Last Saturday Anne Mei and I visited the National September 11 Memorial Museum. She was five years old in 2001 so the Museum gave her an opportunity to fill out the story of what happened that day. For me the experience meant reliving many of the emotions of September 11, 2001. In some ways the experience was stronger, so strong in fact that there were moments when I thought I’d have to leave. In 2001 events were happening so quickly and we had to do so many things —check on loved ones; support those struggling not to be overcome; decide about work, school, meetings, how to help people caught in the chaos. We worried about all the people from our community who commuted to work in lower Manhattan everyday, friends and relatives and neighbors. In addition to shock, we were afraid what was going to happen next and afraid of not knowing where this was all heading.
We also didn’t know or comprehend the full extent of what we were seeing on TV. As a result the emotions of that day were powerful, but not the same as standing in an exhibit full of firefighter and police relics and hearing “man down” beepers chirping over and over, all over. The dread in 2001 was not the same as looking at a massive block of “composite”—iron, concrete, glass, plastic, paper fused by incredible pressures and temperatures into a new material, not the same as standing next to this block and reading a curator’s note discussing whether any human remains might have survived to be forged into this “composite.”
On a wall with many quotes from or about September 11, one struck me. It read:
I didn’t want that day to end,
terrible as it was. … it was
still a day that I’d shared with Sean.
Beverly Eckert, wife of South Tower worker Sean Paul Rooney.
The way the words of this widow are set out emphasize the poetry in the paradox of her grief. I know about hanging onto objects as a way of holding on to a piece of a loved one who is gone. But the image of holding on to something as fleeting as a day captures the futile pain of grasping the evanescent. We do it anyway, even if what we’re trying to hold not only slips away, it terrifies us to live through and to remember.
Beverly Eckert told the story of her final conversation with her husband Sean Rooney to StoryCorps five years later. She was on the phone with him as “she heard a sharp crack, followed by the sound of an avalanche.” The quote on the Museum wall excerpts from her reflection on this experience.
I think about that last half-hour with Sean all the time. I remember how I didn’t want that day to end, terrible as it was, I didn’t want to go to sleep because as long as I was awake, it was still a day that I’d shared with Sean.
The way the curator selected and arranged Beverly’s words heightened their pathos. But I feel what she meant about staying awake to stay in same day that she shared with Sean. A day not defined by the passing of 24 hours, but a day we raise from bed in the morning and continue as long as we keep going ourselves. Beverly’s more extended comment expresses not only the futility of holding back chronological time, but also the frustration of pushing the limitations of one’s biological clock.