by Edwige Danticat
The New Yorker 9.11.2011
My family in Haiti has been removing rubble from a school that was shattered during the earthquake of January 12, 2010. In the process, they have found bones, human bones. Because they are not scientists or DNA experts, it is impossible for them to trace the bones back to the bodies to which they once belonged: active, lively people who spoke and laughed and danced and loved.
Whose bones are these? they wonder. Do they belong to the bright student who was always first in her class, to a parent with whom a teacher had an appointment? Are they the teacher’s bones?
Listening in on phone conversations about the bones, I think of fossils dug up thousands and even millions of years after death. There is Lucy, the three-million-year-old Ethiopian; Otzi, the five-thousand-year-old Ice Man; and the casts of entire families buried beneath Pompeii.
It is the burden of the survivors and the curious to decipher final moments, whether they occurred a year, ten years, or a thousand years ago. Do they speak to the reality of a particular time, to the nature of death itself, or to an individual’s final instincts during his or her last moments on earth? In cases where we have a personal connection, we want to know whether our loved ones suffered. Did they have any regrets about things left undone, words unsaid? After two years, after ten years, there are still people around to look back and to remember. However, after a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand years, the bones and images will have to speak for themselves.
The image that lingers most in my mind from September 11, 2001, is that of human beings attempting to fly—men and women catapulted from or fleeing a volcano-like inferno of fuel, fire, heat, and smoke, then cutting across a clear blue sky, down toward the ground. Some were alone. Some were in pairs. Some tried to make parachutes of ordinary things—curtains, clothes. One woman held on to her purse, perhaps thinking that she might need it on the very slight chance that she landed safely on the ground.
Televised tragedies make death—that most private of departures—public, national, global. No deaths were more public on September 11, 2001, than those of the so-called “jumpers,” a word that many have rightfully called a misnomer, because these were certainly not the deaths these people would have chosen for themselves.
We are often told that we must not compare tragedies, but how can we not when we experience them in the same body and with the same mind? Past horrors give us a language with which to define new ones. Worldwide terrors become personalized.
My father, for example, who woke me from a deep sleep in another part of New York, to tell me that the World Trade Center had been destroyed, died four years later, of pulmonary fibrosis—a disease that also struck many 9/11 first responders. He had spent part of that day in downtown Brooklyn, picking up people fleeing Manhattan and chauffeuring them home. That eerie coincidence is one more thing that links September 11th to all the other horrors that my father endured in his life, including a brutal dictatorship.
My father was extremely critical of the television stations that showed the so-called jumpers. Yes, the images were shocking and deeply unsettling, but they also rendered undeniable the true horror of that day, even though, like bones, they mostly tell one story, the final one. The job of reconstructing lives belongs to the living, the memory keepers, which is what all of us became that day, willing or unwilling witnesses, unable to look away.
A few days after September 11th, when I ventured near the still smoky ashes of the World Trade Center, I kept thinking about a clear blue sky that had rained lives. I got on a bus filled with other ordinary New Yorkers whose eyes were still teary and red, and whose mouths and noses were covered with dust masks. Besides the shared sensation of having been shattered, though, there was also a feeling of community: having gone through this with the city, wherever in the world you had been born you were now a lifelong New Yorker. Those of us who were from countries that have always been, in their own ways, terrorized could now be counsellors to our previously sheltered friends, but only barely. For, no matter how much we immerse ourselves in communal grieving, we all carry within ourselves our own private memorials of loss and an increasing fear of future ones.
Watching any disaster, from near or far, makes us aware that memorials are not only places but also experiences. Acts of remembrance can surface out of daily rituals, even interrupted ones. A place setting left unused at a dinner table. An oversized shoe into which we slip a foot. A prayer whispered over unclaimable bones.
Though I occasionally suffer from a fear of flying, during the past ten years getting on an airplane has become for me an act of remembrance. Each necessary surrender to every new, sometimes frustrating security measure is an acknowledgment that I, too, am attempting to glide on wind currents on borrowed wings while also hoping—praying—to land safely on the ground.
Original at //www.newyorker.com/talk/2011/09/12/110912ta_talk_danticat#ixzz1XhHQpW8f