I can no longer separate the components of my grief
September 24, 2001
How petty of me, sitting here in an apartment in downtown
New York, wondering how I can win back his heart. The outside is separated
by bricks and glass but inside is not the sanctuary one wants it to be.
Police car sirens, ambulances, the faint smell of something burning, they
all seep through our consciousness, even as we lie on the bed and negotiate
The tears don't stop and in the loneliness of my disappointment, I melt
into the tales of missing loved ones, clutching my own whom I have lost
for days. It's impossible to be dignified and eloquent when struck by tragedy,
I think to myself watching the woman's face on TV contort, salty tears dropping
from her eyes, as she holds up the picture of her missing fiancé
for the camera and the reporter whom seem stuck between sleaze and compassion.
Don't take your loved ones for granted, she remarks between her sobs.
Meaning needs to be found for meaningless loss and I am reminded of Iran
during the war when every young boy, being sent to his near-certain death,
was asked what was his message for the martyr-breeding nation of Iran.
Petty, petite, small. That's the only way we can go through life: Cutting
it down to our size, to units of our understanding. And so I am petty and
small. The crumbling of the towers, the mass of people running away from
the giant cloud of smoke, the tears, they all seem like bit parts from movies
we have all seen many times in our lives. Images stored in our memories
now dictate our present and my present is dictated by images of indignation:
I get up, make a statement, and storm out of the building.
Life is going on as usual one thinks: Stores are somewhat open, there
are lights shining through buildings, cars on the streets, people eating,
drinking, talking, smoking. It's all there but it is the details that tell
tales of disintegration: The odd car covered in gray-beige dirt-ash, papers
stuck in its various parts, the checkpoints set up blocking all entrance
below a certain line, the Jamaican and Chinese women selling tiny red, white,
and blue flags, and the fliers of missing people stuck here and there, two
on the entrance to the subway, one on a lamp post.
I begin walking towards the hospital. Hours after the event, the streets
had been not bustling with people but crowded with them. A line of blood-offering
people hugged the hospital, people were walking mostly north, some south,
mostly dazed, or so it seemed to our dazed minds. And walking among "us"
were "others", those who carried traces of death on their shoes
and clothes. The man in front of us, lines of his body losing their struggle
with gravity, head, neck, shoulders, waist, all weighed down by the lines
of ash crossing his dark sagging suit, his shoes no longer black but a painful
white. He brings to mind one of my favorite paintings of the Iran-Iraq war:
A young soldier, standing with his back to us in a dark, rain-soaked street,
his fatigues outshining the fatigue of the city.
Tonight though, several days after, the marked ones are at home and those
who became part of the debris and rubble are now two-dimensional images
on pieces of white paper, covering walls and bus stops and store-fronts.
Makeshift hejlehs, whose numbers increase as time goes by. I could
never bring myself to stop and look at those brightly lit and colorful stands
commemorating the dead in Iran, as I can not bring myself to stop and look
at these pictures of young and old men and women.
An intrusion I feel, into a world I have no part in.
We gawk at spectacles and here is one on a grand scale. Several hours
and two buildings later, we walked south, getting closer and closer, using
the cloud of smoke hanging in the distance as our guiding tool. No one had
yet been saturated by the images and words of the days to come and conversations
seemed stilted at point zero: Where were you when it happened? The air smelled
of something, of vaporized building material and bodies, and at times when
the wind blew on that beautiful day, beige particles floated freely in the
And like everyone else, I do not know how to be eloquent and dignified
in the face of tragedy. There was so much I needed to say, to talk about,
so much of it banal and petty, so much of it meant for the ears of him who'd
rest his head by mine every night but what came out was tired and the same:
Concrete gray blocks of disappointment mixing with tears of hurt. And the
greater the tragedy became, the greater became my petty need to speak, the
greater its impossibility.
I leave and trace back the steps of the two planes that crashed into
the towers: From New York to Boston. And it is when I get here that I crash,
bits of all that has happened finally weighing down on me. I can no longer
separate the components of my grief: The loss of my love, the loss of their
loves, the descriptions of people jumping out of the buildings, the message
left by my friend's uncle to his wife: "We have 15 minutes to evacuate
the building", the knowledge that she refuses to believe those 15 minutes
ended days ago, fear of another war, fear of hatred brewing on the surface
of our lives, fear that we forget how to hope for peace, for better times,
and for love.
I have asked myself this past week, as I have been asked by others, if
there is any point to doing anything in face of a situation that seems to
be beyond our control. I have asked myself that many times, in face of situations
where my feelings and my will seemed almost irrelevant: arguing for love
from behind a wall now erected to keep me out, arguing for peace at a time
of almost certain war. And I have asked that if there is nothing to be done,
how do we go on, day after day, our two halves in conflict, our hearts and
minds torn apart? And in the face of the loss of both love and peace, I
have often thought of the woman who walked into a lake before the start
of WWII, her pockets heavy with carefully placed stones.
But today, the image of another woman appears to me, one who in the face
of the smashing and vandalism of her car in front of her house only days
after the World Trade Center attacks, refused to budge. "I won't let
them scare me," she said ignoring my anger, fear, and dismay. She's
a woman whom I now realize has never backed down from anything, not for
a day in the 30 years I have known her. And while the questions and the
confusions from all that has expired remains, I know I must turn my back
to that lake, pull the stones out of my pockets, and face her, my undefeatable