Waiting for a sunrise on Sept. 11
Sept. 11, my birthday, was once the most beautiful day of the year.
Growing up as the fifth of five children, I loved that it was the one day when rank and seniority dropped away, when I could write the menu and dictate the after-dinner entertainment. Lamb, roast potatoes, canned LeSeur peas and marble cake. Crazy 8s and the last of the summer’s nighttime games in the yard.
Since then, wherever I’ve lived, wherever in the world I’ve traveled, it’s been a glorious day on the cusp of autumn. Some years it was the first cool day, whispering, “Change is coming.” Sometimes it was the sweetest, mildest, final burst of golden summer, with the sky so blue it has no name.
I saw that sky last September as a surreal backdrop to the horror that unfolded on our TV screens. I saw it as the planes arrived at their final, awful impacts. I saw it as the dust cleared above the heads of firefighters and rescuers combing the rubbled streets of Manhattan. And I grieved as I knew that color, that place, that day – all of us – would never be the same.
As those dark days faded into October, I realized that this tragedy that eclipsed anything America had seen would come to be known by the date alone. There was no other shorthand, no other name. Like those people whose birthdays fall on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, my special day would forever be tainted by sadness.
In the following months, we as individuals and as a nation were plunged into a dark fog of despair and depression that we thought could never end. Was there ever a Sept. 10, when we blithely got on with our lives, blissfully ignorant of the evil and hatred eating away the hearts of men?
But slowly, finally, as the depression came to lift, I caught sharply focused glimpses of light breaking through the nightmare. Like the first day I again noticed a hummingbird at my feeder. Had they really been gone those many days, or had I just failed to notice them?
The worst times were what my husband and I came to call “New York moments.” Just when you thought life was making some kind of sense again, something would happen that snapped you back. Like catching sight of a woman stopped at a red light, her head in her hands on the steering wheel and her shoulders shaking. And you instantly knew why.
The worst thing now is having to tell. Last week my 10-year-old’s friends came to our house for a sleepover. Their happy, breathless conversation came to birthdays: When was Maggie’s? When was Hannah’s? Oh, please, God, don’t let them ask me. But the question came. And with my two-word answer a shadow fell, and the conversation turned to, “Where were you when it happened?” I don’t want to be the person who brings those moments back into people’s lives.
So as this birthday approaches, I’m anxious and adrift. And I’m not alone. There are thousands of us who share this mixed blessing. We know our loss is trivial, compared to those who’ve lost parents, spouses, children, co-workers. I can’t begin to imagine how they feel, then or now. I’m not asking for sympathy; there are thousands who deserve it many times over. But knowing our loss is trivial makes it no less real.
Relatives and friends have suggested I change my birthday. But a birthday is not something you can just change. It’s the date I was born. It’s the date a handful of men consumed by hatred lost their humanity. A date that changed the way many of us look at the world. And a date that none of us can change.
Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias wrote in “El Senor Presidente,” one of my favorite books: “The weight of the dead makes the earth turn by night, and by day it is the weight of the living . when there are more dead than living there will be eternal night, night without end, for the living will not be heavy enough to bring the dawn. .”
I believe we caught a glimpse of that eternal night last Sept. 11. And I think it is the kindness, the humanity we as survivors found in our hearts, that brought back the light to get the earth turning again.
And I believe it is by embracing life, by continuing to find the good in others and in ourselves, that we will fight off the night without end.
This Sept. 11 I will light 43 candles on my cake. I will comfort someone without expecting comfort in return. I will try to understand someone who is different from me. I will smile and forgive the yahoo who cuts me off on the highway. And I will try to restrain my own yahoo-ness. I will turn off the damned TV. I will not let them win, because I believe, with all my heart, that the weight of the living can bring the dawn. It did.
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They’re not going into the army, but these gentle giants all shared the same hairdo after the clippers were finished.