Every year on 9/11, I unexpectedly find that I’m quick to cry — though after 12 years of it, you’d think I’d expect it by now. The bleak mood is really bad for about a week, and then it waxes and wanes until Christmas, when it finally peters out. It’s time to admit to myself, once and for all, that this will go on until I’m dead or old enough to start forgetting things, like the way the end of my father’s life is inextricably bound to 9/11 for me.
Several weeks before the World Trade Center was hit in 2001, while I still lived in Washington, D.C., I got a call at work from my mom. You have to come to California today, she said. Daddy’s in the hospital and he’s going into surgery tomorrow morning for an emergency quadruple bypass and valve replacement. It’s not good.
I booked tickets and was on a plane a couple hours later. My goal was to get home in time to see Dad — possibly for the last time — before he went to sleep that night. I flew through Atlanta in August. I was trapped there for hours by thunderstorms, waiting for a connecting flight to take off, and I didn’t make it into San Francisco until somewhere around midnight. My brother Ted picked me up and drove me to Mom’s hotel room in Sacramento, near Dad’s hospital. It was too late for me to see him.
Early the next morning, I held Dad’s hand and kissed him as hospital staff wheeled him off to surgery. He was doped up on sedatives, and he asked me in a concerned daze, “Are the boys here?” Yes yes, of course they were. We all huddled up as surgeons tried to save Dad’s life.
And they did, at least for a time. Dad suffered in ICU for more than three weeks until his body finally failed, but the first post-op days were celebratory. Dad was recovering nicely, hospital staff were optimistic, and I went back home after 4 or 5 days. Still, the cloud of Dad’s condition hung over everyone in the family, and he remained in the hospital.
On 9/10 my mom called and asked me to please, please talk to the doctor and nurses. She was distraught. Dad looked so bad. He had lost so much weight. His circulation was failing. His feet were turning black and they were talking about amputating. What would happen to him? He wouldn’t want to live like this. Should she be preparing for him to die? What should she do? His suffering was crushing her, which is why she was barely willing to go visit him in the hospital. Please, Carla, call the hospital for me.
The ICU nurse who took my call said that Dad was going to come out of ICU; she was confident he would live and he wasn’t going anywhere soon. But mom should still prepare for the worst. Just in case. I couldn’t decide whether I should go back to California right away or not.
All this was swirling around in me when Al Qaeda attacked the next morning. Otherwise, my story of the day was an ordinary one for someone in the D.C. metro area. I went home early; I watched smoke rise from the Pentagon as I rode the metro. I spent the day grimly watching redundant news updates, listening to fighters buzzing the skies, and wondering what was coming.
The next morning, while Dick Cheney and other politicians cowered in a bunker somewhere, many government hacks like Anthony and me went back to work, passing through military checkpoints along our commute and embracing the fiction of normalcy. There was a telephone message from Mom waiting for me at the office, which she had left on the morning of 9/11. It captured everything I love most about her. She sounded confident, even cheerful. I couldn’t hear fear in her voice, though I’m sure her heart was full of terror. “Hi Carla. This is your mommy. I’m just calling to say hi and I love you. Call me. I hope you’re fine.”
I was, except my dad was dying. He took his last breath two days after New York City’s towers fell. I spent the next months comforting myself in relative terms. My loss wasn’t as great as that of others. My dad died with family by his side, peacefully. He didn’t burn or choke to death in desperate fear, he wasn’t crushed by a falling building. He had a full life. He didn’t leave behind young children or a pregnant wife. I had my dad for 35 years. I had much to be thankful for. I didn’t have cause to grieve so much as many others.
Month after month I told myself these things. I went back to work and play, I struggled through the holidays with my family. Some time in January, I sat up in bed in the middle of the night, weeping. But I could have felt worse. The wave would pass. I turned to Anthony and said, “I think I’m handling Dad’s death pretty well. Don’t you?”
I may be grumpy, but I’m an optimistic grump.
My dear Anthony answered in his true voice, practical and plain, a little worried. “No, Carla, you’re not. You cry every night. You need to get help.”
That night I finally started to face my reality. 9/11 swallowed my dad’s death whole. My little grief was subsumed in the colossal story of the fallen towers. Day after day, I felt like I didn’t have the right to suffer for the loss of my father as much as families who lost their people in the towers. I felt guilty about how much I was hurting.
What silliness. Of course I deserved to grieve. 9/11 took that away from me. Or, perhaps more honestly, I used 9/11 to avoid a simple truth: my father’s death was so unexpectedly, so horribly painful to bear that I couldn’t really face it. He was — indeed he remains — my fallen tower.
Every year when 9/11 hits, I relive this process of avoidance, wretchedness, grief, and loss. 9/11 isn’t a day when I reflect on patriotism, nationalism, vengeance, those lusty American themes that drive us to send our young men and women to kill and die in wars overseas. I find myself meditating instead on the value of every single human life, each of us a son or daughter, many of us fathers and mothers, all of us connected to each other across this vast planet, as I was connected to my father, as I remain connected to him long after his death.
As for the popular 9/11 slogan, “Never forget…” Who could ever forget 9/11 and the twin towers? I’m not moved by those words, except with respect to my dad. I tried to deny that his death was as colossal to me as the destruction of the towers was to the rest of the world. So every 9/11 I remember, and I try to get it right. I travel anew the bitter journey toward saying good bye to Dad, whom I will never forget.