Maintaining Continuity in a Fearful World
None of us need anniversaries to remind us of what we cannot forget. Nor bumper stickers, marathons, murals or museums. What’s on everyone’s mind every September, particularly in America and inescapably in cities from Boston to D.C, is the modern day tragedy that has come to be known as 9/11. 2,977 civilians from 115 nations were murdered in this series of terrorist strikes, 1,609 people lost a spouse or partner, an estimated 3,051 children lost a parent (The Encyclopedia of 9/11). According to the New York Medical Examiner’s Office, as of August 2016, 40% of World Trade Center victims’ remains have not been recovered or identified (CNN.com) And the grief still resonates deep in the memories of those old enough to have known and close enough to have been directly impacted. How do we move through this?
My diagnosis in 2003, was post-traumatic stress disorder with complicated grief.
In 2013, the latter was renamed Persistent complex bereavement disorder. (APA DSM-5, 2013). Six months is considered the normal period of bereavement when symptoms fade over time and an individual resumes normal activity and responsibilities. The signs and symptoms are the same of normal grief; however, when the symptoms linger or get worse they are deemed a disorder. Dictionary.com defines disorder as an “irregularity, breach of order, to destroy the order or regular arrangement of”. Disorder also implies that something necessitates rearranging or fixing. According to mayoclinic.org, “complicated grief is like being in an ongoing, heightened state of mourning that keeps you from healing”. A Ferris wheel with no brakes, where your toes barely get to scratch the dirt before your heart falls to the pit of your stomach and the cycle continues. So what is normal? How was normal to have been achieved on March 11, 2002 when the city was selling tickets to tourists for a view of the void still pungent with my lover’s ashes? For ten years, I was informed in letter and email that there may have been more identified remains for me to claim. In May 2006, when the scientific experts had declared that they had exhausted DNA technology, I held a funeral service, near the time of what would have been his 45th birthday, (which also coincides with Mother’s Day). I decided a rib and a scapula quenched my need for proof of life, or death. Despite the choices of a few from my 9/11 widow sisterhood, I formally waived my right to be informed beyond that point. I was not going to re-inter. I reconciled that any subsequent remains identified from the time of the internment…when my nine year old sat swinging his legs atop the poetically carved memorial stone of the father who fades from his memory each growing year…until the time my name is added beside him, that David could partly rest encapsulated in the tomb of the Gotham bedrock where only VIP members can go. Yet the victim’s particulars would not settle in the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island and in 2010 more human remains were publicaly announced following a two-month long sifting of debris brought there from the site (911research.wtc7.net, 2013). By this time our sons were 14 and 18.
As I work on my memoir, one subject I want to write about is how people adapt to a new normal while living in a continuous thread of multiple simultaneous messages from multiple directions. I would be sidestepping a very large elephant if I were to not mention that although grief is universal, in the circumstance of national tragedy and war, personal grief is not private nor unique. In today’s world which is connected through vast social media outlets, there are no privacy settings. And the media loves to replay, reprint and re-canonize those iconic horrific images every September. References to 9/11 have been utilized to add emphasis to the Iraq war, the Boston bombing incident and to global terrorist activity. It’s as omnipresent as the echo of my voice in the halls of the museum on Vesey Street. In the fall of 2013, my son called me from college to say that he left his statistics class when the lesson required pre- and post- 9/11 calculations. A subcontractor I hired to do handiwork on my home in Vermont handed me a newspaper article; ”Exposing myths of terrorism’s impact” (USA TODAY, August 16, 2016) because his sister said she knew me. America’s obsessive need to feel connected to and capitalize on 9/11 has launched me and my sons into a new universe of twisted empathy. They implore us to personify the cathartic dream that tragedy cannot overshadow victory, that just being in our presence is proof that the Dementors did not win.
The moment I saw the second plane slice through the south tower amid the vaporous grey smoke of its twin, my insular universe collided with the broader world and split in two halves, before 9/11 and after 9/11. I had been forced, along with our child sons, into a sudden life interruption, a rod shoved in a racing cog. A forced discontinuity. Everything that was familiar to me became unfamiliar. Out of the jealous sky dropped a nuclear blast that unleashed energy absorbing shockwaves, spherically penetrating our hypocenter and disturbing the equilibrium of the cozy little bubble we ate supper in, 25 miles outside of New York City. The interior and exterior life I had known vaporized into a Ceylon abyss that insists on triggering emotions on an unassuming mild day. I am cast into a perpetual existence focused on finding equilibrium through everyday tasks, from sunrise to sunset. When will I live again?
Mary Catherine Bateson explored how people survive this kind of interruption in (Composing a Life, 2001). She looked at how people interpret continuities and discontinuities in their lives and the implications for how they approach the future. Her discovery found that those who had entered a life interruption with a sense that they had skills and adaptive patterns, were able to transfer them to the new situations and adjust and adapt better. They emphasized continuity. Other people who entered the same life situation, feeling that their lives had ended and they had to start from zero, experienced compromised life adjustment. As for myself, 9/11 had not been my first life interruption. Through my formative experiences with parental and extended family loss, mental illness, displacement, coming of age during my mother’s cancer and losing her at 18, life interruptions have become as familiar to me as earthquakes are to seismologists. You not only identify with them when they come, you expect them and understand the scope of the aftershocks. But this in no way prepares you for an exposition on Bill Moyer’s Sunday Edition, nor how to raise forlorn fatherless boys into manhood.
Graydon Parrish (b. 1970) attempted to illustrate the life interruption-continuity phenomena with his Allegorical mural entitled “Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11, 2001.” (New Britain Museum of American Art)
This artful expression of grief was commissioned by a 9/11 family and the New Britain Museum in Connecticut, to capture and expand a vivid moment in American history to reflect universal truths about loss, tragedy, freedom and life in the 21st century. It illustrates the cycle of life in which innocence is first obliterated in the face of tragedy. The child signifies the return of innocence and resilience, to continue on despite the knowledge of the inevitable relentless cycle of tragedies that have carried humans through the centuries from holy wars to modern day terrorism and ethnic cleansing, natural disasters and 9/11. The men and children are innocents, blindfolded, the three mourning women are not. They are knowing and tragic like the three fates of destiny and life, of Greek mythology, the Moirai. Eventually the child’s blindfold must be removed to make him aware of his surroundings. Some will visualize hope and begin renewal and others will dwell in the gape and seek vengeance.
Through those early months, I maintained our own boy’s innocence by blindfolding them from the media, from the insatiable, shock-driven, grieving, angry public. They constructed Lego rescue squads and paper airplanes with messages to Daddy. And I mourned on an island, knees in sand, arms out stretched, eyes of tides, fully exposed. I stood, and drew in breath, soaked in warm baths, sipped hot jasmine tea and I waited, for each dawn to open, the school bus to pause, a rose to bloom, the sand to sift through my pockets, grain by grain. Every minute was as loud as a day. I relinquished resistance to the discontinuity that swept over me and I floated in continuous waves of motion, through a decade to pass. In the absence of his embrace, I embraced myself, finding comfort in being. And I forgive myself for what I may not have accomplished so that I can keep myself open to whatever another day brings to me, to be content to exist in the present and slowly move into the future.
This is how I want to imagine him (David); standing strong through ignorance, innocent of the tragedy befalling him. His tunnel vision (he was legally blind) and his earphones as his blindfold. In a last vestige of human dignity, he asserts his right to live as a last call to resistance in this world and he screams out my name to carry his innocence to his sons, for me to bare the burdens of seeing all, to maintain continuity amid the cycle of innocence in the wake of a fearful world and continue to live the tragedy that is life.
All rights reserved © Deborah Garcia 2017