The Way the Lights Went Out

Memory eternal, memory sacred

If I’m honest, I don’t remember much. I remember doing homeschool homework at the end of our long dining-room table. My dad had left for work after the towers were hit. But then I remember him coming back home, early, after the Pentagon. (He told me later he’d dismissed his logic class and sent everyone home.) I remember my mom following the news on the Internet and coming out to talk to him. I’m sure we must have said an extra prayer that night. If I had my very first diary in front of me, I could leaf through and maybe find some scribbled mention of it, but that’s just a guess. Recently, when I asked my dad, he said by his recollection he and Mom didn’t talk with me too much about it. They didn’t want me to be scared.

More understanding would come. Several years later, when the story of Flight 93 was made into a film, my journal shows I was very melodramatically unhappy that Mom and Dad deemed me still too young to watch it. By then, I understood what it was all about. What it all meant.

But time passed, and over the years I came to wonder if maybe words like “sacred” were becoming overused, if maybe the ritualistic focus was a touch hyper-obsessive. And I came to feel a heaviness and a weariness as the long war became a longer war. I didn’t want to forget. The colors were just fading.

This June, when I told someone I was going to see the city for the first time, she said “Oh, I hope you go and see Ground Zero. That’s definitely something I’d love to do if I went there.” I thought for a moment. Yes, that probably was something I would do as I walked the city with my friend. But if I was honest, it wasn’t something I had made a point of including in my mental schedule. I knew nobody who had died. I didn’t have family in the city. It would just be one among many “things to do in New York.”

Still, I did end up going. I did trace some names with a finger. I did pluck a fresh white rose from one of the names, then carefully replace it. Later, I learned that meant it would have been that person’s birthday. I circled around and saw the names of first responders—a whole squad here, a whole ladder there. Names that were only names to me, but to others would summon up face after face. Craggy faces carved with lines. Young, round, baby faces. Voices too—tough voices, raspy voices, chain-smoker’s voices, voices whose last words may have been a barked command, or a word of encouragement, or a word of prayer.

I didn’t visit the museum. But according to this Huffington Post piece, business is struggling. Naturally, being HuffPo, they don’t miss the opportunity to huff and puff at the museum’s simplistic, overly “patriotic” oeuvre, what with its reverent focus on individual witness testimony and its lack of focus on Islamophobia, or “contextualizing” the attacks with the things we might have done to provoke it. As it is, the writer whines, schoolchildren might come away with the unfortunate impression that we were just an “innocent” nation who got attacked one day from a blue sky.

Some things, one expends breath to criticize. And for other things, breath itself seems like a waste.

I’ve been encouraging everyone this week to watch the extraordinary new National Geographic docuseries on the day, which was produced in collaboration with the museum and uses never-before-seen footage to tell the story one last time, through the eyes of those who bore witness, whose memory is clear, and whose record is true. I’ll let other viewers judge for themselves if it over-sentimentalizes anything, if there’s anything wallpapered over or sugarcoated. That is not what I felt when I watched it. Though, I confess, I did feel a bit more patriotic than usual after watching it. What can I say? I’m a sucker like that.

Not all the stories in the series will be new to people who’ve read memorials and eyewitness accounts over the years, but many were new to me, and a few will be new to everybody. I thought maybe I’d be able to pick out a favorite by the time it was over, but by a couple episodes in, I was already giving up. There was too much. Too much humanity. Too much reality.

The blind woman, eyes burnt shut, feeling her way, discovered by an Irish businessman named Ron Clifford who stayed with her and guided her out. As they huddled together, she cried out for Jesus and Mary. “Are you Catholic?” he asked. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s say the Lord’s Prayer,” he said. So they prayed, even as the second plane hit, even as the businessman’s sister and little daughter were on that plane dying. The woman’s name was Jennieann Maffeo. She was so hideously burnt, Clifford remembers the crowds parted like the Red Sea as he led her through. Then he whispered tenderly to her as they laid her on the stretcher, “You’re going to make it. You have to make it, after all we’ve been through.” (She would not make it. When her family met the Irishman at the hospital, her Italian father embraced him with kisses and broken English.)

The four firemen taking on the burden of FDNY chaplain Fr. Mychal Judge’s body as they climb down the stairs, because even in death you do not leave a brother behind, or a father.

Ernest Armstead, black-tagging the woman who wasn’t dead yet, who didn’t know she was almost dead, assuring her he made a mistake and all would be well, all would be well.

The woman with the whole back of her body caught and shredded by one of the planes, later shown sitting up in her hospital bed and playing with a hot pink stuffed monkey. “This is Mag, for magnificent. I got him last night from a friend of my fiance’s. He is so much fun… It really showed me that color was absent from my environment.”

