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Posts Tagged ‘tragedy’

Everyone who’s old enough to remember has a 9/11 story.  Mine is probably fairly typical of those of us with no personal connection to the events, and I’ve never written about it because it feels too much like trying to hop on the tragedy train in order to capitalize on the pageview potential.  But on this 15th anniversary I have some reflections I feel compelled to share.

My memories of that day are fragmented.  I was standing in my sunny yellow kitchen, chunky six-month-old William on my hip, when the phone rang–my husband, telling me to turn on the television.  A couple of hours later I picked him up at his downtown office and we went to lunch–at the top of the tallest building in Knoxville, which I remember feeling nervous about.

In the lobby of the building they were selling extra editions of the Knoxville News Sentinel, something so out of the ordinary that it was frightening.  We were all so desperate for news and there was no Twitter or Facebook to provide the instantaneous updates we’ve come to expect when a crisis strikes today.

On the elevator ride up to the 27th floor two men in business suits were discussing a mutual acquaintance whose son was in one of the towers.  At the time everyone still hoped he would be found alive.

I was worried when it was time to pick up the kids from school.  What did they know? What would I tell them?  Emily was ten and already knew.  Jake and Teddy were six and seven.  I remember at first just telling them that some bad people had done a very bad thing.  Because of my kids, I did not obsessively watch the television coverage for days as so many did.  I did not want them to see the towers falling.

The house we lived in back then was in a flight path.  We were accustomed to hearing noisy airplanes on their descent approach.  For the next few days, it was eerily quiet.  Once we heard an airplane and we all ran outside, terrified, to see a military plane overhead.  We were all on edge.  For some time after 9/11, loud noises made me jump.

Flash forward to the 10th anniversary, September 11, 2011, five years ago.  Six days out from our own personal tragedy, we were homeless–John and I and the little kids living with my sister Betsy, Emily away at college, Jake and Teddy staying with school friends, even our dog being farmed out to my other sister.  We had lost just about every material possession.  I didn’t have the emotional energy to think about 9/11.  I remember writing on Facebook that I felt guilty posting about our circumstances with all the posts about the anniversary reminding me that our tragedy was small by comparison.

Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has become a fixture in our society, the way most of us keep in touch,  read news, express our feelings on matters both personal and political.  I can’t help but wonder how our experience of 9/11 would have been different if Facebook had existed back then.  I know that in the case of our September 2011 disaster Facebook was how shared the news and received encouragement and help.  This year, on the 5th anniversary of the fire, I was looking forward to seeing those old posts in the “On This Day” feature that Facebook helpfully notifies me about first thing each morning.  I braced myself a little because those memories are painful, but recalling the support of friends, family, and acquaintances is uplifting.

Imagine my surprise, then, that even though five years ago I was posting about nothing but the fire and its aftermath for probably two weeks, my Facebook memories are a cheery collection of memes and articles and comments from every year but 2011.  Facebook has apparently decided without any input from me that the events of September 2011 are too traumatic and I couldn’t possibly want to revisit them.  Presumably if 9/11 had occurred in the Facebook era, it would also be scrubbed from everyone’s “On This Day” feature as something too dark to recall.

And while I am in awe of Facebook’s algorithms and appreciate their intent (as I know people in particular who have been blindsided by unexpected and unwanted visceral reminders of such events as the death of a child), I don’t WANT to forget September 2011.

I don’t particularly want to remember the sight of my burned down house and the destruction of all my treasured possessions, but I do want to remember the offers of shelter, the months of meals, the clothes and toys and gift cards, the love and the prayers.  I won’t forget them, not ever, but I also like seeing them on Facebook.  It’s worth seeing the pictures to see them, and the pictures provide the context for appreciating them.

Today my newsfeed is flooded with “We Remember” and “Never Forget” memes.  Some show the Twin Towers in ruins, some show them intact, bathed in heavenly light.  I’m sure when some people say they won’t forget they mean they won’t forget the terrorists, the hated enemies who committed this vile and cowardly attack, the outrage of being attacked on our own soil.  Our country has changed since 9/11 and I don’t think it has changed for the better.  We have become an angrier country, a frightened country, a deeply divided country.  That’s not the America I love and that’s not what I want to remember about 9/11.

