Friday, September 30, 2011

Making Sense of Surviving Your Friends

In keeping with what turned out to be a week of considering anger’s role in grief, I thought I’d turn to one of the triggers for anger: survivor guilt.
The research for my book has provided a glimpse into some typically closed societies, among them military and firefighters. Both are groups charged with keeping us safe, both are groups whose jobs are so dangerous they know every day is potentially their last.
The people they work with - men and women - are a tight-knit group. They consider themselves a family; Band of Brothers was not an accidental title.
Because of the nature of their close living conditions, and the hazards of their work, they must have complete trust in each other. They hold our lives - and the lives of those who work with them - literally in their hands.
Their grief is complicated by these unique situations. Their workplace is their home, after all, sleeping and eating together as well as fighting fires or the enemy. They spend most of their time with their co-workers.
In David Halberstam’s excellent book, Firehouse, about his neighborhood Upper West Side firehouse after 9/11, he recounts the difficulties faced by the one firefighter who survived that day. Twelve answered the call; one came back. He only survived because a photographer on the pile saw him sticking out of the rubble and got him to medical assistance. He was lucky.
But there were those who did not consider him lucky: they resented his survival. Why him? Why was he the only one to survive? He became the worst kind of celebrity, getting attention for something that he was embarrassed about: surviving.
Sgt. Dakota Meyer, whose story was told here last week, disobeyed orders to help his men, rescuing 36 American and Afghan soldiers. But that superhuman accomplishment is tarnished by his own survivor guilt. While he was able to help retrieve the bodies of four comrades (a fifth died later of wounds), he was haunted by the fact that they didn’t make it.
Yes, surviving is its own reward, and cause for celebration. But as story after story after story of heroism in the military, in the first responder community, even in daily life has proven, sometimes it just doesn’t make sense who lives and who dies. There is a randomness that doesn’t satisfy our need for clean, logical explanations.
“I just talked to her a week ago.”
I’ve always found it a little amusing when people say things like this after a friend has died. What? They must be alive because they talked to you recently? We grasp for straws, for explanations - no matter how bizarre - to help us understand.
One of my earliest blog posts was about the episode of Family Ties where Alex suffers from acute survivor guilt when his best friend is killed in a car accident. “I should’ve been there,” he cried, as if he had the power to prevent the accident and save his friend’s life.
There’s an episode of Doctor Who where we see that his companion, Donna, could’ve missed meeting him altogether. She is sitting in her car at an intersection, arguing with her mother about whether to make a left turn or a right turn.
Sometimes it’s as simple as that - your choice of direction at an intersection dictates the rest of your life.
Stories of 9/11 are full of these kinds of random, unconscious decisions that literally meant the difference between dying with your co-workers on the 91st floor and surviving: stopping for a shoeshine, walking your child to the first day of kindergarten, changing shifts with another firefighter. And every one of those stories includes a variation on “I don’t know why I’m here and they’re not.”
I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule for coming to terms with survivor guilt. Some people deal with it by making sure that their friend is always remembered: charitable contributions, family support, or maybe finishing a project they started. Some people use their friend’s death - and their own survival - as a catalyst for making sweeping changes in their own lives. Every one of them struggles with the unanswerable question, “why?”
For them - and for us all - surviving isn’t enough. We need acceptable answers. But we have to accept that we probably won’t get them, at least not in this lifetime.
We also need to remember that just surviving isn’t enough.
We need to live each day to its fullest, and be grateful for having known that friend.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Friend Grief and Anger

