Some days take a turn for the better and seems it happens when you’re not still looking. Stare at a day all day and will it to change and what do you get? The same day you started with. Get out, make plans, busy yourself with something other than that day you weren’t thrilled with and what do you know, you have a new day on your hands.
Yesterday I was sitting at a counselor’s office – the free one you get with the diagnosis – bemoaning the fact that I’m terrified of losing my hair not helped by the fact that the wig lady at the hospital doesn’t have any openings in the near future. Folks, the hair is dying on the vine, ready to drop at any moment, and this girl needs a wig. Stat. Hearing my frustration, my counselor told me of another place. I got up, dried my tears and called them on my way out. Within a half hour, I heard back. They could see me within the hour.
Stopping for fifteen minutes to inhale a few fish tacos at my very favorite westside hole-in-the-wall, I next found myself in their chair trying on the only blonde wig in the room. It’s got bangs and is cut bizarrely short, yet in its defense, it’s just a demo for color and fit, both homeruns. With it on, even with my own frayed dying rat tails for hair dangling underneath it, I felt oddly good, like someone had wrapped a warm, high quality blanket around me. Yes, I realize with this “do” you could call me Florence Henderson, give me a fried drumstick in each fist and send me off into my own Wessonality commercial, but the real wig’s hair will be longer and by the time it comes in, my own dead hair will be history. I feel bad for it as it’s tried so hard to hang in there with me and stay in the game, but it’s just had enough. We knew chemo kills hair and we were right.
Yesterday was a roller coaster ending on a high note meeting this woman who will help me finish out this hair chapter. I went to leave and she asked for a hug, like a mother pretending she needed it, but knowing it was me who did. She also had some health thing years ago and knows firsthand what it’s like to be on a hunt for hair. Not just hair, good hair.
Today I woke up with a plan. Feeling the dreadlock clumps my hair has morphed into, barely hanging on yet now void of any life, I up and ordered the wig. Check. Later on I had tentative plans to see a movie with a friend, which I kept, and we ducked into the dark theater, each with our own bag of popcorn. Decadently perfect. I felt so normal to be carefree and out at the movies with a girlfriend. I am normal.
Returning home, I walked into the kitchen to the most divine smell. And saw this. Another friend had said she’d make me a pot of her lovely kale white bean soup, and here it was, lovingly prepared, marvelously delicious and still warm, waiting for me in my refrigerator. Who gets this? Evidently, I do.
I’m beginning to trust how this all works. We inherently want to help each other and just need to know how or on the receiving end, need to trust that others will prop us up when we most need it. Need to ask them to and then let them. We can’t begin to presume how a given day will go, and there are nice surprises in store when we stop giving a day the reins and sit back only to watch it paralyze us. When you let people really see you, the sky’s the limit as to what you can accomplish, what you can give and what you can receive.
Lean into people if you need help, let them know how you’re stuck and what you need. We’re not here together to just fly solo when some days call for an entire fleet of copilots. Because sometimes there is turbulence.
The day is done. I woke up early this morning and went outside and saw the start of a murky sunrise, a smeared light-polluted attempt at dawn. Bats circled overhead and a nearby train whistle sounded, as a few jets criss-crossed the sky. It’s September 11th again, a day studded with sorrow and remembrances, what ifs, and what nows, a day so many shared but now wished hadn’t come at all.
Eighteen years ago and four months pregnant with my second son, I had a busy career and on this particular morning, a meeting with an important TBS creative director. The Techwood Drive office lobby was bustling as I stood waiting, staring up at multiple TV monitors. One news clip showed tall towers in Chicago – Hancock and Sears – with a breaking news ticker scrolling along the bottom. Nervous enough about this meeting I’d worked months to get, what on earth was happening in my sister’s city? With no time to learn the relevance of the story on various steel towers’ breaking points under the duress of heat, I was called in and began my spiel presenting our portfolio of logos and brochures, annual reports and point of sale. The TV was on in his office, like everywhere in the building, and I noticed him pulled into the screen as I was, both of us realizing something enormous was unfolding. There was a knock on his door and a female colleague said people were asking if they should go home. He motioned yes but said he’d be getting with her in just a minute. Horrified and now with the sound turned up, we looked at each other unable to speak, and I started to pack up when he directed me to continue. I tried for a moment, but it felt terribly wrong, clamoring for business here, now a ridiculous idea with the relentless evil that was surrounding us, taking over.
