I have yet to be disappointed by what happens when my online world collides with its ‘real’ counterpart. Landing on the virtual doorsteps of people in the middle of lives parallel to my own, I have been beautifully blindsided by unexpected coincidences and exchanges of truths that may not otherwise have seen the light of day. In my virtual home, it is easy to pull up a chair and trade ideas and opinions with people I may never meet about why Seamus Heaney will always matter; about the beautiful, bruised Northern Ireland that both scared me and shaped me; about breast cancer and the pain of it, the politics of it and the shiver of fear it brings when it moves in; and, about clearing a path to things that matter most and things that need to be said.
A few summers ago, I got lost in the blogosphere and somehow landed at Lesley Richardson’s blog, where within minutes, I was completely at home, howling with laughter as we traded stories about surviving our adolescence in Northern Ireland long before curly-hair products had been invented. Both of us born in 1963 in neighboring counties, we have much in common – along with the curls, we each have a teenage daughter, we share a love for Seamus Heaney and for Belfast and a need to write. There’s the cancer. Always the cancer. Before posting to her blog, An Unconventional Death, Lesley emailed me and asked me not to read it, afraid that perhaps her searing account of her beloved dad’s death would upset or offend me, given my own diagnosis. I was moved by her sensitivity to my situation, but I read it anyway, and it broke my heart with its unvarnished truth-telling.
On September 11th, Lesley and I talked here about the jolt to our psyches on that grotesque morning in 2001 when it seemed as though the entire world could barely breathe for fear of what might happen next. Our little girls were then just four years old, safe in their preschools on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. When the news tumbled out of New York city, Lesley and I stopped in our tracks, heartsick, the familiar terror we both knew as children of The Troubles, reawakened in us. Blindsided again. We had grown complacent, I suppose, with the Good Friday Agreement and talk of peace and renewal. How could we have so quickly forgotten that anything can happen. Anything. We should have known better.
“Anything can happen.
The tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted
Those overlooked regarded.
~ Seamus Heaney
Did we used to be more resigned to that maxim? I don’t know. Growing up where we did, when we did, we were confounded by the bombs and bullets, the brutality and barbarism on both sides, but at the same time, somehow – and sadly – resigned to it. We held tight to the ordinary rituals, the ones we thought we could control, and we tried not to be afraid that “it” might happen to us. We never fully gave into the fear as we went to our schools and our shops or out to the pub on a Friday night. Had we given into the fear, we would never have left our homes.
For myself, one such routine entailed writing in a diary every day. Unprompted, I could fill page after page with stories, some true, others embellished. Along with now embarrassing angst-filled poetry, bits of social commentary, newspaper clippings, dried red leaves from maple trees on the edges of country roads upstate New York on my first trip to America, concert tickets, letters never sent, and things I wished I had said at the time. There was always plenty of evidence of a life being lived well in spite of the troubles that swirled around and within us.
A young woman, just starting out on my own, I had time and space from which to carve out a tight hour each day to set words down on a page. The world was my oyster. But the business of adult living eventually got in my way, the way it does, and writing in my diary, my once cherished ritual, gave way to more mundane tasks and responsibilities that turned out to be far less important, far more costly, and often not even good for me.
Just when I thought I had my house in order, a breast cancer diagnosis caught me off-guard – with a jolt. And I began to write again, the way I had done in that old diary. For me. I kept it private at first, afraid to hit “publish.” Inexplicably, I felt like I was speaking out of turn or that I would get in trouble for expressing aloud my indignation about the disease that would interrupt my daughter’s adolescence and make me make room in the next ten years for appointments with oncologists.
As I encountered others like me in this online space, I grew bolder and started to set down my story against the more mainstream stories of celebrities who have “conquered” cancer or women who “have it all.” Here, I could lean back rather than Lean In obediently just because all the other women are doing it. I can take stock and trade. I can light the match rather than not burn the bridge that served only to keep me down and in the dark. In this space, if a visitor leaves a comment that is unkind or untrue or defamatory, I can place it in the trashcan, where it belongs. But that has happened only once. This is my home away from home, so I keep writing. For myself. I suppose cancer made a writer out of me.