Anger can be unattractive, there’s no question about it. It’s messy and unpredictable, sometimes loud and violent. And in a world where we like things to make sense, it’s often unacceptable. But never more than when you’re grieving. There’s a long list of people we can be angry with:
The person who died: why didn’t they take better care of themselves? Why did they take such a stupid chance? What were they thinking?
The medical community: why didn’t the doctor force them to take better care of their health? Why didn’t the paramedics get there sooner? Why hasn’t someone discovered a cure for cancer, etc.?
God: why did you make a good person suffer? Why did you leave those children without a parent? Why them? Why now? Why not someone else? Why not me?
The family: why didn’t they make him go to the doctor? Why did they let her live alone?
Death is, after all, the great unknown. Despite stories of white lights and visions of deceased relatives, no one’s come back from any extended time in the afterlife. We don’t know what awaits us.
And we REALLY don’t know why people die when they do. We say “it was just their time,” and obviously, it was. As a friend, that sense of helplessness can create even deeper anger.
Many times when I’ve grieved I’ve been angry, although I rarely shared those feelings. Despite being one of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous stages of grief, it’s probably the least acknowledged.
Anger can be useful, but when turned inward, is more likely referred to as depression. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about white-hot, body-shaking, screaming-at-the-top-of-your-lungs anger.
You’ve already realized that the grief you feel for your friend is being devalued because you’re not family. And that can add to the anger you already feel.
Even those who are also grieving are unlikely to accept your anger. Think of Sally Field melting down in the cemetery in Steel Magnolias, and the shock on her friends’ faces. The minister in The Big Chill - “I’m angry, and I don’t know what to do with my anger” - is much calmer about it, but the look in his eyes is anything but.
The problem with suppressing the absolutely justified anger we feel when a friend dies is that it will bubble up eventually. It will present itself suddenly and loudly and often in a completely unrelated situation. And that presents its own complications. Screaming at a barista who doesn’t know you won’t bring back your friend.
So, if you’re angry that cancer treatments and cures came too late for your friend…
If you’re angry that your friend’s family dismissed her threats of suicide…
If you’re angry that your friend drove drunk…
If you’re angry that an evil person chose your friend at random to kill…
Embrace that anger: accept it and embrace it. You’re angry because of the pain that your friend’s death has caused. That’s, dare I say it, normal. Frankly, it would be strange if you weren’t angry. You’re angry because you loved them and wanted them to stay close to you always. Selfish maybe, but normal and human.
So, as long as you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else, you have my permission to be angry. Then you can work on channeling your anger into positive action, to keep your friend’s memory alive every day of your life.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

Delle Chatman
I was watching the news the other night and the reporter asked why the buildings in downtown Chicago had green lights at the top. Well, they’re not green; they’re teal, the color adopted by the ovarian cancer movement.
Ovarian cancer - like melanoma - is a silent killer. The symptoms are subtle and easily dismissed: bloating, painful intercourse, sense of urgency or increased frequency for urination, back pain, constipation, fatigue, unusual weight gain, sleepless nights, abdominal pain, headaches, difficult menstrual cycles, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly. I bet that any woman reading this is thinking “uh-oh...” And most of the time, these symptoms are not a cause for serious concern.
There is no Pap smear or mammogram for detection. There is no definitive test for ovarian cancer; even the blood test yields many false positives. The facts from the American Cancer Society are grim:
There is a 5-year 90% survival rate if caught in the early stages, but only 19% are diagnosed then. Caught at Stage III or higher, the 5-year survival rate is as low as 30.6%.
Ovarian cancer is the 5th leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women 35-74.
5%-10% of cases have a genetic link. Family history of breast or colon cancer can also be a risk factor.
This is a picture of my friend, Delle Chatman. In November, 2002, she was diagnosed with a recurring form of ovarian cancer. Her initial surgery didn’t get it all, and she endured four years of treatments before leaving us four years later.
I walked into her hospital room Labor Day, 2006, as her doctor walked out, after telling her that the cancer was back yet again. I knew instantly - and she seemed to, as well - that this was different than the previous recurrences: this was it. We spent the next couple hours making phone calls and lists of things to do, people to do them.
A month later, she announced she was discontinuing treatment. Her body was so tired, had fought so hard, but now it was time to let go of this life. She sent out an email to her friends, who responded instantly, expressing their love for her. “I’m not dead yet,” she insisted. “Save it for the funeral.”
But I told her it was too damn bad she had to listen to people tell her they loved her. Most people don’t have that privilege. Those of us who helped in those last two months - organizing her books and CD’s, packing up dishes, running errands - were grateful we had the chance to tell her and show her how much we loved her.
Make no mistake: even though Delle died almost 5 years ago, she’s here today. She’s the reason I’m writing my book, the reason I get back on track when I’m occasionally derailed, the reason I have the confidence I have in what I’m doing. I talk to her a lot, and yes, now and then I hear her talking back: sometimes scolding, sometimes laughing. Friends die; friendships don’t.
Here are two good resources for information on ovarian cancer symptoms, risk factors and treatment. You owe it to yourself and the women in your life to be vigilant.
Who knows? Maybe teal will become the new pink

