Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Eternally vigilant

Today's a tough day for him.

He was there when the towers came down, you know.

He was there to witness the carnage. He lived through the soot, and the screams, and the sirens, and the shock, and the semblance of life that the survivors were forced to cobble together in the aftermath.  He walked through the streets and the dust and the ash among the confused mass of humanity.

The names of the dead aren't just names that grace a memorial wall - they were people that he joked with, laughed with, welcomed into his bar, talked football with, celebrated births and marriages with, and mourned death with. The normal passages of life, not this horrific hell on earth that no one was prepared to face.

The people that died that day were real.  They were his friends and then in an instant, they were gone.

Like everyone there, he grieved.  He mourned.  He tried to make sense of the whole horrible thing.  When he couldn't shake the visions, he forged the fury and the helplessness and the grief into a hardened steel resolve to love his city and his people.  He marked his body to honor the fallen, and to commemorate the spirit of the city, and the people - both those that perished, and those that survived. I see that symbol on him every day, and I try to imagine what it was like to offer his flesh up as a living memory of the worst day in our country's history.

I try to imagine, but I really can't.

My world is so much smaller than his. I've been sequestered here, in the state of my birth, never venturing more than a few miles from the city I grew up in. I've tried to equate anything in my experience to what he endured.

I don't think I can.

I mean, how do you gain an understanding of that horror and that level of loss? How many words would I have to hear? How many pictures would I have to see? How many times would I have to watch the clips of the attack on the towers to grasp the reality of what happened?

It's human nature, I guess, to try to compare and contrast things that you encounter with the Rolodex of memories and experiences in your own head.

That's what we do, us humans. Compare and contrast. Is this better or worse than that was? Is this anything like what I have seen before?

It's how we cope. We try to make sense of everything that we encounter, and draw parallels to it, dissect it, turn it over and over in our minds to find the logic in it so we can file it away.

And then we do file it away.

So on this day, every year, I put myself through the exercise of reliving that day, or my version of it. Like most of the world, I was far removed from Ground Zero. It almost feels like I don't have the right to participate in the mourning - certainly not in the same way that he has earned the right to mourn.  I've been able to continue on with life, without being continually reminded of the pain and the anguish. I've been allowed to compartmentalize it and distance myself from the fear and the shock.

I think that's one of the most upsetting parts for him in the years since - the "filing away" that seems to have occurred as a nation.    Day to day, that event takes up less and less conscious thought for us as a nation. Fewer channels devote the time to broadcast the ceremony that is held on every anniversary to commemorate the passing of all of the victims.  The memorials are a tour bus stop, along with Rockefeller Center and Seinfeld's diner.

Which sounds cold and unfeeling, and in a way, I guess it is, but the parts of us that allow us to continue on after a tragedy are the same parts of us that "file away" the horror of the experience.

Survival mechanism, I guess.

But for him, and thousands more like him, there is no filing away. It was too big, and too senseless, and too . . . much. So the survivors commemorate the day, and watch the ceremonies, and relive the horror with the rest of us, and on September 12, we go back to our lives, and they are left to process and reprocess, without being able to file it away.

Call it survivor's guilt. Or maybe the mind's inability to handle something that monumentally evil.

Regardless, it never goes away. It just gets tumbled and turned over in the sea of their subconscious like a rough stone, the waves never able to smooth the jagged edges, never able to dull the piercing that hits them out of nowhere when they least expect it.

For some of us, remaining eternally vigilant is a choice.  For others, it's a life sentence.

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