What I want to remember are those who gave their lives in service to others, the way foreign countries rallied around us, the incredible feeling of unity as Americans.  And what struck me most at the time and remains with me now and what I want to remember most of all is the same thing I want to remember about September 2011:  the love–that when people were afraid they were going to die, the last thing they did if they could was call their spouses and parents and children, to say I love you just one last time.

september-11-remember-the-love

 

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When I was a little girl, Labor Day meant watching Jerry Lewis, waiting to hear our names called out on the telethon for our donation.  It meant fried chicken and deviled eggs and buttermilk ice cream at my cousins’ house.  Later it became the day that my cousin and I got to appear on the local telethon to turn in the money we’d made at our annual backyard carnival.  Always it was the last real day of summer before the first full day of school.

Well, Jerry Lewis and his telethon are a thing of the past.  School started almost a month ago.  Some years we get together and eat burgers with the family on Labor Day; more often than not we take advantage of a Monday off to engage in actual LABOR–John and I will probably conduct a file review today.

What Labor Day will always be for me now, I imagine, is an anniversary.  Because on a Labor Day evening, five years ago, while we were thankfully absent from home, this happened:

fire 1

Every year in advance of this day I think about it, and contemplate writing some kind of profound post.  This year was no different, especially since it’s five years–kind of a significant anniversary–and September 5 and Labor Day once again coincide.

But despite thinking about it a few days ago and starting to plan out in my head what I would say, it took looking at my Facebook memories this morning (at a post I penned on the one-year anniversary) to remind me to sit down and write this today.

I just mentioned the anniversary to William and asked him what he thought about it and he said it doesn’t really matter to him anymore, that it was a long time ago and he didn’t lose anything important.

The events do have a certain remoteness, and I find myself looking back on them as though I were watching a documentary about something that happened to someone else.  It still seems so incredible that it happened at all.

I find myself paraphrasing Ronald Reagan and asking myself, “Are you better off now than you were five years ago?” The answer is an unqualified YES, even after all the losses.  The fact is that we were miserable in that house, that it was an exceptionally difficult time in our lives for a variety of reasons.  I don’t know what would have happened if the house had NOT burned down–obviously, the passage of five years would have brought changes although they would not have been the same changes–but it’s fairly certain at least that we would not have been living here, and living here has shaped our lives in interesting ways.

I’ve written before about the love and community we experienced and what a gift that was (and I remain wracked with guilt over my failure to finish all the thank you notes).  Does all the above mean that the fire was a blessing and part of God’s plan for our family?

Well, I don’t believe that.  Nor do I expect I will ever really “get over” it.  But I am grateful that our passage through the fire landed us where we are.

-Smoke your PAIN but keep the ASHES forever.-

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Beneath the Ashes

“The fire which seems extinguished often slumbers beneath the ashes.”
Pierre Corneille

I’ve been debating all day whether to write this or not . . . but I’m still thinking about it so I guess I will go ahead.

I came across a blog post today in which the author described some “must have” items as (paraphrased) “things I’d save in a fire,” complete with little flames dancing inside the letters of the title.  And it bothered me.  I contemplated saying something to this person (whom I don’t know at all) but I didn’t want to make her feel bad.  And I felt like I was overreacting to her light-hearted post.  After all, I myself once wrote a post entitled “Kids’ Books You Can Read without Wanting to Shoot Yourself in the Head,” without ever thinking my jocularity might trigger some unpleasant feelings for those who love people who have actually shot themselves in the head (although not because of crappy kids’ books).

It just goes to show that you never really understand things until they happen to you.  I mean, even when you say to people, “That must be so terrible.  I’m so sorry,” you don’t really know what it’s like–whatever IT happens to be.  You know it sounds awful, but you don’t know how awful.

Yesterday William remarked, “We’ve had our house burn down and we’ve also been robbed.  Those are two unusual things and they both happened to us.”  And truthfully sometimes it’s almost unbelievable to me that such a terrible life-changing event did, in fact, happen to us.

It happened a little more than three years ago now, and the anniversary passed without comment.  I thought about it a few days before, thinking about writing something, and then forgot on the actual day, because life goes on and life is busy.