Friday, September 23, 2011

Waiting for a Friend’s Funeral

One of the stark realities of being the friend of someone who has died is that you’re not in charge.
When a family member dies, one or more relatives are designated to carry out specific tasks. They may simply follow the wishes of the deceased, or may be forced to make choices about everything from burial clothes to readings.
They may ask friends of their loved one to participate, typically as a pallbearer. Friends may be asked to give a eulogy or share photos for a display at the funeral home.
Typically, friends are simply expected to support the family, whose grief is assumed to be more important. They have no decision-making power.
Because of that lack of control and lack of participation - unless specifically asked - friends have to roll with the punches. And one of the biggest hurdles they face is the funeral/memorial service itself.
Can you go? Can you get off work? Are you even invited? Those are serious issues, ones that will be addressed in future posts.
New Yorker Durell Godfrey had recently retired from Glamour Magazine when she found herself helping to plan the funeral of a childhood friend who had died weeks earlier in a car accident. She and a number of other friends were planning the service, because there were no family members there to handle it. It was scheduled for Saturday, September 15, 2001.
Obviously, the events of 9/11 in New York complicated matters in ways that could not be anticipated. Her friend’s twin brothers, living in Paris, couldn’t fly because all international flights were grounded. In fact, no one could get to the site of the funeral, because lower Manhattan was in lockdown.
“Trying to design a funeral anyway is horrible. Then Tuesday happened and nobody knew what to do,” she said.
They shared an all-too-common experience with those who lost someone on 9/11: They had to wait to say goodbye.
Durell’s is not the only story I’ve heard about funerals that were delayed for various reasons. Sometimes - in the case of 9/11 - they waited for DNA: “something” to bury. Sometimes the immediate family was too distraught to hold a service of any kind, leaving friends at a loss. Sometimes the family decided to wait for a specific reason: for better weather, or to travel to a specific destination to scatter ashes.
What to do?
Do you, as a friend, gather other friends together and hold your own “service”? How about an Irish wake - laughing and singing and remembering the best moments with your friend, no crying allowed? Do you wait until the family makes plans and hope you’re included? Do you try to convince yourself you don’t “need” a funeral to say goodbye?
In Durell’s case, her friend’s funeral did finally take place, months later. Sadly, he had worked on Wall Street and knew many people from Cantor Fitzgerald who died on 9/11. He was spared a grief that Durell believed would have broken his heart.
While I don’t believe in closure, I do believe that the rituals of our lives - including funerals - serve an important purpose. Not having one - or worse, not being included in one - that honors your friend probably makes you feel like you’re left hanging.
Perhaps it’s time, then, for us to consider that there doesn’t have to be Just One Funeral for anyone. We can remember our friends in a thousand different ways: visiting their favorite places, supporting organizations that were important to them, keeping in touch with their families, re-dedicating our own lives to a greater purpose.
Whatever way you choose, you’ll be sure they’re never forgotten.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Medal of Honor for His Fallen Friends

Sgt. Dakota Meyer
Photo by NY Post
"If I was a hero, I would’ve brought them all out alive.”
You may have seen the video last week of Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer in the East Room of the White House. He’s not a man who likes a fuss made over him, and he wasn’t just a guest: he was there to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Obama.
He called it the worst day of his life; September 8, 2009. Then-Corporal Meyer and another Marine, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, refused orders and commandeered a Humvee to head to the “killing zone”. Back and forth five times, they rescued 23 Afghans and 13 Americans, also retrieving the bodies of 4 members of his unit, Embedded Training Team 2-8. He suffered shrapnel wounds, but lived to tell the tale.
Or rather, have others tell the tale. Now a civilian working in construction in Kentucky, he‘d rather be out of the limelight.
And a big reason for his humility is his grief over the five service members who died in that battle: Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton and Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook.
Meyer has shifted the spotlight from himself to his new Sgt. Dakota Meyer Scholarship Initiative, which hopes to raise $1 million with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation to pay college costs for children of wounded Marines.
He also asked the families of his fallen comrades, who did not attend the White House ceremony, to hold memorial services in their own communities at the same time. The East Room was not the only place where Marines were honored that day.
Still, for all his heroism, and even though he helped save 36 people that day, he is troubled by the memory of those he couldn’t save. As President Obama said so eloquently:
“Dakota, I know that you’ve grappled with the grief of that day, that you’ve said your efforts were somehow a failure because your teammates didn’t come home. But as your commander-in-chief, and on behalf of everyone here today and all Americans, I want you to know it’s quite the opposite. You did your duty, above and beyond, and you kept the highest tradition of the Marine Corps that you love. Because of your honor, 36 men are alive today.”
There are many “groups” that have tight bonds of friendship: police officers, sports teams, firefighters, religious communities, fraternities and sororities. But perhaps none have the intensity of the military, particularly in times of war.
There are as many stories as there are service members. This is just one. But it’s a pretty damn good one.
Semper Fi.

