The weekend after Labor Day always finds me watching the tennis U.S. Open. I'm so grateful for my big screen "best seat in the house" that I watched many hours of the slugfests leading to the finals.
I was surprised, therefore, to find myself again in front of the tube Sunday morning watching the 9/11 Memorial Dedication Ceremony from Ground Zero. I hadn't planned to. . . I'd seen scraps of the reading of the names ceremony five years ago . . . not for me . . . too maudlin . . . too much else to do . . . a waste of my time. But there I was.
I had recorded the ceremony that began at 8 a.m., thinking I'd look in with my morning tea and see what was happening but also curious about what the memorial site looked like. I was not prepared for the impact of what I saw. The 16-acre site is stunning, consecrated by two large waterfalls that inspire both awe and a soothing chance to reflect. I've seldom witnessed anything that sensitive done so well. The speeches by the mayors Bloomberg and Giuliani, Governors Cuomo and Pataki, Presidents Obama and Bush all were perfect. They quoted from the bible, from Lincoln, from Shakespeare - all appropriate and brief.
The national anthem sung by a respectful student choir dressed in blue; a talented flutist playing "Amazing Grace" seemed to float over the memorial site filled with family members; an almost endless line of kilted police and fire department pipers; the renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma; James Taylor and Paul Simon, all were interspersed between the reading of the names, all adding different musical interpretations of what we hold dear. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the planning, the respect it showed for the purpose of the day.
And then there were the names. Uniformed fire or police representative took turns standing watch over the pairs of family members who stepped to the twin podiums. Two by two the family members read the names alphabetically, one by one. The readers were parents, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, nieces and nephews . . . and the children, some still in grade school. There were third generation cops and firefighters in uniform honoring their dads. Each pair alternately read a dozen or so names and each shared a short devotion or memory of their lost loved one. The children were difficult to watch, many who never met their lost parent. But then again, they were all difficult, compelling, some stoic, some very emotional. A slim teenage boy shook with nerves, a blond young woman was joyful, evoking her brother's memory and their mutual love of the Dallas Cowboys.
I got caught up in the names when I realized how many Adamses there were - five I think and I started wondering how many were in the same family. I began to listen for multiple surnames and quickly lost it when they read the name of Joseph Angelini, Jr. followed by Joseph Angelini, Sr., their successive photos depicting two firefighters. The magnitude of that loss, the incomprehensible devastation of one family overwhelmed me. My thoughts were turning into involuntary prayers for those faceless relatives who had their worlds turned upside down. The tears began and the names continued . . .
As I sat there, quietly weeping for an entire morning, I naturally thought of the broken families and the heartache I was both watching and imagining. Few of us have experienced the kind of traumatic loss I was witnessing although my thoughts were heavily with one family I know who parted with their shining son that day - trapped on a high floor.
And the names continued . . . .
The children seemed the best at the pronunciations. So many different nationalities, so many multi-syllabic Polish or Thai or Cambodian or African names challenged the readers who had obviously been well rehearsed another measure of the respect that typified the ceremony.
As I listened for multiple surnames the early part of the alphabet contributed our Anglo-Saxon roots . . . after Adams came lots of Allens followed by multiple Baileys and Bennetts, Davidsons and Davises, Gardeners and Grays. But then our national heritage gradually emerged with the loss of many called Diaz, Gomez and Gonzalez, mixed with Brennans, Duffys and Gallaghers, then the Cohens, the Glicks, the Goldsteins, and so many Changs and Chungs.
I thought that the list might not be representative of all our small towns, but it surely is New York City, and for that matter, all of America, the melting pot we really are.
I sat there thinking about us as a people we heretofore fortunate Americans, unused to terrorist violence. I began to see strength emerging from the continuing pairs of name readers as examples of all of us, from all walks of life joined by their loss, and their pride. While many wore dark funereal colors, one woman, dressed in red white and blue, stood beside an elegant man in African tribal dress, the contrast between the two stunning and so very American. And the names continued . . . .
I sat transfixed, aching with compassion for those oncoming hundreds of every age and ethnicity as they shared with us "Joey, we miss you and we'll love you forever" and "Kiss Nana in heaven and we'll see you there." Their very presence bespoke their resiliency.
And I thought yes, we are all changed by the events of that horrible morning, our memories imbedded with those destructive images. 9/11 cost us so many souls, from the victims that day to the thousands on the subsequent battlefields, to the loss of some of our freedoms. Yet, as they read Todd Beamer's name I realized that "Let's roll" has entered our public conscience. I feel more resilient than ten years ago, more committed to our strength as a free people, to that American dream that we all grew up with. I'm much less afraid than I was right after than attacks when we all wondered, "What's next?"
The names recitation was accompanied by exceptional camera work bent senior citizens, some in wheelchairs, little grandchildren skipping across the plaza, everyone searching the parapets surrounding the waterfalls for their loved ones' names - reverently engraved in bronze. I've learned that the bronze tablets will be cool in the summer and warm in the winter and I thought that news somehow comforting for the hands that will stroke the letters of their beloved. On Sunday, knobbed arthritic fingers lovingly stroked the carved letters while little hands traced their outlines. And the names continued. . . .
In 2002, America's Poet Laureate Billy Collins wrote to commemorate 9/11 and it was read at the ceremony. The poem titled "The Names" has a message that cuts deep. The last line, "So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart." It will be a long time before I forget so . . . many . . . names.
Towards noon I realized that I'd let the day slip away and the end of the alphabet was not in sight. I hadn't eaten but I didn't want to abandon the watch - I felt as guilty leaving the vivid images as if I were sneaking out of church.
The ceremony that I had feared would be mawkish was actually powerfully life affirming. Tear stained mess that I was, I felt better knowing that a city that had been brought to its knees was standing once again . . . looking forward with the rebirth of the site . . . looking up as the new tower rises . . . but looking back, with dignity.
As the names of the fallen continued to echo across a hushed Manhattan, I headed for the kitchen, leaving the television on, unable to break my connection. And the names continued . . . .
Marcy O'Brien can be reached at Moby.firstname.lastname@example.org.