The paramedic in desperate search of his partner, despairing even as he ferried load after load of wounded back to the hospital, stopped by a policeman as he tried to return, because the very ground under his wheels might give way. Then, the silhouette in the dust, turning, seeing, recognizing, calling out with a voice like Louis Armstrong. “Jimmy!” “Marvin!”

Chief Joseph Pfeifer, who never found his brother alive, who, like grieving Tennyson, should not have thought it strange had that brother suddenly appeared to tap his shoulder, to strike a sudden hand in his, to ask a thousand things of home.

The Miracle of Stairway B, told so many times but never getting old, in our memory or in the memory of Captain Jonas, in tears as he remembers the man who covered Josephine Harris with his body, the other man who wrapped her in his coat, as they repeated “Nothing is going to happen to you. Nothing is going to happen to you.”

The stout fireman suiting up to go back with his brothers in search of Jonas, asked by the man holding the camera “Did you already go in?” “What?” “Did you go in?” “I was there, yeh.” “Are you going back?” Brusquely: “It’s my job.”

The young broker trainee fresh out of high school, bounding up the stairs with a fire extinguisher and flashing a grin at a woman who was on her way down, who never forgot him. A kid like kids I know, kids I teach, kids who weren’t even born yet. Like the kid who tells me he wants to be a Navy medic now, even after everything, even after all the decades of bullshit. Because his dad is a fireman with PTSD. Because he’s led search and rescue in his hometown. Because it’s in his blood, because he has the bug, because he can’t not, he can’t not.

(That boy did survive. His name was Gregory Warnock. He was helping a 44-year-old lieutenant carry his gear. When Gregory said he was a broker, not a fireman, the lieutenant approved. “You stay doing that, it’s better money.” As people came down from floor 72 and told of others still trapped, the man turned to the boy and said, “Go down. You did a great job.” “What’s your name?” Gregory asked. “Gregg Atlas,” the man grinned, then bent down to flex, the world resting on his shoulders.)

I said I couldn’t choose a favorite. But if I had to, if you made me, I would choose the bitter, broken-down, addicted ex-paramedic, sleeping in and waking up to find his estranged sister’s voicemail that she hopes he’s okay, that she bets he’s down there helping. He decides to do it, just so he can say he was there, as long as he doesn’t do anything risky, anything stupid. But as he stares down a fiery fifty-foot hole in the rubble, stomach churning, and he sees the desperate trapped cop waving for help, Chuck Sereika decides, on reflection, that this man’s life is probably more important than his life. Like his life is going anywhere.

Lieutenant Mickey Kross, meanwhile waiting for his own rescue in Stairwell B, looking up to see a shaft of sun pierce the dust. “It was like something from Gawd,” he laughs now, his wrinkly, jaundiced face lighting up. “It was like something from heaven.”

“Gawd” is present throughout, under and over all—in heart-breaking ways as in Ron Clifford and Jennieann Maffeo’s Our Father, in hilarious ways as in businessman Stanley Praimnath’s exclamation on being rescued: “Hallelujah, I’ve been saved! One thing I gotta know, do you know Jesus Christ?” Brian Clark, the man who finds him, is flummoxed. “I, uh, I go to church every Sunday,” he stammers out.

It is a curious feature of modern films about disaster, films about mass destruction and impending doom and lowering evil, that they are so often so relentlessly sanitized of even whispers of that Name, let alone shouts. But there were many such shouts on that day, and many whispers, and many cries. Cries, as Dennis O’Driscoll analogized it, like the cry of a woman in a birth ward calling her mother’s name. And likewise, there were many prayers. Prayers like the prayer of Todd Beamer and his friends on Flight 93, who also said the Lord’s Prayer, who added to it the 23rd Psalm. Then, when their prayer was finished, rose up.

And yet from this day, some drew the lesson, as Sam Harris did in his book, the first to launch what would become New Atheism, that this was the End of Faith. Some looked at the fanatical evil of Islam and decided it was not only Islam that was the problem. All faith must go, all religion, all Iron Age dogma.

And where, I think now, twenty years later, are the New Atheists? Who follows them? Who buys their books?

Listen to Chuck Sereika. Just listen to him:

I give myself no credit for any part of that rescue. God uses the weak to confound the wise. God uses the low, the low people of the world to confound the wise. There’s no way that I, that I could ever turn around and say it was me. I had no desire, no will, no strength, no training, no power to have accomplished what the Lord used me to do that day.

New Atheism is dead, but Chuck Sereika lives on. Ron Clifford lives on, and with him the memory of Jennieann Maffeo. The memory of Todd Beamer and the men of Flight 93 lives on. The memory of Fr. Mychal Judge, dead in the act of giving a dying fireman last rites, lives on. The memory of that greater love that casts out fear, that greater good that overpowers evil, that life that swallows up death.

And watching over all, that infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing. Without whom, nothing is strong. Without whom, nothing is holy.