If you would like to support Sgt. Meyer’s initiative, log onto Dakota Meyer.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Winnie the Pooh’s Friend Grief

Christopher Robin & Pooh
by E.H. Shepard
And now for something completely different…
Perhaps my favorite children’s stories are about Christopher Robin and his best friend, Winnie the Pooh.
There was always an ordinary quality to their stories: get up in the morning and see what happens. Characters had strengths and flaws, but were always accepted
We all have friends like Tigger - the personification of ADHD - whose non-stop energy is exhausting. Who doesn’t have a friend like Eeyore, who assumes the worst in any situation? And Rabbit: I mean, really, who wants a party-pooper like him for a friend?
Actually, we all have friends like them and the other characters in the book. And although from time to time they all get frustrated with the others, they are quick to forgive and forget. Well, maybe not Rabbit…
It’s not Charlotte’s Web: no one dies. But there is a death of sorts in Christopher Robin’s leaving for school.
He knows something’s coming, a day when he can no longer do “Nothing” with his friends. Not only that, he’s going away, to a place he’s only heard about from grownups: the great unknown. He can’t take his friends with him, and he knows that even though they won’t change, he will.
But Christopher Robin and Pooh make a pact to always be friends, always do “Nothing” together, even if they’re apart.
A.A. Milne, creator of the adventures of Christopher Robin and his friends, had a lot to say about the strong bonds of friendship. Following are some quotes from the man who introduced us to a ‘bear of very little brain’, but a heart the size of the universe:

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.”

 “If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together... there is something you must always remember. you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart... I'll always be with you.”

 “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

 “I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The New 9/11 Memorial

There aren’t a lot of quiet places in New York City. So when I considered the building of a 9/11 Memorial on the site of the World Trade Center, I was skeptical. With the West Side Highway on one side, and Manhattan high rises, stores and construction on the other three, the Memorial seemed doomed. It would be swallowed up, a place where grief would be distracted by jackhammers, sirens and car horns.
I was wrong.
Yesterday I visited the new 9/11 Memorial. By now you’ve probably seen photos of the two waterfalls, in the footprints of the towers, and the futuristic building that will serve as the entrance to the Museum when it opens next year.
The final design took years of arguing, negotiating and compromise. Michael Arad, the designer, was initially quite angry about changes suggested and finally made to his original design. But he has since agreed that the final product works.
When you walk onto the site, you are greeted by wide walkways and occasional low, stone seating. There are rows of swamp oak trees, presumably hardy since they survived the recent hurricane. Off to one side is the “Survivor Tree”, a Callery Pear tree so named because it survived the attacks. For the past ten years, it has been lovingly nurtured back to life, and now stands apart from the other trees, protected by steel cables anchored into the ground. On this third day of the Memorial being open, the tree was already the recipient of gifts of flowers, prayer cards and a teddy bear.
The two waterfalls are separated by the building that will house the entrance to the Museum. That building, as well as the trees, serves to separate the Memorial from the outside world, providing a buffer of security. Although construction on the four new towers will continue for another 2-3 years, when completed, those buffers will be even more important.
I knew the waterfalls fell to 30 feet, but pictures do not convey the beauty and power of this design. It’s deceptively simple, but elegant in its way. Unbeknownst to the designers, when the light hits the waterfall at a certain time of day (not when I was there), rainbows appear, a fitting tribute, don’t you think?
When you stand there, you really are not distracted by noises or sights. Imagine the Vietnam Memorial in Washington being plunked down in the middle of DuPont Circle. It would give you a completely different - and not good - experience. But this works well.
There are Memorial staff walking around, available to answer questions and direct visitors to the kiosks where you can look up names and locations. They also have materials to use - free - to make rubbings of the names.
A high school classmate of mine died in the south tower, and I wanted to make a rubbing to give to our school. The paper they provide is not regular paper; it’s more like fabric, soft and pliant. You’re given three long pieces, along with a thick, black crayon. My friend and I carefully made two rubbings, and used the third piece to wrap them.
I don’t think you get a sense of the number of names, like you do at the Wall. But you definitely get a sense of the size of the hole - literally and figuratively - that was left by the attack.
We can only hope that the area remains as un-commercialized as it is now. I assume any “gift shop” will be inside the Museum, and out of site of the Memorial.
Like any cemetery or memorial, the 9/11 Memorial can evoke strong reactions. My friend said he felt nauseous when we first arrived, remembering that almost 3,000 people died on that spot. I felt nervous and tense. I warned him ahead of time that he could expect me to cry, and I did: not just for Carol, not just for the others who died, but for all of us who lost their innocence that day.
Don’t take my word for it: see it for yourself.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Buddhists and the Brits Commemorate 9/11

Bagpipers and Pipe & Drum Corps
at the British Gardens
When most people think of 9/11 observances, they think first of New York, then Washington, then Pennsylvania. They think in terms of Americans remembering the loss of American lives. They think in terms of solemn, patriotic ceremonies, naming the names of those who died; perhaps displaying those names on programs or engraving them in stone. They wave American flags and banners.
And while it’s true that most of those who died that day were American citizens, the victims represented 93 countries.
The British, to no one’s surprise, conduct a formal ceremony in a tiny slip of park in the middle of Wall Street, called the British Garden (now renamed the Queen Elizabeth 2 Commemorative Garden).
This year, police officers from Great Britain, Canada and Australia turned out after showing their respects at Ground Zero. They marched and stood at attention while the West Yorkshire Pipe and Drum Band performed, followed by the Gardens’ official bagpipers, the Allied Forces Foundation. A combined choir from Scotland sang, too, after formal speeches from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the Consuls General of Australia and Great Britain.
“No more dates on the calendar should become symbols of the wounding of a nation,” Harper said.
There were no religious references, no naming of victims’ names. The Garden’s leaders announced that it would now commemorate the victims of not only Great Britain, but Canada and Australia as well. It was proper, sincere, and secular. Those who attended, some from half a world away, came at their own expense, and were proud to do so.
That night, Pier 40 at the end of Houston Street was turned over for a Buddhist floating lanterns ceremony.
Lanterns floating in the Harbor
People gather in early evening to write messages, memories and prayers on large pieces of paper, which are then folded around candles. Each lantern is then fixed to a kind of tray, tied in a line with five more, to form a chain of soft lights. Kayakers then pull these chains out into the Hudson River, where they are released into the night.
There are a few, very brief speeches that serve mainly to welcome people and explain the significance of not only the lanterns, but the music and chanting. Though referred to as a Buddhist ceremony, it was in fact interdenominational, with Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Islamic and Afro-Caribbean ministries represented.
The music, played mostly on reed instruments and the occasional drum or gong, is quiet and slow.
Unlike the mostly older crowd at the British Gardens, the attendees at the floating lantern ceremony were mostly under the age of 40, and considerably more culturally diverse. And also unlike the other crowd, this one was made up mostly of residents of New York.
The purpose of the event is to look at 9/11 as a teaching moment: how can we use that pain to make the world a better place? How can we move past the horror to become better people, better citizens? “Let us covenant now to take care of each other,” was Rev. Alfonso Wyatt’s parting prayer.
Both ceremonies took place in New York on 9/11, but were as different from each other as they were from the observances at Ground Zero.
There are many ways to look at what happened 10 years ago: the details, the meaning, and the implications for the future.
Every group of people - whether brought together by geography or faith - finds its own way when considering an event with such historic significance.
They struggle to determine what’s most important to them: rebuilding the site? Honoring the victims and their survivors? Pledging to improve their lives and the lives of those around them?
There are as many ways of grieving as there are people. Their culture, their nationality, their beliefs all have an impact on that.
The very different approaches of the British and the Buddhists prove that there is no wrong way to grieve. But there is one that is right for you.

Tomorrow: The New 9/11 Memorial

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ground Zero - 10 Years Later

British & Canadian police officers
at Ground Zero
“Everything’s different this year.”
I wish I had a dollar for every time I said or thought those words, or heard them from someone else yesterday. The anniversary brought many changes to the ceremonies, restrictions and mood.
I was at the corner of Liberty & Trinity for the naming ceremony. I didn’t stay for the whole thing; I was there to listen for my classmate’s name. Last year, I realized it had always been mispronounced, and made it my goal for the 10th anniversary to make sure that was corrected.
When I heard her name - pronounced correctly - I started to laugh. But instead a sob caught in my throat. It was all I could do to control myself, although it would not have been unusual to cry at Ground Zero. I was a little afraid that if I started crying, I might not be able to stop.
That was how I felt 10 years ago. I remember crying at a mass at my daughter’s school, and being unable to stop for what felt like a long time. It probably wasn’t, but control freak that I am, it wasn’t a comfortable feeling.
With a couple of notable exceptions, the people I encountered yesterday - on the streets of Manhattan, at Ground Zero, the British Gardens and the Buddhist floating lanterns ceremony – were friendly, helpful, and kind. We were kind to each other; there’s just no other word for it. Last week, everyone seemed to be on edge; waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sunday morning, it was as if everything let out the breath they’d been holding, and relaxed.
The untold story, really, about all the anniversaries, is the willingness of people to come to New York from around the world. Thousands of police officers were at Ground Zero in their dress uniforms, standing in formation for hours, presenting the colors, showing their respects. They came from around the U.S. and many other countries as well. And I was continually surprised to find that none of them were there for the first time; some had come as often as seven times.
That person was a young Toronto police officer. He said that there were many who questioned why he was making the trip – like everyone else, at their own expense – when “it didn’t have anything to do with us.” He insisted it did, even though a modest number of Canadians died that that. He had to be there, he insisted.
The very personal aspect of 9/11 for me is simply that it brought a group of women - my high school classmates - closer together. Despite having already lost a number of classmates, Carol’s death on that day forced us into action. No longer would we say “we should get together more often”. We just did it, with no more excuses.
So, ten years after that awful day, I am less willing to put things off. I’m less patient with people who make excuses (including myself). I’m more grateful for this fragile life we lead, and more determined to accomplish something in whatever time I have left.
If 9/11 taught us anything, it’s that time is our most precious commodity. No one knows how much they have. But everyone can make the most of it, if they choose.

Coming next:
9/13 – The Buddhists and the Brits: how other cultures and faiths commemorate 9/11
9/14 – The New 9/11 Memorial

Sunday, September 11, 2011

FROM ONE TO ELEVEN: The Essence of Grief by Damon DiMarco

Bring them back, God, please bring them back. This is the essence of grief.
Not the secret we shared with a lover, divulged, or the song we composed, which the critics destroyed, or long holes torn in the silk of our souls. It’s the truth that you can’t bring them back.
I will never forget there are men who fight fires. Or faces that smiled in the hallways, the stairs. Or clerks who vowed to remain at their desks until even their bosses get out.
And I want you to bring them back now, God. I want you to please bring them back.
Here are some items we found. Look here. This shoe. This pen. This piece of debris. We cherish these heirlooms, we’ll trade them at once if only you bring them back.
One for our daughters and one for our sons. Our fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters. What is the reason you can’t bring them back?
I keep thinking it could have been any of us. It could have been any of us, and it was, and thank you for sparing me. Thank you for life. But life means less when you treat it like this, so why don’t you bring them back?
They say that no parent should bury a child, but children should get to remember their parents. You made that order, then broke it. I’m angry. Criticize my faith, but I’m pissed. They were innocent people going to work. Meetings and spreadsheets and eyes out the window, daydreaming trips. Anniversaries. Parties. Retirement. Then something happened.
Ten years ago, and who would believe it? It happened to you and it happened to me and something bright fell out of the sky and some ran up while many ran down and we lost them, and maybe we lost ourselves, I don’t know.
I just want them back.
Do you watch us rebuild? We want to rebuild. When something good breaks, you don’t throw it away. You fix it. Make it better and stronger. But why should mosaics go missing a stone? Why should the trees without roots bear fruit, while good trunks topple and caretakers, drunk, play cards with a bee and a fox in the shade, and leave us with nothing but stories?
Take my eyes, my hands, my feet – I don’t need feet, I’ve already stumbled. And yet, move forward we must.
And since we must, I will ask you again to please, God. Bring them back.

