Crumble

NS September 11th, 2007

When I sat at my desk in London six years ago, watching the skies darken in New York with the black flames of death, the charred debris of humanity lost to the winds that fanned them, I knew that nothing would ever be the same. I watched the impact, the implosion and the crumble with a numb, dead feeling of loss that was achingly familiar. Black Tuesday, some called it. But for me, the curse was not in the Tuesday, but in the 11. A new day of infamy for the nation, but a day already marked by sadness in the lives of my family. See, September 11 will never just be the day the planes hit the towers that held the people that lost their lives, but the day I was reminded that death never leaves us. And in 2001, that seemed to be a pattern destined to repeat itself, over and over, never letting me forget.

September 11, 1988

I sat and stared at my hands, gripping the pencil tighter as I stared at a math problem — one of those story ones where it asks you to figure out when two trains will meet, given x and y speeds and departure times and you end up shouting “Who the hell cares?!” when you can’t work it out — from one of many in the stack of homework by my side. My older sister and I had been missing more and more school then, as our younger sister Amber’s health deteriorated, and the ‘take home work’ was mounting. I tried so hard to concentrate on that math problem but no matter how many times I read the words, they never registered in my brain. All I could hear was the soft, muted sounds of my mother’s crying and a whispered prayer from somewhere else in the cavernous depths of our high-ceilinged living room. I knew that at any minute someone would come get me, hug me tight and tell me the words I’d been expecting to hear for months but could never imagine being spoken. I dreaded those words for many reasons, some of them selfish. It would mean she was gone and I would surely miss her but, in a way, I’d already said goodbye. I thought I’d made peace with her departure from earth to heaven, as she herself had done long before any of us. But I still wasn’t ready to hear my mother sob with wracking grief; to see my father’s brow knit with sorrow as he held her tight; to know that no matter how hard I tried, I could never erase this loss, this hole in their hearts. In all of ours.

The cancer had started in her brain as a tumor, when she was just five. We didn’t know it had entered, like a thief slipping in the back door, until her blurred vision, searing headaches and dizzy spells sent my panicked mother to the emergency room and Amber under the jaws of the CAT-scan machine. Almost two years of radiation, chemotherapy and multiple surgeries later and we were no closer to fixing her than we were to appearing on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. So we brought her home and waited. Then September 11 came and the waiting stopped.

My parents, so strong and stoic and solid for her those two years, faltered. Just like the planes on 9/11, their lives had been hijacked, taken off course, crashed into the ground and changed, unalterably and inexplicably, forever. Their grief in those early years after her death was crushing, difficult to comprehend. Sometimes it could suck the air from a room or leave it sitting heavy like a stone on our chests. As a child of nine, I had managed to distract myself in the business of growing up but they had jobs, medical bills and two children to raise. Emotions were always close to the surface and we learned to tiptoe around them, bottling them up until the cork burst with a pop and fizzed over into anger and disconnect. At one point I wasn’t sure if we would be able to scrabble together enough pieces of our individual hearts to make a collective one again. But the dust settled and the pages of the calendar turned, year by year, and we came out the other side. Not unscathed, not unchanged, but like soldiers returning from war: glad to have made it out alive, eager to rebuild and move on, but making damn sure the world never forgets.

The other night, as I thought about the upcoming anniversary and how to prepare myself for the inevitable sadnesses the day would bring, I realised suddenly the magnitude of the loss and how far-reaching and profound it’s been. I would be a different person in a different place leading a different life, no doubt, if not for the curse of this day. I would probably not be living in London, married to my wonderful husband or with my beautiful, amazing daughter. To think that one event, one day, shaped my destiny to the point that my child might not be known to me as she is just boggles my mind. When I imagine myself in their place, if I allow myself to think, for even one second, about losing my girl…well, words can’t describe the black pit that opens in my stomach and the cold fist of fear that encases my heart. All I know is it has made me empathise with my mother and my father more than I ever, ever could before.

They say that often you never truly appreciate your mother until you become one yourself. Now, I don’t know if this is true for everyone as I’m sure there are plenty of childless women who appreciate their mothers very much, but it’s been a real awakening for me. Every time I hold my sick child in the middle of a night fraught with worry, lean over to kiss her forehead, feel joy at her accomplishments or just have a really difficult day, I think of my mom doing the same things, having the same fears, enduring the same trials and feeling the same love.

And when I look at my country — lost, floundering and hurting — I sometimes want to hold it like a child, put a cool hand to its hot head and quiet the restlessness and illness inside. As each coffin comes back onto U.S. soil, draped by flags and wailing widows, I turn my eyes to those in charge, those who should be like grieving parents, doing everything in their power to stop their children from dying, and see nothing but the black mask of political indifference. When the towers fell, so did we, and I can’t go back there — to the place of my birth, the place I loved and respected when I was growing up — until the fever has broken.

