Like the day President John F. Kennedy was shot, I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001 when the planes took out the Twin Towers in New York City.
Eight years old and sitting in the stairwell with Debbie Kennon talking, playing a game of War in the still humid silence, we were stunned by my mother careening down the stairs weeping and saying over and over, "He's dead. He's dead." We stopped, cards in mid air in the midst of play and looked up as my mother near fell over the banister and dropped to the landing above. "He's dead. He's dead," she crooned,a sob-clogged refrain. My heart stilled and the only sounds were her echoing cries winding down like a worn out clock and Debbie and my breathing. I ventured the question, my curiosity stronger than the chill of fear icing my limbs and blood, "Who?" afraid of the answer.
"He's gone. Shot to death."
Only my father's death could have unstrung my taut-stringed mother's composure.
"Today. Dallas. Kennedy is dead."
A rush of warmth and relief suffused me. Not my father. And yet my heart still refused to beat.
In the coming months, my world changed. The Kennons who lived upstairs were posted back to the States to Fort Hood in Texas and a new family moved in, a young couple with a toddler and newborn twins. The years have taken their names, but I remember the fact of their existence falling into the void left by my best friends' absence and failing to fit the space. The Torch is Passed appeared on my mother's bookshelves and became a treasured artifact of that November day just after the rains had passed that Panamanian autumn when everything -- and nothing -- was altered.
So many years between that and the Monday morning after my car accident when I drove to the doctor's office in the rented van with blood filling the spaces around my left eye from the stitched gas in my scalp artfully hidden beneath the rearranged remaining hairs where the doctor had chopped my long hair to stubble to repair the damage. Restless and frightened of losing my sight, I searched the radio channels for something light and breezy, a song to sing that would take my mind from my own troubles. I got more than I bargained for.
It was about 9:00 a.m. and the shock in the deejay's voice was evident. A plane had crashed into the Twin Towers in NYC, bringing them down. Into my isolation and solitude the world rushed, a category five tornado devouring peace and silence. I didn't hear the rest of the story until I got back to the motel where I'd been staying and from where I was moving into a converted garage apartment on the outskirts of town, hidden among the trees and away from the side roads around the bedroom community of Hudson, Ohio on the other side of the tracks. As I drove, I wept bloody tears, unaware of the crimson tracks down my cheek until the receptionist handed me a tissue from the nearly empty box everyone in the office and waiting room shared.
I had just broken off a two-year affair and was broken and still bleeding and the heartache that sent me out to put down roots receded. I went through the task of moving from the motel where I'd lived for two two years into a larger echoing space with a fireplace that no longer delighted me and more space than I could fill with my meager possessions.
From my wooded sanctuary, I emerged to find human contact, gravitating toward my ex-lover's friend where I sat in his living room and watched in horror the falling, falling, falling buildings that disappeared into the white dust clouding the rubble and broken bodies of those who had jumped or fallen or ridden down the monolithic towers. In my memories I heard my mother's voice, "He's dead. He's dead. He's dead," echoing in the rainy silence and my heart and body stilled, encased in creeping ice. There was no warmth of relief suffusing me and I wondered if anyone or anything would ever quite fill the void that opened that day on my drive along the tree-lined country road to the doctor's office while blood filled the delicate spaces around my left eye.
Darrel and I wept together, connected by our shared shock and disbelief in the safety of our small world as we had never been connected by our work: his installing and maintaining and me writing about the security industry in a world where security had become a myth.
The skies, once full of planes, now stretched silently ominous, we exposed and vulnerable with nowhere to run, darting furtive looks toward the empty blue where passing clouds masked terror and death. Ohio was too close and nowhere was far enough away from danger. We were too few hours from the field where the passengers of another plane brought down the winged missile arrowing toward another building to be swallowed in fire and clouds of marble dust and blood. Nowhere was safe and so we clung to tenuous ties, cinching them tighter to find consolation and freedom from fear. If we could only hang onto this moment and the next, we would be safe.
Three years later on the anniversary of 9/11 and nearly two thousand miles away, something came to fill the void, overflowing the boundaries with joy and life. Like all joyful moments, it ended too soon. Love from a forgotten time and place appeared and took over, breaching the wooded margins of my sanctuary where I lived in peaceful solitude in a valley surrounding by mountains and filled with the murmurings of passing elk, mule deer and pine martens flying singly and in pairs from tree top to tree top among the green needled arms of lodge pole pines.
The love lingers alongside the memories of death and destruction, dimmed by tears, time and neglect, softening the razored lines and failing to blur the stained glass shards scattered on the ground among the flesh, blood, and bones of lives among the debris of that church of technology dissolving in white clouds beneath the silent endless blue skies illuminated by hard brittle light. I imagine that day will live as clear and undimmed as the day my mother lurched down the stairs sobbing and collapsing in a boneless heap, her ramrod stiff spine folding beneath the weight of lost innocence and the dissolution of secure dreaming days.
I remember. I will always remember. Death and life conjoined in an endless dance of despair and hope painted in sharp-edged primary colors while the rest of life dims and softens like colored tissue paper in the rain seen through bloody tears.