Damon DiMarco is the author of Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11 and My Two Chinas: The Memoir of a Chinese Counterrevolutionary with Baiqiao Tang (featuring a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama). His website is

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Arts and 9/11: "110 Stories"

2,753 empty chairs in Bryant Park
Two nights.
Two plays.
Same subject.
But as is typical in any art form, two completely different approaches.
On Friday night I saw Sarah Tuft’s play, 110 Stories, which benefited the New York Says Thank You Foundation. There were some pretty serious problems at the location that delayed the start of the show for over an hour, but there were also some very stark difference between 110 Stories and The Guys, which I saw Thursday night.
Unlike that play, which had only two characters, 110 Stories presents introduces you to 30 people from all walks of life who were at Ground Zero on that day, or involved in the recovery effort. Also a staged reading, the characters were portrayed by a large group of actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, Kathleen Turner, Tony Shalhoub, Jeremy Piven, Stephen Baldwin, Melissa Leo and Ralph Macchio.
Also unlike The Guys, this play recounts some graphic descriptions about the recovery effort, details that had a very noticeable effect on the woman sitting next to me. She was considerably younger, perhaps in middle school when 9/11 happened. She seemed to be hearing this for the first time.
(You see, that’s a problem when you’ve lived through something like 9/11: you assume everyone knows what you know.)
Each character began with some background: their job, how they found out about the attacks, how they responded. Then it went on to what each witnessed, again, sometimes with shocking detail. But that was absolutely necessary to then explain how they coped and how their lives - and health - were changed forever.
Both plays continued the theme that has played out in the media this week about 9/11. The #1 question seems to be, “where were you when the planes hit?”
But the follow-up is always, “what’s your story about 9/11?” That’s a more expansive question, requiring a more thoughtful response. And everyone has one.
The Guys and 110 Stories are both plays, both staged readings of stories. Telling and sharing 9/11 stories is a way to make sense of something that makes no sense. Sometimes there is no answer to “why?” that is reasonable or acceptable.
But still we tell our stories, share our stories, so that others can begin to understand what it was like.

Coming next:
9/11 – Guest post by Damon DiMarco, author of Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11
9/12 – Ground Zero, 10 Years Later
9/13 – The Buddhists and the Brits: how other cultures and faiths commemorate 9/11
9/14 – The New 9/11 Memorial

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Arts and 9/11: "The Guys"

From the original production

Last night I attended a performance of Anne Nelson’s beautiful play, The Guys, starring Sigourney Weaver and Tom Wopat, benefitting the FDNY Foundation.
A deceptively simple premise based on the playwright’s personal experience, The Guys tells of a meeting between Joan, an editor, and Nick, an FDNY fire captain. Nick lost 8 men on 9/11, and a week later, needs help writing eulogies for the first four services.
The language is real and funny and gut-wrenching, sometimes all at once. Joan gradually draws out stories of each man, as Nick struggles with his grief for his guys, and survivor guilt (he switched shifts with his best friend).
He rails against the hero status each has acquired, arguing that they were just doing “the greatest job in the world.” He hates that they’re being elevated to sainthood when they were just everyday guys.
But little by little, he shares the humanity in each, the “ordinary” in each man who died doing what he loved.
Joan, removed from the events by her Upper West Side life (her father, watching TV in Oklahoma, knew about the attacks before she did), struggles with her own grief and helplessness in those early days. Like millions of others around the country, she wanted to “do” something, no matter how small. But the recovery effort needed ironworkers, not intellectuals. When she was asked by a friend to help Nick, she jumped at the chance.
In describing the effect of 9/11 on New York, she uses the analogy of a pebble dropped in water. “You’re the rock,” she says, and the ripples are waves of grief. The first one, family you lost; then friends, co-workers, the Starbucks barista who “only” lost two people, the guy you had dinner with months before and thought was nice, and so on.
 I remember hearing about the original production of The Guys just a few months after 9/11, and was intrigued by its simplicity. So when I found out I would have a chance to see this production, I was thrilled.
At the reception afterwards, I had a moment to talk to Anne Nelson. When I complimented her on her play, she credited the production. “Yes, but, it was the words, the words were so beautiful,” I insisted.
There are 75 productions of The Guys around the U.S. this week. Find one.

