."

As a journalist, he said, explaining, you spend time with people in tragedies, and you realize that there are these moments when life becomes split into Before and After. He'd interviewed detainees and torture victims, among others, and he said they just never quite recover themselves.

The producer of the show, Nancy Updike, didn't ask him to explain what he meant. At this point, eight years later, we all comprehend what that means.

1941
1953

In 1969 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her book On Death and Dying. In 1969, a lot of people knew a lot about loss and grief. In 1969, four generations of men had fought four generations of wars. In 1969, war didn't bring about a baby boom, it brought about a baby bust. The joke is that the Baby Boomers were too busy being eternal teenagers and living selfishly to actually have children, but if you asked me straight out I'd say that's silly, straight out.

Anyway, as we all know, they waited until the first Gulf War was over to have children. Maybe we all thought war was petering out, by then. It certainly didn't have the same impact the Vietnam War had on us, culturally. Also, the Greatest Generation had already happened, so what was left to the rest of us? Lesser? Frankly that was fine by me. I didn't mind having a lesser and more comfy life. I was happy to appreciate the mettle testing the gradnparents' generation had sustained if it meant I got to miss out on a Great Depression and World War.

Anyway, though, as we all know, that wasn't to be.

2001
2009

Kubler Ross said there were five stages of grief. Have we hit number 3, Bargaining, yet? or are we stuck at 2, Anger?

You aren't supposed to rush the process.

But maybe, just maybe, it's time to let go of the second stage.

I heard that the ability or willingness to traverse the stages linked to the amount of meaning and purpose one has in life.

Here's to us finding, nationally, a new and strong meaning and purpose beyond the before and after, beyond the anger and fear.

I learned a lot more about loss and grief, personally, this summer. That's why right now it feels so important, urgent maybe even, to me to say we need to celebrate.

A short while ago, on a curve in a track by the water, I cried about a lost friend. I cried because I hated the day -- it was hot, the children had been contrary -- and she would have loved it. I cried because I was here and she was not. How I wish you were here to have this day, my heart cried. That's when it hit me: I needed to have this day and find the joy in it, and send it up to her, somehow.

Live and let live.

We need to have this day and find the joy in it and send it up, somehow.

18 comments:

Tracee said...

You're right. I too was 8 months pregnant when I shot a photo of the 2nd plane hitting the 2nd tower.

War, my daughter's whole life.

Yet, she probably doesn't even know it or realize it. Our lives, our every-day lives has gone on and on.

9-11 is definately a before and after moment for me.

Magpie said...

Chills, Julie - this gave me chills.

Pgoodness said...

Yes, Julie. Just YES.

Beck said...

What a perfect thing this is.

My favorite cousin is going to Afghanistan soon. The Canadian troops are getting slaughtered in Afghanistan, which means that I stand a good chance of never seeing my favorite cousin again. And all because of what happened 8 years ago today.

dsmills1001 said...

I've been in varying states of teariness all day (my norm on each 9/11 since 2001). This just sent me into actual sobs.

Yeah, I'm ready for Stage 3.

anniegirl1138 said...

Kubler-Ross was writing about what the terminally ill went through not their surviving loved ones. Grieving the dead is different from dying yourself.

I was teaching that day. I'd run down to the library to get something and the tv was on. I watched the towers fall. I went back upstairs and told the other teachers on my wing. We kept the kids away from the tv and other news sources that day. Many of our kids had parents in The Guard. We knew what was coming and so would they although most had been tiny or babies during the first Gulf War.

For myself, I didn't want to watch or read or really pay much attention beyond what others forced on me. I'd just gone through my first IVF. It had failed. I was wrapped up in my personal grief and it insulated me. It sounds harsh, and it was, but I hadn't much too spare emotionally at that time.

Julie Pippert said...

Annie, There is certainly a difference between applying it to one's dying self and to those who lost the loved one. But my understanding is that later Kubler Ross applied it to the loved ones as well as the terminally ill. In fact, I think it was later directly applied to infertilty, too, or so I heard.

But those stages were so much a part of that day, for those who were about to die, those watching them die, and the indescribable loss, all in minutes, instead of months.

Julie Pippert said...

Tracee, yes, that's so it. My daughter knows of the war. it's got to that point, also we know people, you know, in the war. But I wonder how it defines things for her, if at all. My dad was in the military and I recall Vietnam, not as an everyday thing, like it probably was for my parents, but as this sudden shocked awareness one new year's Eve when a fellow officer, just home from Vietnam, had an extreme PTSD reaction to my sister getting a boo boo and bleeding.

Julie Pippert said...

Maggie, P, Beck, DS -- thanks. Thanks so much. This was such a hard message to somehow convey but the emotions and thoughts had to come forward. So glad to know they reached. :)

Julie Pippert said...

Beck (you) I am so sorry to hear that. It is a sorry situation, and I say that as my mind echoes back the "honor" and "needs must" reactive thought. My brother, I see from a FB status today, is on training drills this weekend. I know how you feel.

CatrinkaS said...

Disciplined, intelligent - warm. Beautifully, thoughtfully done. Thank you.

Kat said...

You know, I have really been struggling today and this post is so uplifting, Julie. Thank you.

TZT said...

You evoked that day so well, Julie. I have chills and much to think about. Thank you.

Annie said...

And isn't that the best honour or tribute we can give to those who were lost 8 years ago? Not to mention the honour we should give our own lives. Find the joy, indeed.

Thank you for this beautiful piece, and this reminder.

kim said...

Gorgeous Julie. Chills, tears, - exhilaration, hurt, hope - all of it.

Nicole B. said...

Thank you for sharing this story, Julie.

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Michael said...

Goddamn, this was good. Wow. I am in awe.