But that post today brought back some of those feelings of loss, as do the all-too-frequent occurrences of fire-as-plot-device in the books I read.  People’s homes burn to the ground, and everyone is all like, “Oh, how terrible!  You lost everything!” and then they put them up somewhere and plans are made to rebuild or something, and everyone just happily moves on about after a day of sad.

I bet you’ve had the conversation, haven’t you?  The one where someone asks you what one thing you would save if your house was burning down, and you say, “My kids,” and they say, “Your kids are safe.  Pick a thing.”  I know I had that conversation and I think I always said I would save the (supposedly fireproof) box that contained the negatives for all our photos. Which ironically WAS saved after the fact, but it wasn’t waterproof, so that was a bust.

So I started thinking today, if I could go back in time, and save five things from that house before it burned down, and those five things didn’t have to be my children, what would I save?  The pictures didn’t even make the list, frankly.

The first thing that came to mind–and it came to mind immediately–was the pack of love letters that John wrote to me, at first every day, then less frequently, during the first year we were dating.  I kept them in a drawer in my bedroom, and I used to read them over, which he couldn’t stand because he found it embarrassing.  I know I’m just as glad all the letters I wrote to him aren’t around to be read in the future!  But after the fire when I thought of those letters, that was the closest I came to crying over anything I’d lost.

The next item was easy too.  I had a little board book which I kept next to my bed.  It was called Global Babies and it was the only thing I had bought for the baby we lost.  I used to hold that book and cry and cry.  I could buy another copy, and maybe someday I will, but it won’t be the same.

After that I had to think.  I had a box of things that were Mima’s.  There was some jewelry I had given her.  And a scarf that still smelled like her.  The program from her funeral.  At our Victorian house I had made kind of a little shrine to her with those things.  I would have liked to save that box.

And I wish I could have saved the bag of newborn baby clothes, the one that would have had things that belonged to both me and John when we were babies, as well as special blankets our babies were wrapped in, and the outfit they wore home from the hospital, and the sweet little fluffy snowsuit they all wore.  I would like to have those to hand down one day.

I couldn’t settle on a fifth thing, although it would probably be something wedding-related . . . and I’m not going to spend any more mental or emotional energy on it because it’s kind of pointless anyway, isn’t it?  The fact is, had I been there, I would have run around screaming gathering children and cats and wouldn’t have thought for a second about saving anything, I’m sure.

And it’s only just occurred to me as I’ve been writing that I haven’t given a single thought to five things I would save if by some cruel twist of fate THIS house were to burn down.

entire house 2

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Joey

That’s what I always called him, and how I will remember him, even though he was long since “Joe” to everyone, even his brother and sister.  But he was Joey to me, my big grown-up cousin, more than a decade older than me so seeming like an adult even in my earliest memories.  Always sweet to his little cousins, showing off how big and strong he was (though he was as skinny as a rail) by offering to let us punch him in the stomach as hard as we could.

He died early this morning, his illness quick, unexpected, and brutal:  strokes, possibly a heart attack, amputation, gangrene.  It’s hard to believe someone could be driving around on Monday and be terminal by Thursday, but that’s what happened.  Nothing could save him.

His life was not unmarked by suffering.  His father died tragically in 1976, when he was barely into adulthood.  His first wife died very suddenly almost 13 years ago, leaving him a widower with three children.  His mother, whom he was counting on to help with the kids, died just two months later.

There were some tensions in his family, and his illness offered an opportunity for healing to begin.

He died on All Saints Day, the first day of this month which the Church dedicates to the remembrance of the dead.  I like to think there is a wonderful heavenly reunion taking place this morning.

Please pray for his wife, for his three children, and for his brother and sister, the last ones left in their family.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.  May his soul, and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace.  Amen.

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Terrible things evoke many responses:  tears; prayers; the urge to hide, to sleep, not to read or look or hear any more, or even to obsessively read and watch and learn everything about what happened; and, for writers, to write.  You wonder if maybe you shouldn’t.  You wonder if people will think you are capitalizing on a tragedy in order to get page views.  You wonder if anyone will care what you have to say, and why it matters anyway, what difference you can possibility make.  But in the end, you write because you have to, just like so many people on Facebook (almost EVERYONE) were drawn to post something, ANYTHING, yesterday to express their shock and horror and empathy.

