Thursday, June 22, 2006

In Times Like These...

I suppose it is the same for people who remember Pearl Harbor. Or soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy. Or survivors of Hurricane Katrina. One day, one incident shapes those people - creates a sub-generation. Anyone who "remembers when". For me, that day was September 11th. And since September 11th, I've had an obsession with death. It began in the midnight hour of the 11th when my eyes could not be torn from MSNBC, CNN and FOX news. Cameras stood still as one by one, family members held up pictures of their husbands, brothers, sisters and friends. They used the term "missing" with a sinking sense of hope. Those of us watching at home, thousands of miles away, somehow knew they weren't missing. They were lost. I remember that moment so well because it is one of the last few moments I remember with my grandfather before he died - a month and a half later. Death had already introduced itself to me in the faces on the fliers being held in front of the camera. I didn't think it would come any closer. But it did. What hit me about September 11th was not just the incredible volume of people to lose their lives all in one day, at one time - as a result of one incident - but suddenly those people were people to me. I realized how many of them had stories that would never be shared with the world. Just ended suddenly on one day. I wondered how many of them liked to hold annual Super Bowl parties. How many of them had shoe fetishes and penchants for novelties like candy at movies or big fluffy scarves. I wanted to know. I wanted to know about them all. When my grandfather died, I had that moment and it was one of the most painful moments of my life. Sitting in the living room, my headset playing music I don't remember, I looked at the scene in front of me. There were my grandfather's 14 children, a handful of grandchildren and his wife. The music muted their sound - but they were bathed in warm light. Together. Drinking coffee at much too late an hour. Telling stories. Laughing until the laughter gave way to tears which gave way to consolation. I wanted to know them all when they were children. I wanted to know them inside and out. Not as a niece or a cousin. As something else entirely. It was impossible. Just as knowing my grandfather that well was now impossible. It was a pain so deep - I'll never forget it. It's a pain of wanting what is not to be. I wonder what other people think about when they think about death. I suppose many think about memories. Days when such and such happened or so and so said this or that. I always think about the things that weren't. Weren't meant to be. For everyone I've known to die, I've had these thoughts. For my grandfather, I see him on the couch, in his spot. In one hand are his glasses, something I've written in the other hand, resting on his lap. A book maybe, a newspaper, a magazine. I'm sitting across from him, both of us with a cup of coffee - both up before anyone else. Before dawn. And we discuss the nature of whatever it is I've written. And I probe him for whatever I can. Whatever he has to say I want to hear. I want to make up for the things I can't remember or the stories I let float in one ear and out the other because I didn't recognize their value at the time. When my best friend's little brother died, I saw him at his father's age. A life well broken in. I wonder if he'd still be lanky and bony. Skin browned by the sun from a life of hard labor outside and Sunday afternoons working on old cars that he'd swear were going to last him forever. I find myself wondering what his wife would have looked like. Would he ever so often run his hand along her lower back when walked past her, crossing a room. Would he have a beard? Would he speak softly when he attended funerals, the way his sister did when she greeted people at his? For a co-worker who I only knew shortly and whose viewing I attended today, I still have these thoughts. On his desk once sat pictures of his children and his wife in little wooden frames. It is his oldest son who sticks in my mind the most. There will never be a picture of the two of them, a photograph, a snapshot - of the two of them in tuxedos. Holding beers up in the air on the boy's wedding day. I always wonder about those moments. And somehow, picturing the future, helps me to remember that there is a past with stories so needing to be told. People who live on. People who are forever changed because at a time, that person crossed their path. The stories of their lives become part of the story of our own.

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