A fireman stands behind rubble.
A fireman stands behind rubble. Wikimedia Commons

Atop a table beside the front door of my family’s apartment in Upper Manhattan there sits an ornate tray containing spare house keys, two shoehorns, a stray Pokémon card and a roll of Kodak Gold 200 film. We finished shooting the 24 exposures several weeks ago, my wife and I, and yet we cannot bring ourselves to take the film a few blocks away for developing. We know what those pictures will show.

It was the evening of Labor Day, the advent of a new school year, and we took our two children for a summer’s-end treat, a sunset cruise around Manhattan. The kids were being kids that night, bumping into passengers. My wife stilled them for a portrait, their giddy forms over-arched by the twin towers of the World Trade Center, windows aglow from base to summit.

Knowing what became of them, we cannot bear to see that photograph, the proof of what was. Or perhaps we clutch that little cylinder of film as a talisman of innocence. Either way, even weeks after the horror, we shudder still with the aftershocks. They murder our sleep and infest our days.

By the standards of our beloved, beleaguered city, we count ourselves impossibly fortunate. We live far uptown, seven miles north of ground zero. We have children ages 9 and 7 to attend to and amuse, distracting ourselves, too, in the rhythms of homework and bedtime stories.

More in the wake of the catastrophe than on the day of it, however, we feel the presence of the dead. Not long after the attack, we first began to notice flyers placed by friends and relatives of the missing. On a bus shelter, on a phone booth, on a streetlamp’s column: Casey Cho, "has tattoo of dragon down middle of back"; Patrick Murphy, holding aloft a child, probably his daughter, in a matching sundress and bonnet; "Attention *Can You Find my Mommy * Colby age 9."

By the time the survivors made it all the way to Morningside Heights to post their signs, they surely knew no passerby was going to have a clue; no, the clues had been smashed, vaporized, ripped asunder. What they wanted, I came to realize, was to say simply that here had been a life.

In happier times, ours is a raucous, rude, cacophonous city, a pastiche of cursing and kvetching and laughing too loud. Now, when we take in a street fair, when we run in the park, the sound is of strained politeness, of waiting to be seated at a funeral.

We compare notes with other parents. One has a daughter who dreamed of jumping from the "thirty-three thousandth floor." Another climbed into her daughter’s bunk bed at 4:30 in the morning to try to quell the demons. "I’m right with you," she told her quaking child. To which the girl responded, "But you can’t come inside my head."

There are appeals for us to heal, to recover, to go on with our lives. We cannot heal until we mourn. We cannot mourn until we bury. We cannot bury until we find the fallen, and many of them, thousands perhaps, will never be found, and so the wound in our collective soul will remain forever unbound.

The other morning I spotted a memorial along Riverside Drive. In all my years as a New Yorker, I had never noticed until this day that the monument there paid tribute to firefighters who died in the line of duty. The 1912 inscription pronounced them "Soldiers in a War That Never Ends." Along the pediment, my comrades-in-grief had left dolls of Bert and Ernie from "Sesame Street" and a hardcover copy of The Little Engine That Could. There was a sculpture of a clenched fist and a set of lyrics for "America the Beautiful." Mostly, though, there were candles—Yahrzeit candles, votive candles, candles of the Virgen de Guadalupe, offering solace, and of the archangel Michael, sword held high. Someone wise had thought to leave a box of matches, should any of the flames expire.

by Samuel G. Freedman

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