We want to talk about it, we want to write about it, we want to share about it, because we crave community at a time like this.  And we crave answers.  We want to make some kind of sense of something that doesn’t make any kind of sense, and won’t, no matter how hard we try to make it.

So we talk about gun control.  People say that if we do that we are politicizing what happened.  But there shouldn’t BE anything political about doing something about gun violence in our society.  People say guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and that’s partly true, but two crazy men attacked school children yesterday, one in America with guns and one in China with a knife.  The kids in America are dead.  The kids in China will live.  Guns extend the reach and capacity for violence of those bent on doing harm to others.

The problem is that no laws that have been or will be proposed will go far enough.  I would ban all handguns and all semi-automatic weapons.  That’s never going to happen.  And that means they are going to be around where crazy people will get hold of them.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to pass what laws we can.  It’s not politicizing the deaths of these little children to try to do that now; it is RESPECTING them.

Then we talk about more help for those with mental illness.  I know from experience how hard it can be to find affordable assistance in this area, and also how time consuming and difficult it can be to get the right diagnosis and the right medication.  Again, would better mental health care have helped in this situation?  It’s too soon to tell without knowing more of this guy’s story.  Was he mentally ill?  Well, he pretty much had to be, didn’t he?

Which brings us to the problem of evil.  We aren’t going to solve this one today.  Or ever, not before we enter eternity.  My oldest child asked me, “Are people who do things like that mentally ill, or are they evil?”  I said (and I believe) that ANYONE who intentionally sets out to kill innocent people is by definition mentally ill.  I asked her which way she would prefer it to be.  She said, “I guess evil, so I could hate them.  But that would be too easy, so it probably isn’t the answer, is it?”

The gunman’s actions were evil.  Was HE evil?  Is mental illness itself an evil?  Does being severely mentally ill open people up to infestation of evil?  I’ve heard people describe certain criminals as monsters, not human beings.  But they are human beings, and at some point they were innocent babies.  And we don’t want to think about that because we don’t want to acknowledge our own potential for evil, or think about what it would be like if one or our own kids somehow turned out horribly, terribly wrong.  We want to stress the “otherness” of a person who could do something like that, because human beings don’t treat each other like that. Right?

Has the world turned evil, and have we done something to make it that way?  God created the world, and all that he made was good.  Yet can we deny that there is some sort of sickness in the core of our society?  But then, hasn’t it always been there?  Haven’t men been killing each other since the Fall, and it’s just that they now have both the ability to be more efficient and effective at doing it, and the media to publicize it for them?

And what about God anyway?  Many, many people who I am sure mean well have been posting Facebook memes about how of course things like this are going to happen since we kicked God out of our public schools.  Let me tell you what, no one kicked God out of anywhere.  He was THERE yesterday at that school.  He was in that principal who went bravely out into the hallway to confront the gunman and in the teachers who hid their kids and in the bathroom with the children hiding and their teacher telling them she loved them.  There was prayer in that school and there was prayer outside of it.  I read once that prayers are retroactive, outside time the way God is, so we can still pray that those children didn’t suffer and that they knew they would be going to God.  Whether the posters mean to imply it or not, those memes suggest that God punished us for outlawing school prayer by letting kindergartners die and that is just BULLSHIT.

So we can say a lot of things, and ask a lot of questions, and do whatever we can think of to try to stop something like this from EVER happening again, and we should (I predict universal metal detectors next).  But we all need to acknowledge the truth:  that ultimately there is only so much we can do.

Right after I heard about this yesterday I was scheduled to be the “mystery reader” in the my baby girl’s second grade classroom.  I had the surreal experience of being buzzed in, signing in and putting on my visitor badge (all the time thinking how ineffective such measures would be in the face of someone truly determined to kill).  I walked down the halls and into the classroom and gave my daughter a big hug, saw all the smiling faces, spent half an hour reading Christmas stories to 20 kids who had every expectation of being safe in their school, just like the kindergartners of Sandy Hook did.

But there is no truly place safe anywhere; that’s part of the human condition.  You could decide to homeschool your kids and they could die in a car wreck, or a home invasion, or a fire, or in their sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning, or of cancer.  If you have kids, if you love anyone, you are opening yourself up to the possibility of loss and pain. (And if you don’t, you are suffering a different kind of loss and pain.)

