My daughter is the child of a 9/11 First Responder, and at ten-going-on-eleven, she's finally beginning to ask questions.
In the last 10 years, like so many children her age, she's held onto the specter of apocalypse, of falling skyscrapers, dust plumes that billowed as high as buildings. Daddy ran out of the house that morning to do his job, but wasn't missed during those long 3 days of absence by a baby who knew nothing of life but nursing and the cardboard block tower she built and wrecked over and over, in unwitting metaphor. In these last years, the threat was as dim as the threat of volcanoes learned in lower-school science unit, or a long-ago hurricane tempered by a funny anecdote of Daddy, in its quiet eye, asking to go out for ice pops promised in the heat of a South Texas afternoon.
We are a family that likes to keep memories. Writers, journal-keepers, recounters of stories--we keep history in words and telling. I knew once a generation of soldiers, back from the war, many of whom kept their secrets to themselves--Grandpa Ozzy, a tall, kind, and taciturn man, crawled the beach at Normandy on D-Day, amidst the bodies, dead or screaming, the sand and blood under his nails, the radio pack on his back slowing him down like the worst anxiety dream. He returned from the war quite deaf from the explosions all around him, and very very quiet on the subject, an anomaly in a family of Chroniclers. His memories were never told, and died with him.
As a child, I knew, and wondered, and knew not to ask him.
And now Elanor wonders, and, as we are consummate Tellers, we'll tell. Even Daddy, who is the chief memory-keeper of this particular bad dream, the one who, when the light hits him just right, is covered still in ghostly remnant of toxic dust and all the sights and sounds, even Daddy will tell.
But tell what, and how much? What details to tell, what to keep?
It is always said of children that they like an ordered, safe, predictable world. They like a hint of danger; to build pillow forts against it; to keep a tin of snacks and a flashlight for the tiny apocalypse or the little storm--but they want to believe in their own bodily integrity, and that life will move on smoothly, that bedtime will come, and after it the boring school day.
So there is a choice now. What to tell? The falling bodies of those who committed suicide rather than burn alive, or suffocate. Nightmare unending dusk, when Daddy and his comrades paced the unpeopled city, protectors of a mass grave. The fear that seizes us when we know real chaos and dust, blood and sand, noise and finally the silence of the low road.
Or the idea of a bravery so profound that it sent people down in an airplane to crash and die, knowing they would crash and die, knowing they were being used as a missile and choosing not to be that missile, choosing to die instead and spare others?
I started to tell her the story of that plane, and in doing so hoped, in my usual grand but well-meaning style, that I was telling her the whole history of great and terrible acts of human courage. But my story caught and stopped, and though not crying, I couldn't go on.
Well, perhaps another day. For I have to believe we have all the time in the world.
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