Sunday, September 11, 2005

A few personal thoughts on 9/11

On September 11 I had just been back at work a day or two, working half days. It was eleven days after Kay--my wife--had been diagnosed with leukemia. I was still sleeping beside her at night in a chair in her hospital room. I think she had just begun her first round of chemotherapy. She was feeling a little better from the life-sustaining treatments she was getting, like blood and platelet transfusions, and had not yet started to feel bad from the chemo. So she felt, in a certain sense, OK, yet she--and I--were just coming to terms with the notion that she might die.

The oncologist had told us that she had about a 50/50 chance of being "cured," which he meant to be a hopeful statistic, but which sounded too much like a coin toss to be taken as such by lay-people like Kay and me. Since the diagnosis I had done a lot of searching of medical databases available on the internet, and had discovered that the oncologist was fudging his numbers somewhat, giving us a statistic uncorrected for my wife's age and the specific subtype of acute myelogenous leukemia she had, which, if taken into account, gave us much less hopeful figures than the coin toss.

I recall coming to a horrible realization at about that time that there were about three chances in four she would be dead within a year.

But in the short run, we were optimistic. Because she had come very close to dying a week before. She was better now, and the chemo would certainly knock back the leukemia, if not eradicate it. Optimism is the wrong word. We were relieved that she had survived the immediate crisis of the week before, but we were suddenly thinking of her future life, our life together, in weeks and month, not years. Which was a very odd transition, from a week and a half before, before she had gotten sick.

This is the context of 9/11 from me. When my boss told me what was going on that morning, I said I'm going back to the hospital, I need to be with my wife. I don't think I came to work for several days after that. Kay and I watched the horror on the TV in her room, footage imprinted on all our minds that--sort of by common agreement, it seems--is never now shown, except maybe once in a great while a you will see a photo. I don't think I have seen any video footage in 2 or 3 years.

We were still trying to absorb the danger that Kay faced, and you might think that it made us more aware of the human import of what was going on than we would have otherwise been. In a way it did, but no more so than for everybody else in America, I think. The raw edge fear and loss that surely was felt by people on the scene, and of people who had loved ones killed or missing, and of people who feared for the safety of friends, was right there for us. Kay's room felt like she was in the world trade center and we did not know if she would get out. So that made us closer to it. But somehow I think everybody felt that. Leukemia had little to do with it.

I remember thinking , and I remember Kay mentioning it too, that there is a difference between real loss and symbolic loss. For a while, I think all across America, symbolic loss, the words of the talking heads, got overwhelmed by real loss, inescapable in the images. Real loss is personal and one-by-one, and the significance of 9/11 to me is that for a while most Americans knew the difference. It was probably most acute for me in seeing the people who jumped. Kay and I had already taken refuge in the idea of weeks and months of life left--the people who jumped had seconds.

Kay and I were pretty much like the rest of America--her 8 1/2 months to live was infinitely longer than the 6 or 7 seconds of free fall from the burning offices--and we all were helplessly transfixed by those few seconds.

Earlier today, I just got a glimpse of some ceremony in Washington, with people I won't even name standing solemnly at attention, with flags, bunting, and taps played on a bugle. Symbolic loss, used by the worst of men, for the worst of purposes.

No comments: