It is so hard NOT to imagine their final moments, our minds somehow veer away from them, so heart-breaking are they to contemplate. Instead I find that my mind has hovered around another event these last few days, one that took place nearly 100 years ago, also in lower Manhattan:
A fire broke out on one of the top floors of the Triangle Shirt Factory on March 25, 1911. The workers trapped there, with flames raging behind them and firefighters’ ladders far too short to reach them, leaped to the sidewalks below and met death there.
There’s a poem called “Shirt,” written by Robert Pinsky, that touches in part on this tragedy. He speaks of a witness in the building across the street, who watched a doomed young man help first one girl and then another step up to the windowsill, “as if he were helping them up to enter a streetcar, and not eternity.“ Before jumping himself, he held these two girls out, away from the wall, then let them drop. “A third, before he dropped her, put her arms around his neck and kissed him.”
Then he held her into space, and dropped her too.
Some say the only way out is through; that if we are to find ease on the other side of sorrow, it will only be by allowing ourselves to feel that sorrow wholly.
In studying this other tragedy, I have been able to get at the pain I feel over its modern counterpart.
Those families must have felt things very much like the families of the September victims. The next morning’s New York Times said “grief-stricken crowds gathered at the site of the factory, crying the names of their loved ones.”
I looked up these names: Julia and Lizzy and Abraham, some of them were, Anna and Rosie and Jacob.
Not a week after the attacks, I attended one of the strange memorial observances so common that autumn. Like most of the others, it was a wake without a casket, a funeral without an interment. At the Mass’s end, the priest bent into a microphone. “Take some flowers,” he told us all – because there was no grave on which to lay them.
There will never be graves for many who met death that day. Met it at the Pentagon or in the Towers. Met it in the soft soil of Pennsylvania, where thousands of our Civil War dead met death too.
I think of Walt Whitman, who during that war came to the Capitol in Washington expressly to nurse and comfort the sick and dying soldiers filling its halls. In “Leaves of Grass,” he spoke of the “beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Whitman could see beauty anywhere. And he knew how to befriend death, as we all must learn to do, early or late.
I think of the weather we had that week, the way each day dawned so clear and brimmed with a crisp pale-amber light.
There is that light to think of now.
And there is that image, given us by our own modern poet.
I refer to the kiss, and then the letting go.
All the ones we have ever lost: they kiss us now. They ask us to let them go.