Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In The Years Since



I am standing in the late afternoon summer humidity of Battery Park, staring out across the Hudson River toward the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. People are beginning to stream out of the office buildings and towering edifices around Wall Street to their homes in Jersey or Brooklyn or Queens. I have a home three thousand miles away. I am here on a pilgrimage, to the place where everything changed, where I watched my America slip away and lose whatever innocence it still had left after the twentieth century.

I love this city. It is the place I should have called home. In a thousand lifetimes, in a platoon of years, the past tells me I detoured away from what should have been. I walk the streets I have never seen before, yet I feel I know in my blood. There is Broadway and Trinity Church, and the Sacred Place. There is the slight smell of ash in the air of memory, and I see the whiteness of that day still embedded in the sidewalks. I pass the mural on the side of the firehouse all coppery in the late afternoon sun. I see dead flowers in the fences surrounding the Sacred Place, and the messages left by travelers and New Yorkers alike on the black billboards that line the boardwalk near the viewing platform.

Now, from this spot in Battery Park, I think I can see all the way back north to Times Square, and even farther, to Columbus Circle, Central Park, Harlem.

Oh the places you’ll go, Dr. Seuss told us before he left.

It is January after. My grandfather is dead. I remember watching the coverage with him in the main dining hall of the hospice near my home in Los Angeles. He was silent for so long, so sad and unhappy. He did not understand a broken leg, leaving his home forever, going to this place of strangers and sickness, as he did not comprehend the images that day on the television screen.

On this January day, we bury him in the cemetery at the Mission. I remember his wife placed a dozen red carnations on his chest before they closed the casket.

April in Virginia, months after, my first airline flight since, to my brother’s wedding. I see Washington D.C., the monuments, the White House. I offer prayers at the Vietnam Memorial. I read the letters, the signs. I examine the relics left by those who have loved and still love. Through the trees, I spy the other memorials. Some offer statues and granite and remembrance of things past. Lincoln sits at the head of it all, staring down the mall into history. I hear the echoes of King. I follow the mighty obelisk into the sky, and see the jet plane arc over the expanse of green lawn, an ever-present reminder of that day. Almost, the tranquility was vanquished here. Almost.

On the subway ride back to Virginia we pass Arlington, and after, the Pentagon. Still standing.

Back at the wedding, I stand on the lawn of the Civil War mansion, the remnants of an old plantation. Here is where the battle for us was fought. Brother against brother. I come to see my own brother’s wedding, but it is son against family. My grandmother tells me how disappointed she is in me, that I did not take the path she chose for me.

“I am a teacher, now, a man of books and paper and ideas,” I insist “Does that not count for something?” She did not have an answer, so I will take up both sides of the argument for us. The problem with men of books and paper is that they are often consumed in the fires of history. But then we all are consumed in the fires of history.

The grandmother dies in the year 2003. At her funeral, I am the black sheep, the outcast. My family and I are on different trajectories, and like the rocket’s red glare, our coming demise would be tragically realized. It is just a matter of time.

I inherit a house. We spend the year 2004 fixing it up, making it our own. It is the place where my wife spent her childhood. Then, in the middle of renovations, in fights with painters and fencing companies, and roofers, I wake up one morning and I cannot breathe. I think it is only a pulled muscle in my chest, but the condition worsens. I can only sleep sitting up in a chair. I find myself losing the fight to bring air into my lungs.

At the hospital, I am rushed into the emergency department with congestive heart failure. In rapid succession, I find my diabetes is out of control, my heart is enlarged, and my blood pressure is dangerously high. I am stuck in the hospital while my wife must handle all the contractors and workmen. For the first time, I think seriously about death, in a middle aged, no nonsense, change-your-life-right-now kind of way.

I leave the hospital a week later having lost forty pounds, fifteen of it in the first twenty-four hours of hospitalization. The enemy is water. Water, you need to live. But too much around your heart and you die. I am more quiet for a while, and the thoughts of death stay.

At the end of summer, we move into our new home. I am sad to leave our other life behind. Eleven years in one place means feeling like a fish on land in the new place. Change is supposed to be good, but I am ashamed to admit, I often fear it. I believe I do my best work when I have security. Now I have a mortgage, more responsibility, health concerns, far less security.

In the fall of 2005, I watch my other brother get married. I take close to four hundred pictures for him that day, but we really have little to say to each other. I am not part of the wedding party. I sit with my parents and another couple, their friends since high school. Little do I know that in a few months, we will all share in a tragedy, an event that will push us apart even as it links us together.

On January second, after leaving the home of those high school friends, my mother drops dead of a heart attack on their driveway. The paramedics and emergency room doctors work on her for over an hour, but she is gone. Sixty-one years old.

My father retires in 2006. The seven day man always worked the full week. My father is not a big communicator. I go to his retirement party at the brewery with his co-workers. He thanks them, seems to enjoy himself, but there is a sadness, a distance, like he had left a long time ago.

A few weeks later, a dull pain in my side lands me in the emergency room with sepsis. Appendicitis. I come out of the anesthesia fighting with the nurses over a catheter I did not want. It takes several of them to subdue me. I remember the darkened hospital room, and my father trying to say something to me, but it’s garbled, like code. I cannot focus. The antibiotics, the pain medicine, the anesthesia all leave me cloudy.

I leave the hospital, and twenty-four hours later, dance gently at my twentieth wedding anniversary party. When the time comes, I give a toast to my absent brother, our missing grandparents, my dead mother. I speak about memories, and difficult days, and love and friendship.

There are moments in our lives where we stand on a precipice, and our whole lives stretch out before us, as well as behind us. We get a glimpse of what has been, where we are now, and what is to come. There are ghosts and the living there with us. In that moment, no one will ever grow old, nobody will ever get sick, and nobody ever dies. But the moment is gone in an instant, and the good fight goes on. It is only a brief respite. Here’s to twenty more years.

The last thing to happen in the time since is the death of a family. We simply ran out of things to say to each other. Like that day in September, six years in the past, there is a dividing line between who you were, and who you are now. Henry David Thoreau said that “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” I know this now from first hand experience. In the years since, I feel I cannot live enough, or that I live not at all. I think about those poor people falling from the sky. I think of the hatred that pushed them into the air. I think about what those final moments must have been like.

It is time to cast off the things holding us back. It is time to step out into the clear, blue sky.

I think of all that we have lost in the years since, and I again think of the words of Thoreau: “I have penetrated to those meadows on the morning of many a first spring day, jumping from hummock to hummock, from willow root to willow root, when the wild river valley and the woods were bathed in so pure and bright a light as would have waked the dead, if they had been slumbering in their graves, as some suppose. There needs no stronger proof of immortality. All things must live in such a light. O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where was thy victory, then?”

Spring journeys into summer again.

And so I stand in Battery Park, in the fading twilight of a summer’s day, the way it is always summer in my dreams. I take a last look across the rippling Hudson to Lady Liberty, a hazy darkened shadow in the distance. It is time to go home.

As I make my way back toward Trinity Church and Ground Zero, I see Spiderman. He is not flying through the air. He is not even looking heroic. He simply trudges past me, a backpack slung over his tired shoulders. He is a guy heading home after a long day’s work.

In the days and years since, our heroes tend to be more like normal people now. They do not fly through the air anymore; like every one else, they walk on the ground.