September eleventh, eleven years later and the headline reads, “Can NYC learn to honor 9/11 without politics?” Not during an election year, my mind snaps back rapidly. But surely it is true that people die without them. Surely. When those men and women were jumping out of windows to escape that fiery furnace or were crushed by the weight of burning debris, they were not perusing the pros and cons of national health care or even a balanced budget-theirs or the nation’s. I’m guessing from what I’ve learned from patients and read over the years, that they were remembering their unremarkable and yet most mystical and magical moments. Being with their families, friends and loved ones. Driving to school or passing the football in the yard, eating a meal together. Unremarkable to most but absolutely the most marked to them when the hourglass turned itself upside down and started slipping. Time ticking fast.
I remember what I was doing eleven years ago today. Writing and writing and then writing some more. I only had a few hours between dropping off the first child and picking up the last, so often all communication was turned off and I dug in. I’m probably the only person in the country who didn’t know about it until early afternoon when my Momma called and said, “Pray. Pray Julia, I know you are but I just want to make sure you are OK so call me.” “Pray, I thought,” I wonder what about and turned off the answering machine. Maybe that hurricane that’s getting ready to slam into the coast of North Carolina close to the beach house I finally talked my husband into buying. Owning a beach house for two months before it gets leveled was not my idea of how to create a romantic relationship, so I prayed. I prayed and went back to writing. I’ll call her later, I thought.
My husband was driving our son to his school in Virginia, almost parallel to the flight path of the fourth plane but still I didn’t know a thing. He didn’t call. Even though he was driving and had my son looking out the window for a low flying plane just in case it was going to land on them. What exactly do you do when a plane is dropping on your car in Pennsylvania? Swerve to the left or right, I thought later but didn’t say a word. They listened to news reports of the crashings all the way. What a way to start your Sophomore year in high school, geez. I guess it’s about as close as we got to Armageddon. All meaning, my children, my husband, me, everyone in those towers, the Pentagon, everyone watching and even those that caused it. All of us, I imagine had the revelation on our mind. I’d like to imagine Peace like the Beatles but it wasn’t happening. Not that day, anyway.
We had three friends that lived or worked near the epicenter of the crashings. None of them were hurt. One was out west on business. One was home sick having been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiform a month prior. A different kind of bomb going off. And another watched the event from his apartment window, trying to keep his family from suffocating on all that smoke.
I remember when I finally found out. Stopped the typing to call my Momma and she told me. At first I didn’t believe her. Early Alzheimer’s? “Turn on the TV,” she retorted, “if you don’t believe me and look. It’s awful.” And when she started asking me if my husband and son weren’t in Pennsylvania where the other plane crashed, I really started paying attention and finally turned on the TV. Disbelief, shock and nausea shook me as the events unfolded over and over in front of my eyes. Shame hit me when I remembered my selfish prayer for the beach. I vowed then never to worry about a hurricane hitting those fragile barrier islands again.
When the children came home from school it turned out that they had been watching it all day. Even though they were only nine and twelve, the school in it’s wisdom had put televisions in the rooms so the teachers could watch and explain. They were wondering if our friends in NYC were dead. I didn’t tell them so was I. We called their father and brother, of course they were OK. OK that is if hanging your fifteen year old head out the window on your way to school to make sure no planes are getting ready to land on the sunroof of your car is OK. If it is then they were.
I wrote this poem the next day. “Psalm Twenty-three.” Truthfully, it remains one of my favorites. It’s a little random and sometimes I hear, “Julia, I like your poems but occasionally I don’t understand them.” I just want to say, “Well, that makes two of us. Sometimes I don’t understand them either. But that’s they way they wrote themselves and we’re just going to have to live with it. Like it or not. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. Like it that is.”
“Psalm 23” describes the intense union I felt with nature as I sat outside by my fish pond the day after. I was in awe that the birds, fish and trees could be so beautiful and oblivious to the pain we were feeling in New York. The odd lines are simply words of the psalmist written so many years ago. The even lines describe the world trade centers crumbling and the events that were unfolding that day and the next. I became aware of the symbolism of two birds fighting at the feeder while it remained full as representing our world conflicts and aggressions. Both bird and man ignoring that God has filled the world with plenty. Many people asked in anger after that day, “Where was God?” I hope in some way this poem answers that question.
The Lord is my shepherd as a man holds a box cutter I shall not want and a woman phones her husband He maketh me to lie down as a jet crashes in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the fiery gates of steel and the still waters. He restoreth my soul, as a priest administers the last rites. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness to a fireman. They die in each other’s arms for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk by two hundred and twenty crumbling stories through the valley of the shadow a cardinal sings, of death. And a blue jay chases the red one away, I will fear He is hungrier, no evil. He is bigger. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort as cardinal sings on me. Water circles a pond as thou preparest a table where one hundred fish swim before me in the presence and this flowing creates the breath of my enemies. As fish breathe under water and My cup runneth over. Once there were three, He annointeth my head with oil Now there are one hundred. Surely goodness and mercy will follow Fish swim, fish breathe and a cardinal sings to me, all the days of my life. And I will dwell, now the thousands search in the house of the Lord for loved ones to say goodbye, I’ll miss you forever.
Julia W. Burns, MD