I didn’t write about 9/11 on the anniversary. Though the day certainly affected us all, I left the day to the New Yorkers and those who were more directly affected. It is their day most of all. And if I’d written on that day I’d have been too tempted to talk about the shame brought on America by Republicans playing the day for politics while at the same time blocking health care coverage for the first responders; the surviving heroes of that day. Their position is as inexplicable as that of the people who applauded Rick Perry bragging about executions, and only indicates the extent of our mass hysteria. And the day of 9/11 was not for that.
On 9/11 I awoke waiting a phone call telling me I was being offered a new job. I didn’t get the call until Friday, and that was fine. I started on Monday. On Sunday, two days before 9/11 I had been in South Carolina for a second job interview, and flew home early Sunday, through Washington, leaving almost exactly 48 hours to the minute before the terrorists took off in the plane they would hijack.
Still, for me, what I remember most is that Friday, 9/14. Not because I got a job offer, but for the time spent with my father, and for that was the day we started to live again as a country after three days of shock. It was the day we began to choose life.
Just weeks before my dad entered home hospice care; there was nothing more they could do about the colon cancer. He would die just over five months later, at home, with my mom and I with him. And on that Friday 9/14, life returned. We judged ourselves to be a people of life, and not of death. The planes began to fly again. There was a high school football game to be played. There was no more time to give over to those who would have us live in fear, or those who would have us give up living.
Dad wanted to go to the football game. Neither of us had been to a York High School football game in years. I had graduated more than 20 years before, and we thought it would be good to get out in the community, see people, watch a game. The field is a little over a half mile from the house, so we walked down, taking our time. Dad was still feeling pretty good at that point, but wasn’t real strong.
When we got to the field, we ran into the mayor, standing by the fence watching his watch and the sky. Planes came over every 90 seconds, going to and from O’Hare, back on schedule. We talked to Mayor Tom for a few minutes, then made our way to the stands. We sat in the smaller grandstand on the visitor’s side. It was less crowded, and easier for dad to deal with.
The opening ceremony and national anthem was very emotional. We stood next to each other with our hands on our hearts, and I held my dad’s hand, as he was feeling a bit unstable standing. I found myself sobbing as I tried to sing. I don’t know if dad noticed. I think it may have been the most unabashedly patriot moment I have ever felt.
They made an announcement that one of the players on the other team lost his father in the attacks. In that spirit of youth, of choosing life, he played in the game, because that is what you do. That is how you live. My dad often said, particularly in his final year, you have to live while you’re alive.
So that night we lived. We watched a football game, we participated in the community of life. We chose to sing, because we are beings of life, and not of death.
What I did do on the 9/11 anniversary was pick up my tattered old paperback copy of “The Immense Journey,” the wonderful book of essays by the great naturalist Lauren Eiseley, one of the great writers of the 20th century. There are essays in the book that I return to again and again, year after year.
Now I reread “The Judgment of the Birds” where Eiseley describes a scene he witnessed that he calls a miracle. He was out hiking in the woods and stopped to rest, leaned back against a tree, and dosed off. He was awoken by a commotion in a small clearing that he could see into to, but from which he was hidden. He saw a great raven that had captured a small bird for a meal. The small birds parents came out screaming, though afraid to attack the raven, who enjoyed his meal unperturbed. Other birds came to the clearing, all screaming angrily, frightened, at the raven.
Each time I read this passage it brings tears of wonder and joy to my eyes. Eiseley describes how the scene plays out.
“And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.
The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.”