A single rose stem emerges, rootless, peaceful from a narrow crevice in the concrete. It is the crevice of a name, engraved on a pulpit around a giant infinity pool. A name who became a person today, many years ago. A person who is not alive to celebrate his/her birthday today. A person who has grown older only in people’s memories, not in real life. Memories are, after all, not sensorially real.
But this rose is. Its stem rises defiantly into a cauldron of air and water, its minute thorns pierce the emptiness around it, and breaks it into a million atoms. Its pristine white petals flutter in the soft sunlight, casting a million shadows. Its smell wafts around in the gentle breeze, wandering like a cloud, on a short, but ethereal journey. The thousands gathered around barely look at the rose. Cameras flash, stories unfold, tears flow. The rose, in all its frail vulnerability, stands stoically straight, unequivocally strong, amid the molten emotions. It carries within its delicate folds, a million moments of a life, and a million moments unlived.
The 9/11 Memorial pools are awash in sunlight. A breeze. Hushed reverence. Overwhelmed tears. Some anger. Mostly bewilderment. Descriptions fail quivering tongues, explanations fail foggy minds—what happened is unbearable; why it did, even more so.
Amid the cacophonous whispers, I catch a phrase over and over again, a phrase that has formed an ironic and precarious verbal bridge between the rest of the world and me over the past four years. “I cannot imagine.” Mellow words of sympathy intended to reach and comfort, and yet distance the speaker beyond a well-guarding and insurmountable fence. “I cannot imagine what you went through.” “I cannot imagine your pain.” “I cannot imagine the catastrophe.” As imaginations fail those whose reality is protected, an invincible wall rises between them and those whose reality has fallen apart. There’s no going back from this oblivion. Tongues roll back, even tides turn, but time does neither. It unites me in a strange bond with those who got left behind on this day, sixteen years ago.
“They’re real people, you know,” I whisper to my seven-year-old. The suffix “II” after a name elicits a question from him. I try to humanize the name, moving backward to the “I” and forward to the possible “III.” I wish I knew if there was a “III,” or if that dream, like so much else, was nipped in the bud that day. I suddenly feel this urge to meet every single parent who lost a child that day. I am sure I have seen some of them on various televised programs over the years. But I could not pay much heed. Somehow, in the aftermath of my own loss, catastrophic events like terrorist attacks and natural calamities, which resulted in mass annihilation, were too much for my frail heart to bear. I cowered under ignorance, never avoiding information, but never seeking it either. I just could not bear the burden of collective grief on top of my own, very personal, monumental one. I could not bear to think of orchestrated death, when there is so much free-flowing death in our world. Lives we could not save, children who did not grow. I just resorted to self-preservation in staying away from anything in our collective existence as human beings that reminded me of how inhuman we truly are. The world had become too maniacal for me to try to make any sense of it, and I dare not try, when my own life’s meaning had all but evaporated.
So I lay in a social vacuum, engaging in benign small talk every time there was a mass shooting, a terrorist attack, an earthquake or an airplane crash. I commented half-heartedly about how unsafe we all had suddenly become, how intolerant, how impatient. I broke inside, but I did not let myself go to the homes and worlds of those who lost that day. I stopped myself from drifting into their first night, the first earth-shattering scream, the constant searching, the fog, the feeling of destruction. I could not imagine being the mother having to explain a permanent absence to a three-year-old. I could not imagine. Because I knew.
Then, last year, I visited Japan with my then-six-year-old son. In a determined decision, I took him to Hiroshima, spending a day walking in the city, visiting the site of the atomic bomb explosion, the museums and memorials around it. Aghast, and in silence, I stood in front of the artifacts in glass cases that belonged to the victims, many of them children in middle and high schools. My son said, standing in front of life-like statues of children in a recreation of that day, that he would never think of Halloween in the same way again. As his face contorted watching their melting skin and their dead eyes, he whispered to me, “This is real Halloween, Mom.”
Hiroshima awakened something in me. I knew it would be emotional. But all the warnings and premonitions could not prepare me for how rooted I would feel being close to orchestrated death. For the first time since losing Raahi, I felt that I could bear the burden of knowing that death had come through conscious, human minds and deliberate human hands. Standing in front of dozens of tattered lives and stories, I realized it was death, and it was the same. I realized that in my conscious attempt to steer clear of catastrophe, I had been focusing too much on the “how,” when it all comes down to “what” and the absence of “why.” That it is always a life too short, a death too soon, and the meaninglessness in between.
So I visited Ground Zero last fall and this summer. For the first time in the four years of living barely an hour from it. I stood there in silence, daring to open up to the lives I knew were ripped apart that day. I allowed myself to believe that I knew every single parent, sibling, spouse and child who forever lost a part of their heart that day. I need not imagine. I knew.
The breeze was blowing. The water in the infinite pool flowed. People came and went. Volunteers walked around with stories, with anecdotes of courage and fortitude. My visiting friend was crying openly, while she commented on the symbolism of the flowing water. I nodded in silence. The hollow of death was sinking, filling, and emptying. There was no beginning. And the end was nowhere near.
I was one. I was many. I was one of many.
The world is changing. Hate and death abound, and we cannot escape the turns that countries, societies, and hearts are taking. How do you look at this changing world from the window of your own life? How do you process collective grief in light of your own personal grief? Does your loss give you a sense of understanding and belonging in these crazy times, or does it make you feel even more alone?