Coming next:
9/10 – 110 Stories
9/11 – Guest post by Damon DiMarco, author of Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11
9/12 – Ground Zero, 10 Years Later
9/13 – The Buddhists and the Brits: how other cultures and faiths commemorate 9/11
9/14 – The New 9/11 Memorial

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tourism and Souvenirs: 9/11-style

9/11 Lottery Balls
This is a picture of my “favorite” 9/11-related offense last year: people dressed as a firefighter and police officer lottery balls. They were on a corner a couple blocks from Ground Zero while the Naming Ceremony was going on, and people were posing for pictures with them.
Any holiday or important date seems to be fair game for exploitation. We see Martin Luther King weekend mattress sales, after all. Ground Zero may be considered hallowed ground, but the event itself is often used in a disrespectful and purely mercenary way.
I’m of two minds here. Many excellent books have been written about the attacks, heroism and recovery efforts: Requiem by Gary Suson, Firehouse by David Halberstam, and of course Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11 by Sunday’s guest blogger, Damon DiMarco come to mind. Should their efforts not earn them money? Should they be expected to give away their profits when writing about a tragedy?
Remember the POW bracelets during the Vietnam War? I had one, though I don’t remember what happened to it or the man whose name was engraved on it. I didn’t think it was tacky at all. But last spring, when I saw similar bracelets being sold across the street from Ground Zero with victims’ names on them, I was offended. The money paid for them would benefit the Visitors Center. But I think I felt they crossed a line, and the line was using individual names.
This morning, Ground Zero was bustling with police, security guards, construction workers and tourists. There was an air of expectation, but not quite excitement. I was interviewed by an Argentine journalist as we stood in front of St. Paul’s, and we agreed the air felt tense. In fact, she felt uneasy with what she considered a lack of (obvious) police presence.
There are tours of the area by a number of groups now, as well as commemorative books being hawked on the corner across from St. Paul’s Chapel. The WTC Visitors Center – as well as any bookstore – sells books, posters, key chains, t-shirts, coloring books, and DVD’s. Tourists posed for pictures with the Freedom Tower in the background. They marveled at the construction progress and stared at police.
A New York health club recently ran afoul of public opinion when they offered a special for first responders (active duty only; no retirees). A commemorative booklet of Bible verses was being given out by a Baptist group from Ohio. The souvenir shop across from Ground Zero sells “Never Forget” t-shirts. The New York Times is promoting their commemorative Sunday issue.
So, is Ground Zero a construction site? A tourist destination? A cemetery?  It’s all of these things and more. It will never be just one thing to everyone.
But it would be nice if we could dispense with the tacky souvenirs.

Coming next:
9/9 – The Guys
9/10 – 110 Stories
9/11 – Guest post by Damon DiMarco, author of Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11
9/12 – Ground Zero, 10 Years Later
9/13 – The Buddhists and the Brits: how other cultures and faiths commemorate 9/11
9/14 – The New 9/11 Memorial

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Preserving Stories of 9/11

Stories on the Ofrenda at St. Paul's Chapel
What really separates humans from animals is the ability to tell and record stories. From the beginning of time, men and women have told stories about their lives, their dreams and their beliefs. And they’ve found ways to pass them along: oral storytelling and drawings on the walls of caves; hieroglyphics and illuminated manuscripts; blogs, texts, tweets and books.
There are two organizations that are preserving stories about 9/11.

Since 2003, Story Corps has collected and archived more than 35,000 interviews from more than 70,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Story Corps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, and has a number of special initiatives focusing on specific ethnic groups and historic events. You can listen to interview excerpts from their 9/11 project on their website and on NPR.
Voices provides information, resources, support and commemorative events for the 9/11 community. They also provide an opportunity to honor the lives and stories of those who died that day. Their digital archive for each victim of the 9/11 attacks will be part of the new 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
Both of these organizations are doing very serious, professional work to preserve the stories of 9/11, so that the event itself and the people it touched are never forgotten. Both are nonprofit organizations deserving of your support.
A lot of media outlets and websites are asking people to share their stories about “where were you on 9/11?” Those are opportunities as well, although perhaps not as permanent or meaningful.
I’m the family genealogist. I’ve learned over the years that the way in which you preserve the stories isn’t what’s most important. What’s most important is making sure those stories survive for all to share and appreciate.

Coming up next:
9/8 – Tourism and Souvenirs, 9/11-style
9/9 – The Guys
9/10 – 110 Stories
9/11 – Guest post by Damon DiMarco, author of Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11
9/12 – Ground Zero, 10 Years Later
9/13 – The Buddhists and the Brits: how other cultures and faiths commemorate 9/11
9/14 – The New 9/11 Memorial