For Lesley, it was the death of someone she never met, a Russian immigrant who worked on the 97th floor of 2 World Trade Center, that prompted her to start writing for herself. A jolt that helped her find her writer’s voice. Although she has been writing for years and makes a living writing for other people, it was not until she took a Creative Writing Class in September 2002 that she started to write the kind of writing that lays bare those things that matter. I am glad that she did, because it led me to her, and it led her to publish her first novel The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir.
Lesley’s first homework assignment in that class was ostensibly simple – to write a letter. To anyone. About anything. Just a letter. Stuck and not knowing what to write about or to whom, she turned on her TV on the second anniversary of 9.11 and began watching the memorial service. For over two and a half hours, she listened, as the names of almost 3,000 dead were read, and when they got to the last name on the list, Igor Zuckelman, she knew the letter she would write. Her letter to Igor became a tribute to all those who died:
I’ve been wondering, Igor, what you would have made of your death, of all the deaths, and the aftermath of that catastrophic and grotesquely historic couple of hours. I come from a place that has been tarnished by terrorism for over 30 years. My country has lived with death, hatred and evil for almost as long as I can remember, and many of the atrocities we have witnessed have left wounds that for some will never heal. Perhaps the saddest thing that I have learnt from living here is that hate breeds hate, ignorance breeds intolerance and, for those who are locked in their insular beliefs, forgiveness is not an option.
When I read Lesley’s letter to Igor, I knew what to do. I promised to print it out and deliver it to the Healing Field Memorial in Tempe, Arizona, where I would attach it to the flagpole erected there for Igor Zukelman, a flag flying for him along with 2,995 others.
On Wednesday, September 11, 2013, before going to work, I went to the Healing Field. My best friend brought a plastic bag to protect Lesley’s letter from the impending rainstorm and a bit of green ribbon to attach it to the pole. Unlike me, my best friend thinks of everything.
Making our way up the little hill upon which Igor’s flagpole stands, we could not help but look up, uncomfortably aware of the field’s proximity to Sky Harbor Airport and the roar of airplanes above ensuring we will not forget the sound of those planes before they hurtled into the Twin Towers.
Letters and paper flowers, candles aglow in the bright morning, tiny stuffed bears on the grass at the bottom of six flagpoles – I have been cleaved in two by such things before, things left to honor innocent lives snuffed out by terrorism. The tragic lesson learned growing up in Northern Ireland is that terrorism is a horrible equalizer. Babies, children, parents, grandparents, those without names or families or homes or good health – it matters not. In a terrorist attack, they are all “legitimate targets.”
And in this field of healing, flanked by row upon row of flagpoles set five feet apart, we can stretch out our arms and touch two lives at a time, lest we forget what happened on September 11, 2001.
The 9.11 memorial in Tempe, Arizona, is heartbreakingly beautiful, each one of its 2,996 flags signifying a life taken on that horrific autumn morning. There are shows of patriotism and silent prayers for the dead; a mournful “Taps” pierces the air every hour on the hour, and everyone falls silent and still; then bagpipes and then Amazing Grace. Yellow ribbons wrapped around and around those flagpoles encircling the field, represent the valor of those “first responders,” whose duty is to protect and serve those within. Ribbons as blue as that September morning sky wound around flagpoles in the heart of the Field, for the flight crew members who perished. On the grass, for veterans lost that day, pair after pair of combat boots.
In cities here and across the globe, wreaths are laid, bells ring out, and names are rubbed in pencil on cherished scraps of paper. We say their names. We remember them.
I found Igor’s flag and found out that he was born in the Ukraine in 1972. An immigrant like me, he came to America to make a better life for himself and finally landed a job as a computer analyst for the Fiduciary Trust Company. He worked on the 97th floor of 2 World Trade Center. He was married with a three-year-old son, and he had become an American citizen just months before he died.
I said his name and attached Lesley’s letter to the flag pole. Before turning away, a whisper “Godspeed.”
I will never forget his name. “The Names” is in dedication to all the victims of September 11 and their survivors. Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, finds the right words and rhythms to cut through with clarity and compassion to the heart of the matter – right when we need it most. Remember their names.
The Names – Billy Collins
Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.