The phone rang, I wiped a tear away and answered it. My sister-in-law Erin, who lives with my wife and me to help us care for the kids, burst onto the phone.
Hey, she said. The background noise in South Station nearly drowned her out. I could hear the incessant high-pitched pulse of a siren and other crowd noise all out of proportion for a Tuesday morning crowd.
Poppy died this morning, I said.
Jesus, you haven't heard, she said. They're evacuating South Station and the Financial District. Terrorists flew a plane into the World Trade Center.
I conveyed the news to Heather, who hurried out with our still teary daughter in tow, and seven-month old Rider on her hip. She turned on the TV just in time for us to see the second tower collapse. We spent the rest of the day in emotional turmoil, no different than the rest of America. All I could think of were travel complications, the possibility of suburban Boston suddenly filled with ash and cinders, that gray swirl of smoke coming from the Prudential, the near-smack of anarchy in the midst of my newly-ordered and almost sane-feeling life. And I felt rage and disbelief.
Erin needed a ride home; the subways, the bus lines, all closed temporarily; she needed to close her flower shop, where people were, amazingly, still looking to purchase mums and gardenias and roses as the station emptied behind them and every television brought more news. I promised to come get her even as I twitched thinking of going through the Sumner tunnel or, God forbid, through the airport.
I envisioned complete social breakdown, riding to Pennsylvania to join my grieving family as the world ended, shotgun across my legs to keep looters and thieves and worse away from my minivan. Yeats's Second Coming came to mind, as it did for many with the kind of background and mind I have, the mind that searches immediately for connections to literature and history and a lifetime spent making sense of sometimes arcane and specialized information, to make it available and palatable for those who have not had the life experience to render the cliche as immaterial as it truly is.
For the first time in my life, I made all those various pop-culture connections to the apocalyptic, the revelationary, the occult, and saw them coming together to make a horrible and tired, tiring sense. And now I had children, too. Another complexity on top of a politics and history and conflict that even with the self-education I'd provided by my academic skills and career, I realized would not be enough to make anything resembling sense.
When we'd waited sufficient time for the world to end if it would, we drove to Elmira, New York, NPR and its pundits playing as Sierra called incessantly for Elmopalooza on the CD player but got the BBC instead. We took some off-routes to avoid going anywhere near New York, as our usual routes might take us. At 909 Pennsylvania Avenue, we could see through the front porch to the living room, where the family gathered around my grandmother. And her television.
I'm gonna miss Great-Grampa, Sierra said as she climbed down from her car seat, shedding cracker crumbs.
I know, honey. We all will, Heather said, gathering Rider from his car seat, glancing around at the flags gathered in windows all around. The next few hours we spent in a hail of recollection and preparation, various crying jags in the kitchen and the bedroom and on the front porch, gathering photographs to be displayed at the service, and watching television on the flickering and badly focused set, each network in turn. My Poppy, for whom I was named, being prepped, painted, preserved, just up the street, a ten minute walk, no more, while we here in his home seemed to have forgotten, on the outside at least, why it was the entire family gathered. Odd would be a kind way to characterize how it felt, how the nation and the people in it superseded my own personal grieving.
I remember those few days from the 11th through Poppy's burial on the 14th, but barely, and I'll not touch on those familiar feelings of grief, nor the broken ankle I suffered just before the funeral as my brother and I tried to deny our age on the basketball court in his backyard, arriving at the funeral hours late, my brother and I shaving with the same razor, dressing in the same bathroom in the same bare few minutes we had to spare, nor the pain of the funeral, snot and tears spewing forth in catharsis, the funereal silence punctuated throughout by my daughter's refrain: I'm gonna miss Great-Grampa.
What I will say is that for these few days the nation became people I knew–something not always the case in today's driven-apart society–and many of the perpetrators of this crime, God forgive them, became part of that same nation, ash and blood and body parts among the many killed in the Pentagon, the Towers, in a field below Pittsburgh.. I will carry in my heart a deep and abiding hatred for the acts of terrorism they committed and the opportunity they robbed me of, to mourn my grandfather in the way he deserved.
I cannot hate them for what they believe, for only God knows the rightness of what is in a person's heart. I can and do heartily disclaim their methods, but when faced with a choice that I believe God presented me with, I can't claim to know what I might do. God will forgive my hatred, though I hold on to it still as if it might save my family, or bring those dead to life.