It’s been over five years since the first time I stood at Ground Zero. Back then it was a pit full of cranes and heavy equipment. I stood there at the beginning of September, in the heat and the sweat and watched men work on beams so high that they looked like toys. They still wore masks as they beat metal into submission, trying to reach the sky with the bones of another building. I remember the emotional toll it took on me and how it felt to be there but not much about the area itself because the whole place was still off limits and under construction. I remember standing in front of the fire station, sobbing uncontrollably and clutching the wall. I remember looking over at the church and being angry at the idea that people viewed its unscathed structure as a miracle and proof of their god, when so much around it had been destroyed. I wondered how they could still believe in anything at all. It seemed that no one was paying attention to the space – and I was horribly offended by that idea. How could the world not stop? How did people walk next to the construction zone every day without breaking? How could things just go on?
It was the first time I had been there to mourn. I had known I would sob. I knew I would remember Eric there. I was not prepared for my initial outburst of tears to have less to do with him and more to do with the sheer overwhelming feeling of heartbreak for every person who lost their lives there and for those who they left behind. I wondered where those survivors were and how they could stand the thought of the industry around their place of loss. I was angry I hadn’t brought flowers, and that I couldn’t get them anywhere near the site. I couldn’t get over the fact that people were just walking by on their way to wherever, not seeming to honor the souls all around them.
It was such a self-centered moment. I had no thought of what it must have been like to live in the area, having to watch the construction go on forever and just hoping that someday, it’d be over. I had no empathy for the people who had to be there every day. I was full of anger and judgement, not at peace with anything and not able to comprehend the toll it took on everyone, everywhere. I ignored the fact that it had taken me nine years to be able to mourn the loss that touched me in person and I had an irrational moment of petulant fury that the rest of the world was not crying with me. It was not my proudest moment and it was a completely inappropriate response, given who I was there to honor.
I didn’t know him half as well as I would have liked to. Eric was a guy who could make anyone smile and brought joy to those around him. He was gorgeous and genuinely kind. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it and cared fiercely for those in his life. He could have made it out of the building…in fact, he called loved ones to say he was OK and leaving but that was the last anyone heard from him. Friends and coworkers say that he died helping other people get out of the towers instead of leaving immediately. That’s completely in line with who he was and it shames me that I was so angry and judgmental the first time I was near the place he passed away.
A few years later, I stood there again and was totally bewildered and offended as tourists posed for pictures at the garden site. I moved them back from the fountain rails to find the name I was looking for. I walked through the monstrosity that is the “museum” which sells “Never Forget” trinkets like thieves in the temple but no flowers to leave in remembrance. The crowds were nearly unbearable and flashing peace signs for the flash of the cameras. This time, my emotions were still hot and angry but for a different reason and I wasn’t sure what would happen when I found his name.
The anger temporarily washed away when I saw it. I was frozen in time and it felt surreal and wrong to be there during a bustling afternoon. This time, when the tears fell, they were his and his alone. They felt like they’d go on forever and they were silent and strong. I traced his name and stood there with my best friend, quietly holding each other and staring into space, not seeing anything but the name.
Then someone jostled us to pose for a picture and we knew it was a fight or flight moment. We chose to leave, solemnly walking away from the fountains and vowing never to go there on a weekend again. I reminded myself to bring flowers next time and we joked that Eric would laugh if he knew how many times I had forgotten them, and how often I had searched for some nearby. We had a wake at a nearby Irish bar, a necessary and vital ritual and we spoke of the man that we wished we had known better.
This year when I visited New York, I went back alone on a weekday. I remembered to buy a single rose and laughed as I did before hopping on the subway. I arrived at the Garden of Remembrance and this time I knew right where to go. I traced his name again and shoved the rose into the E while I told him why it had taken so long to bring a flower. I giggled and cried as I told him about all the misadventures and feelings I had had there in the last five years. It was finally the moment I needed. Suddenly I became aware that there were cameras all around me, taking pictures of the bright red rose against the dark steel of his name. The anger didn’t come though – because I made sure to talk to every person who was snapping pictures. I told them about his family, and that I wished that I’d spent more time with him while I shared everything I knew about the man I was visiting. Many wrote down what I said, so that when they looked at their photos, they’d remember his story. Most thanked me for sharing….and by the end I was silently thanking them too, for forcing me to remember the man in every way that I could and for the many random memories that came back while I was talking.
It was the first time that I came to a kind of peace there, and the first time I truly mourned without the tinge of anger and frustration that has always been there. It was important and necessary – and this is the first year that I can do that today too. It will never be OK that so many people were lost fourteen years ago, but one of them would probably appreciate that people gathered around for a pretty picture and listened to his story, even if it was too short.
Today is a day to remember however you choose to. I will be burning the candle that is imprinted with his picture and thinking of the many lives he touched and saved, instead of the harsh memories I had of my trips to the place he died. I’ll be thanking the strangers who listened and cried with me this last time, who might remember him today when they look at their pictures of their visits. Thank you too, by the way, and most of all a big thanks to Eric for helping me on this path to peace, even though it took so many years to find. I can only wish that somehow and someday, everyone else will find some kind of peace of their own.