A blog about my history project, a biography of an 18th century American woman who lived in and is buried in my town. I kind of think of her as my imaginary friend. Or my ghostly friend. Or a friendly ghost. Ghostly friend sounds better.
There was a period, about a year ago, when every few nights my wife and I would be awakened by the sound of little steps in the darkness. Then our son’s quick breathing in our room, and finally his trembling voice from the foot of the bed: “I had a nightmare.”
The answer was always the same: “I can’t describe it.”
At the time, I thought he didn’t want to describe it: putting a nightmare into words—saying it aloud and sharing it—would only expand the terror.
But I’ve come to wonder if he simply didn’t possess the vocabulary. And if that failure of language was at least part of the problem. Words are capable of making experience more vivid, and also of organizing it. They can scare us, and they can comfort us. What makes writing so thrilling is what makes childhood so difficult.
New York City is filled with children who have no reason to distinguish the eleventh from any other day in September. At some point they’ll learn, but for now, for them, what actually happened could never have happened.
I often think about how my sons will come to know about September 11th. Something overheard? A newspaper image? In school? I would prefer that they learn about it from my wife and me, in a deliberate and safe way. But it’s hard to imagine ever feeling ready to broach the subject without some impetus. In my mind, that future conversation begins with a child asking a question.
It will be easy enough to summon answers for the matter-of-fact questions—Because they were trying to kill the people in the buildings, and scare everyone else; Because they were angry about certain things America had done; Because the fires weakened the steel that held the towers up—but what about the broken contract? How could this world be so unlike the world that I believed I was living in?
I can’t describe it.
Do I not want to describe it, or do I simply not possess the vocabulary?
When I think back over the injuries that my children have sustained—my nightmares—my mind tends to fixate on the moment immediately before the accident: we were playing on the stoop, my thoughts were scattered, we were laughing. The memory almost always deforms into a self-directed fury: how could I have been so casual, so carefree—how could I not have seen coming what I couldn’t have seen coming? Why didn’t I take him into my arms and protect him?
We can’t revise what happened, but there are different versions of the story available to us.
One of the things most frequently said by survivors of calamities is some version of “Tell your children you love them every morning.” As Galway Kinnell wrote, “The wages of dying is love.” But love can also feel impossible to describe.
Is there anyone who hasn’t played out the nightmare of having been trapped in one of the towers? Is there anyone who hasn’t wondered if he would have had the superhuman composure to call and comfort a loved one? Dozens of phone calls home were placed from the towers between the moment that the first plane hit and the time that the north tower collapsed. When words should have been most impossible to find, there were words of grace, and dignity, and consolation. Words of fear, and words of love. There’s nothing to learn from this, except everything.
Elizabeth Rivas, a mother of six, was at the laundromat when her husband, Moises, a chef at Windows on the World, called looking for her. When she saw the news of the attacks on television, she rushed home, barged through the door, and asked her daughter if there was any word.
“He said, Mommy, he loves you no matter what happens. He loves you,” Rivas told CNN. That was the last they heard from him.
Rivas later said, “He tried to call me. He called me.” ♦