A day studded with sorrow and remembrances, what ifs, and what nows.
Petrified driving home, radio on with accounts of planes crashing and towers falling, I was concerned more still was ahead. Atlanta of course would be next on this random hit list, and I worried my route home on Dekalb Avenue was a mine field. What kind of monster was this new world that my innocent baby would soon join? No streets felt safe, but somehow, I got myself home to my toddler and husband, quickly getting inside, shutting the door behind me. The next day as if on autopilot, I drove to Sak’s to find a bathrobe, and left with something beautiful, a soft charcoal grey with a scalloped shawl collar. How bizarre and inappropriate to be shopping the day after, but I must have needed this soft wrap to envelop my baby and me, a cocoon to be safe inside. It would be years before I could part with this safety blanket, and only then when it began to noticeably fray did I finally.
Everyone remembers where they were that day as clearly if it were last week, yet I know my story isn’t unique. Our own memories combine with the reel of news broadcasts and over the years they weave a changing mix of sadness and strength and hope we carry forward. If our thoughts of this day fill us with fear and sadness, can you imagine what it’s like for the families of the thousands lost? It must be an unfathomable deeply private and personal layer to wrestle with, on a day that is forever public, the mourning of that morning we together share.
My older son, at the time not even two, now lives in New York. I imagine the makeshift memorials, the candles, the music and memories, and wonder if he notices, his head full of school work and subway schedules and college sophomore stuff. The younger son I carried that day is himself headed to college in a year, and for them both, 9/11 is something they didn’t feel but rather grew up knowing about, from us, their parents, and even learned a little in school in APUSH class, studying the United States’ response to 9/11.
When we visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum years ago, I worried about how this sensitive topic would be treated and hoped there wouldn’t be any hint of commercial flavor to this ticketed experience. When we arrived, we immediately felt the striking architecture, bold yet sensitive, and found the way finding minimal and helpful. If you could somehow gather every burnt, broken and twisted artifact left behind to tell the story of this unprecedented tragedy, this museum had done just that. Every detail, display, recorded voice, everything down to the varied lighting installed on different floors created a serene silent scene, and carefully, respectfully led you through that long dark day. Our tour docent spoke in a measured voice and presented a vivid account of this monstrous attack on US soil. Afterward, I thanked her for providing such detail that made it almost seem as if she herself had been there. She paused a moment, and then softly replied, “I was.” Tears rushed into my eyes and knowingly, she put her arm around me, comforting me, the New York tourist and she, the one who’d made it out of hell. I leaned into her for a moment, full on crying now, and then left to go outside in the sun.
My own September 11 started ten years earlier in 1991, the day my father died, so this day holds something additional. This year, I’m realizing, marks the halfway point. I was 28 then and now at 56, I’ve lived as many years without him as I have with. It doesn’t intensify the loss or anything, but interesting for me to realize nonetheless.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s this: you’re here today, so keep going, keep building, keep learning and loving. Stay in touch with people and make plans. There’s lots still to do.
I leave you with a timeless poem published in 1844 and sounds from the memorial bell tower erected a year ago in Shanksville, PA.
The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.
I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me
That my soul cannot resist:
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.
For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavour;
And to-night I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start:
Who, through long days of labour,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.
Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
Walking on the beach recently, I saw a beautiful, unusually large seabird. He wasn’t flying overhead in search of dinner or migrating with his flock. He wasn’t flying at all actually. He was on the sand, sitting, feet tucked under him, staring out at the ocean like the other beachgoers scattered along the water’s edge. We approached slowly and saw he was nervous, barely flapping his wings, and we could tell he knew he wasn’t going anywhere. The tide was coming in and he just stared as if lost in thought. I have to assume seabirds think.
We worried about him but after all the wing flapping gave him space and walked further down the beach to lunch. A few hours later, we returned to find the scene mostly unchanged except the tide moving in and our bird now drifting out. I went to him again, talking quietly, and after a few attempts he let me stroke his white feathered back. The tide kept on with its work and I rolled up my pant legs to begin my own. His long beak meant no harm as he turned his head to look back, feeling my hands cupping underneath him. The tide continued and so did I with two more rounds of gently carrying him further up the beach to dry sand, trying to outpace the tide. We knew we couldn’t just leave him to drown, and thankfully call after call finally turned up a rescue who said they were on their way.
We sat with him for an interminable hour wondering when help would come, scanning the beach for someone resembling this bird’s hero. Eventually she walked toward us, an older woman with long dark grey streaked hair and tanned outstretched hands, loving and worn, ready to help. She told us our bird was a gannet and thought the strong northeast winds had tired him out and kept him from migrating. Before she took him, I talked to him again, stroking his back, endless layers of stacked white feathers, soft as rose petals. He turned to look at me as if he knew, knew I loved him, knew I was rooting for him, knew I had his back.
The rescue assured me they’d update us on his progress and texted the next day to say they tube fed him right away and he had enjoyed a fish before bed. Our boy, however, didn’t make it. She told me I did the right thing and could tell right away he was weak. She said they usually give a struggle and a loud “aakk, aakk, aakk” and try to bite. Our bird had only sat quietly looking ahead.
Structures and bodies weaken and give out and we are left behind remembering how things were and imagining how they will be. My friend’s adored pup died recently, and I see my own rapidly aging before me. A family friend is divorcing, and I remember his wedding and the bridesmaid’s dress I wore. A dear girlfriend has suffered unimaginable loss with her husband’s abrupt passing. Even Paris once again is hurting, this time it’s her centuries old Notre Dame who is forever changed, but who will rise again. As I write this, millions of dollars have already been raised to rebuild her.
With every event, every loss, every tear, you can see love emerging and growing. As if there’s a rheostat and the dial has unlimited clockwise turns, unlimited brightness if you should want or need it. Nearby friends and those far away appear and gather and support each other, people connect as they lean in to help, and we remind each other that we are here for one another, here where we’ve been all along.
It’s not just the bird. When things happen, as they do in droves sometimes, I can’t turn off my impulse to dive in headfirst into the vast sadness, to rescue, repair or reverse whatever has gone so terribly wrong, and I’m disheartened and still surprised to find how little control I actually have. There is no pretty bow you can tie around pain or loss. You go through it and, if you’re fortunate to be surrounded by love and support, you come out the other side stronger. Nor is there a recipe for supporting someone in pain. Showing up and listening are probably the first two ingredients.
There is a time to be born, and a time to die. And in the pain, through the tears there is sunshine. Sometimes the shadows are thick and the shade feels cold, but the cycle keeps on, the sun shining, the rain falling. I think back to our bird, our sweet gannet, and remember there was something we could do. We could sit with him, reassure him, protect and hold him, feed him what he needs, make the smartest choices we could and release him. I’d like to think he’s flying overhead high up in heaven reunited with his group. I think they all are.
The point is I guess, the reason we are here together, is… love each other, love each other hard. Sit still in the moment, stroke your dog’s head, rub your partner’s shoulders, enjoy some good food in your belly before bed. We can’t know how much time there is, but we can look around and do something now. Instead of adding insult to injury, maybe the sadness that seeps in after a loss is a reminder of the love? A reminder you are still here. Wherever you are right now, with the people around you and the people you remember, you have made and still are making a difference. To love and be loved: that’s a whole lot.