But unlike the buildings in New York, my parents didn’t crumble to the ground on September 11. Not because they weren’t hit just as hard, but because they couldn’t. They remained our towers of strength and stood strong. And that, not Amber’s death, is what I will remember now and for all the remaining September 11s in my life.

“We can only hold as much joy as the pain and suffering that we’ve had carved out of us.” — Author unknown

13 Responses to “Crumble”

  1. Charlotte says:

    What a beautiful and moving post. Thank you for sharing it with us. I never experienced anything as tragic as you did in my childhood, but I do see how things that happened long ago shape who we are today. Your parents sound like wonderful people.

  2. Stacey says:

    No words.

    *hug for you*

  3. Lyn says:

    Thank you Amity. I know this day is a struggle for all of us. I hope you don’t mind if I share my thoughts on this day also.
    9-11 has always been an especially difficult day for me since 1988. But now I feel like my personal loss is totally overwhelmed by the national grieving for 9-11-01. On that morning 6 years ago I was running late getting to work because I went first to the cemetery to lay flowers at my young daughter’s gravesite. I dreaded trying to get through the rest of the day concealing my pain. Even though it had been 13 years since Amber’s death I thought of her every single day. As I approached my office I was informed of the terrible events unfolding. We were kept updated throughout the day by the patients watching television as they waited to see the doctors. Not a single patient complained about the wait that day. They were all transfixed by the images put before them on that tiny screen. There was an eerie quiet in the building, a suffering I understood all too well. My heart ached for all the families that would now begin their journey through the maze of grief. I knew what lay ahead for them. I was also afraid for our country and how this would change us forever, our sense of security shaken to the core. I wanted to gather my family and hold them tight.
    Now 6 years later I sometimes, albeit guiltily, feel hostage to the “Survivors of 911″. Of course I will always remember this event and the terrible loss of life. Of course I understand their need to have their loved ones remembered. There should always be a national awareness of that dreadful day, but it is time for the individual families to mourn privately. Am I selfish and unpatriotic because I do not want to hear every name of every victim of that day? Am I heartless and unsympathetic because I do not feel that our country owed each surviving family a cash settlement for their loss? Should I sue our government because not enough money was spent to find a cure for the brain tumor that stole my daughter’s life and the lives of countless other children whose families all have to deal with the gaping holes in their hearts? Should I demand that a memorial be erected in Amber’s name in the town square of our small city? Were the 911 victims’ lives more important than my daughter’s? I do not think so. Every life is precious and it is time for the Survivors to give back this day to the thousands of other families that are grieving their own losses.
    I want to remember my little golden-haired child, telling jokes and singing, eating mashed potatoes with her face alongside her sisters, carving pumpkins, playing dressup, painting lovely pictures at the kitchen table. I want to remember the plays and fashion shows she and her sisters would perform for us, the carefree days on the farm simply being children. I want to remember Amber in her ballet shoes and tutu as she dreamed of being a ballerina. I want to remember her in her homemade foil crown and pink dress waving her magic fairy wand at the cars going by on our street and the smiles that she put on the faces of those passing by. I want to remember her sweet smell when I tucked her into bed and I want to remember how it felt to have her tiny arms wrapped tightly around my neck and her soft kisses on my cheeks. I want to remember how my heart overflowed with love when I rocked her in my lap. I want to remember her as a happy, healthy child. And yes, I want to remember her struggle to live. I want to remember her never-ending sense of humor to the very end, her unbelievable faith in God, her wisdom well beyond her years in understanding what was going on even as I was deperately trying to deny it. She will alway be in my heart and I will think of her every day for the rest of my life. Today is the day I mourn and celebrate my beautiful child’s short life.

  4. jen says:

    you’re so gifted with words. an eloquent tribute – your sis would be proud of you.

  5. Andrea says:

    I can’t stop the tears. Lyn, and Am, I am so sorry.

  6. andrea says:

    between your post and mom’s response, i was sitting at my desk sobbing. today makes the distance between us all feel even further, but makes me appreciate our family that much more. may we always remember what truly matters.

  7. Rachel says:

    My thoughts are with you & the Davis (my favorite) family today… and always.

  8. Jill says:

    I can barely see to write because of my tears. I’m sending hugs to all of you. I love you all! XOXO

  9. Charlotte says:

    Lyn, I’m at a loss for the “right” thing to say to you, but I really appreciate the beautiful picture you have painted of your daughter Amber. Your love for her shines through.

  10. annie says:

    That was beautiful, Amity & Lyn. Your tributes are both stunningly vivid and incredibly touching. I don’t need to have met Amber to know she was an awesome little girl by reading what you both have written. My best & warmest thoughts are with all of the Davis’.

  11. Tabitha says:

    Beautiful tribute. Powerful. Hugs and prayers of strength, to you and your family.

  12. NS says:

    Thank you everyone, your comments mean a lot.

  13. Nicole says:

    Big hug to you and your family. Thank you for sharing this.