We can’t live in fear forever, so we will go on.  And in a few days, unless you are one of the people whose children were murdered, the numbness will wear off, like it did after Aurora, after 9-11, after Columbine, and so many more.  We will all go back to thinking about Christmas and worrying about our personal problems which right now seem so petty, so unimportant.

And if we can continue to hold the dead and the grieving up in prayer, and be a little kinder and more loving to those around us, it’s okay.  We have to live in this world, flawed though it is and though we are, at least for now.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace.  Amen.

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Standing outside the Fire

I’ve written this post in my head dozens of times, each one different.  It’s an anniversary, and I knew I should–that I wanted to, NEEDED to–commemorate it in some way.  But should I talk about what I’ve learned?  The good things it brought about? Just start off with “one year ago today”?  Reassure everyone (and myself) that everything is okay now?  Shoot for inspiring, or tragic?

Maybe my confusion stems from the fact that I haven’t fully processed it yet.  That there are days when I think–or even say–“I just can’t believe that happened to us.”  Not out of self-pity, but in honest disbelief because it seems unreal at times–almost magical.  Everything changed–everything GONE–in a few minutes’ time.  Maybe I haven’t been “standing outside the fire” long enough to know exactly what it all means–and maybe it’s going to take more than one anniversary post to sort it all out.

So let’s start with this:  one year ago today, I woke up in Baltimore, fully expecting that the next day, after the funeral, I would be returning here:

Not here:

But that’s what happened.

 

 

 

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I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

                  — Walt Whitman

We heard America singing–for real–last Thursday at the Spring Concert at Lorelei’s school.  I’ve endured attended countless plays, pageants, and concerts in my 21 years of parenting, but this one stands out.  In between renditions of our National Anthem and Yankee Doodle (that was Lorelei’s class) and other patriotic songs enthusiastically performed by cute kids and accompanied by hand gestures, we were treated to proclamations of the Gettysburg Address, the First Amendment to the Constitution, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and other words that symbolize what America stands for.

“I’m American, you’re American!” sang the children, and they were the melting pot personified up on the stage.  No one needs to preach diversity when you can see it right in front of you.  There is no better explanation of what it means to be an American than to see the great-grandchildren of slaves standing on a stage with white kids whose ancestors  probably landed two hundred years ago along with more recent arrivals from Asian and Latino countries, all of them smiling and singing in English “This land is my land.”

So with a happy tear in my eye I went on to my next engagement, a meeting of my book club at which we watched the famous movie adaptation of our most recent book, To Kill a Mockingbird.  It’s so easy, watching this vivid reminder of the dark history of race relations in the South, to feel complacent about how far we’ve come.  My older daughter attends college in Mobile, Alabama, and of course her classmates are as diverse as Lorelei’s are.  Twenty years ago, the sight of an interracial couple walking down the streets of Knoxville would make you look again.  No longer. 

But the human heart is a dark and secret place, and prejudices still lurk there.  All Tom Robinson’s troubles started, remember, when he walked past a white woman’s house.  And look what happened to Trayvon Martin, who had the gall to “walk while black” through a mostly white neighborhood.  That he had the legal right to be there, that he was actually a guest there, didn’t matter to a man who saw only the color of his skin and made predictable assumptions thereupon.

Prejudice against certain immigrant communities of the past, like the Irish and the Italians, may have died out, but there are new immigrants to take their place as the targets of our collective suspicion.  Just yesterday I heard someone talking about “all these people with their strange religions” coming in and changing our country which was “founded upon Christian principles.”  Religious freedom is one of the bedrocks upon which this nation was founded, actually.  And what is the Number One Christian Principle if it’s not “Love one another”?

At the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout walks Boo Radley (surely the personification of the hated and feared “other”) back to his house.  She stands on his porch and realizes that she had “never seen [the] neighborhood from this angle . . . [Atticus] said you never really knew a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.  Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”  Later that evening she says of a character in a book Atticus is reading to her: “He hadn’t done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice . . . ” and he replies, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Linking up today with #WorthRevisit where bloggers “recycle” favorite posts each week.  The linkup is hosted at Reconciled to You and Theology is a Verb and you can see this week’s posts right here.

 

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