Monday, September 11, 2006

The tragic imagination

Five years ago today someone at work told me that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center in New York, and that the Pentagon was on fire. This had little emotional effect on me. My mind was elsewhere.

My wife Kay was in the hospital having been diagnosed with acute leukemia 11 days before. I had just come back to work, and only during the mornings. The rest of the day, and the nights, I was spending at the hospital at Kay's bedside. She had just started chemotherapy. There was still a chance that she could die very quickly from the progression of the disease, before the chemo began to work, assuming it was going to work at all. She could also die from the chemo itself. It was kind of touch and go.

So, as I said, my mind was elsewhere.

I excused myself from work and went to the hospital. Kay had a TV in her room, which was--uncharacteristically--on. The twin towers were burning. There was some confusion as to what was going on in Washington. The TV talkers were frantically excited. The green sticky plastic reclining chair I spent so many nights in was beside her bed and faced the TV set, and I sat down beside her and watched.

It seems like we watched a long time, Kay and I. Days, maybe. Like anyone and everyone else. The only difference was that Kay was dying, although she didn't die that day, or during the next few days--it was 8 1/2 months later--and we were both trying to adjust that that possibility. Actually, possibility was the wrong word--near certainty was more correct. I had been doing some reading, and discovered that the oncologist, whose social skills were inversely proportional to his expertise (which is not as bad as it sounds, social-skillwise, as we were to discover WRT his expertness), had perhaps failed to be convincing in claiming Kay had a 50/50 chance of eventual recovery, because, in her case, those were not the true odds. The odds, in reality, were much, much worse than that.

I guess he thought it would make us feel better to lie, and it would have, had he been a better liar. He would probably have been correct in saying that Kay had a 50/50 chance of surviving the week, and in fact Kay turned out to be in the lucky 50 percent, that week. But we didn't know that in advance.

Anyway, this sudden threat of death, which had come out of nowhere, gave us an odd detachment as we watched people jump out of windows, some of them holding hands. We held hands as we watched. I think we both felt like we had a kind of empathy that other people did not. On the other hand, we felt distant from it, with our own very real worries.

We watched the fall of the towers over and over--like everyone else. But it was not my main focus. It's in the background, for me, in my memory of that day, and the days afterwards.

Though we did talk about it. It wasn't that day itself, but it was very soon after, that Kay began to feel troubled about the talking heads' use of the word tragedy. I remember her saying something to the effect that it's not tragic for America. Not for us. It's only tragic for the people who jumped, and who died in the buildings, and for their families. For people who knew them. Not for the rest of us. You are watching this on TV, for God's sake.

I think she sense an orgy of false emotion being unleashed, or being deliberately stirred up. It was terribly real, and it was also a media event. It was all very confusing. Still is.

In retrospect, I think Kay was wrong, in a certain sense. It has turned out to be America's tragedy, exactly to the extent that genuine feelings of horror and empathy--which legitimately existed in the hearts of those of us who watched only on TV--have been contaminated, polluted in some way by the media, and most of all, of course, by the Bush administration.

Those people have stolen what was a real and terrible catastrophe for 3000 people and their families and friends, and turned it into a different and needless tragedy for all of us. For the world. And they have done it without thought or remorse or shame or regard for the payoff awaiting those who are thoughtless and remorseless that always comes at the end of a classical tragedy. And I fear the play is not over.

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