Italian-American kids absorb a lot — maybe too much — about the rites of death and burial. From my childhood perspective, my parents visited the cemetery much too often, laying wreaths and attending memorial masses. On the other hand, we kids were seldom made to take part in these rituals. The dead were, for the most part, elderly relatives we’d never known, and my parents were seldom grief-stricken, always concerned with doing the right and respectful thing, a responsibility they took with utmost seriousness. Example is everything, and after the attacks, no one had to tell me what to do. It was instinctive, a shred of vestigial Italianness to observe a period of mourning, to honor the dead, to pay one’s respects.
Prayerful ritual begs the question of faith — not doctrinal faith but mystery, the connective tissue of life itself. I was raised in the Roman Catholic church, a faith tradition which carries with it a sacramental view of the world, one in which everything in the created order is a sign inviting us to enter into a deeper reality, one which connects us to each other and to every living thing. Ultimately we are one sacred body, and we live and die in each other. In this context, the attacks of 9/11 were a violation of the holy, a sacrilegious act. To this truth, I wanted to bear witness.
With this in mind, I went downtown again.
Since our first visit the previous fall, they’d built an elevated observation platform on Fulton Street, just to the south of St. Paul’s Church, spanning Church Street. The visitors in the long line were quiet, even reverent. It felt as if I’d stepped from the crowd on Lower Broadway into an eerie stillness, made more so by the odd refractions of daylight in the emptiness up ahead. A policeman moved us along toward the ramp with the gentle sense of order appropriate to a gravesite. His words were kind, as if each of us had lost someone here.
The tall wooden hoarding running alongside the ramp was covered with graffiti. Someone had drawn a tiny replica of the two towers, placing within each rectangle a cross, a Star of David and a crescent. The scribbles on the hoarding included prayers, but also greetings. Be strong, my American brothers, read one. Your friend from Israel. Opposite the wall was the elegant spire of St. Paul’s, and behind the church was a bare tree etched into the sharp blue of the sky. I heard a woman whisper, “Do you think that tree will ever bloom again?” In spring, I thought, I’d come back and answer that question for myself.
The police officer allowed us up to the platform, one small group at a time. I found a place along the wall facing the Hudson River. Unlike the previous fall, it was possible to see down into the pit. What had become of…that big sooty building, Number Five. The one that looked like…the back of a dirty old fridge. Not words, just the static of my nervous system, my panicky brain trying to sort things out as fast as my eyes could see them, trying to register what should have been obvious last fall. No, not soot, nothing the Sanitation Department could scrub clean. Not salvageable, not even by God. Charred and burned in a terrorist attack — a total of seven buildings, plus the Greek Orthodox church at the southwest corner of the site. All the burnt-out wreckage had been cleared away.
Down below were workers in hard-hats, backhoes and grapplers beeping and rumbling, the enormous foundation wall exposed and Manhattan’s bedrock below it, the gaping holes dug into the subterranean levels of the plaza, seven stories deep. Before us was a desolate grave.
To the west were the World Financial Center and the forlorn shell of its Winter Garden. Corners clipped off, windows punched out, the cladding-draped structure of the Deutsche Bank on the south side of Liberty Street — damage beyond naming. Surrounding the pit, these injured buildings carried the breath of the missing and dead. Awful in the truest sense: full of dread. Yet I felt safe confronting the truth at Ground Zero, and it was for the safety of truth that I’d come — to pay my respects to the presence of lives whose dust was in the very air I breathed.
We were standing in the soul’s dark night. On either side of me, cameras were flashing, as if their owners understood that, too.
Photos: (2) courtesy of the New York State Education Dept (3) Heather Cross, 2002, licensed to About.com (used with permission).