A Late-in-the-Day Word about 9/11

the plane about to hitSmoke rises from a building and we think of them. It can be any building, anywhere. A plane rises from the ground and we think of them, and pray they did not see death rushing toward them.

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.

9 thoughts on “A Late-in-the-Day Word about 9/11

  1. I could not stop the tears yesterday. One of the videos I watched had pictures of the victims by plane # – the first row of pictures had Neilie Anne Heffernan Casey holding her baby, her first child. Neilie used to work with me until she left Chadwick’s to go to TJX and was on her first buying trip. Two days before she died, she ran to raise funds for cancer pushing her little girl in a stroller. Her husband was interviewed by Lisa Hughes of Channel 4 and a couple of years later married her. So, little Riley has a mom to look out for her. I guess the hurt never really goes away when these tragedies happen. Good column, Terry.

    1. That is heart-rending Andrea. You knew her! We knew someone too, very well, who was flying on business for the company David is president of.. We will never forget Bob… I also remember that priest who you see die in the film done by the French documentarians..

  2. it’s heart breaking all over again. and what a shame that our friend’s daughter will never know the wonderful man he was. the wonderful father he could have been. thank you for your beautiful words, terry. xo

  3. Widely acknowledged as the first truly American poet, Walt Whitman was born on Long Island in 1819. After only a few years of formal schooling, he took a series of odd jobs–newspaper reporter, editor, printer, schoolteacher, carpenter–and seemed to be settling comfortably into a life of aimless wandering. In July 1855 Whitman self-published a series of 12 shockingly original poems collected under the title Leaves of Grass. Numerous editions followed, as the ceaseless process of expanding, revising, and refining Leaves of Grass became the singular thread of purpose throughout Whitman’s life, a life that tended toward mythmaking. Whitman worked hard to sustain his larger-than-life image. In the late 1850s he was associated with the Bohemian crowd at Pfaff’s, a restaurant on lower Broadway in New York City. During the Civil War Whitman volunteered his services in military hospitals, nursing the wounded. In 1865 he was dismissed from the Interior Department, apparently because of the sexually suggestive language of Leaves of Grass. He moved to Camden, New Jersey, in 1873 after suffering a stroke and lived there until his death in 1892.

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