That was the first name I found at the South Tower.
He was a name I taught in my 9/11 unit that, yearly, I walk my students through, at times, filled with reluctance because they are forced to examine the gravity and pain of the day. Most of my students are too young to remember. Their memories are scattered, like dandelion seed puffs in a wayward breeze. And I feel that it’s my job, my duty, my obligation not to let the stories of those who perished on 9/11 to disappear or all to the wayside. I must teach my students that the world they are going to inherit from my generation is not always peaceful, not always wanting to grant their wishes.
The world is far from the kind genie hidden in Aladdin’s lamp…unless that genie is more similar to the fairy tales I read as a child. Those, the characters were unkind, willing to go to extremes to hurt one another or advance in power and rank.
So when I went to New York City last week, one pilgrimage I knew I needed to make for the sake of my own…soul (at the risk of sounding melodramatic but not intending to do so) was to the 9/11 Memorial. 9/11, at the risk of sounding cliche’ and trite, was life-altering.
Coming home to my beautiful baby and to have to reconcile his purity and innocence against the crumbling of buildings, against the smoke billowing from a hole in Pennsylvania, was horrific and emotional-degrading. I felt guilty, horrible that I had welcomed the Boy into the world only six months and two days prior. The world he was inheriting, the world I was bequeathing to him was fundamentally destroyed.
And I felt utterly complicit and guilty because I had begged and begged to have a baby. And now his world was fundamentally destroyed and sitting in a hopeless huddle of ash, debris, and twisted metal at the foot of the New York skyline.
In 2006, I read 102 Minutes by Dwyer and Flynn and I found a way to start reconciling myself to the horrors of 9/11. I will never understand it. I still have periods of faithful-doubt in which I question God and His allowing everything to unfold. I do not understand how He stood by and watched the evil corrupt the beauty of the world. Even as I type this, I feel the old sadness and the guilt for questioning Him and the sense that….I don’t know.
By June of 2007, I was teaching 102 Minutes. I filled my classroom with books, magazines, dvd’s, anything related to 9/11 that I could use to teach my students. If anything, I think it was my way to try and twist my mind around what had happened. I had seen the footage, had watched the documentaries.
I understood what happened.
I accepted that it had happened.
But I couldn’t understand or accept the reasons why people would do this.
Please, don’t lecture me about terrorism. I grew up on Army bases where my elementary school was routinely targeted for bomb scares. My mom was even told, once, that my school had been blown up and I found her searching for my body. I understand that terrorism happens. I even accept that it will continue to happen (despite my best efforts to fill the world with compassion). But I cannot reconcile myself to the hatred that propels people to don suicide vests, fly airplanes into buildings, or leave pressure-cooker-bombs beside a little boy and a trashcan.
So when I went to New York City and I went to Battery Park and I stood in the quiet shadow of the Freedom Tower, I knew that my time had arrived. It was time to go to a metaphorical home and find the girl-woman who used to be alive on September 10th and got lost somewhere on the 11th.
When I approached the edges of the memorial, I filled with trepidation. I was there with my children and my mother-in-law. I didn’t want to over-whelm them with my emotions, but I knew that this was some sacred rite of passage for me. I knew none of the people, personally, whose names I have spoken yearly for the last eight years. I had no ties to them other than their stories had become part of my memory, part of my teacher’s skin and I needed to…find them? Touch them? Find a way to pay last respects that I have no understanding of how to deliver because, in the end, I am merely a stranger to the legacy they have left behind.
And as I walked along the first wall of names, I found him by accident: Kevin Pfeifer, brother to Joseph Pfeifer, one of the main subjects of the documentary 9/11 by the Naudet brothers. Every year, I see Kevin’s face as he looks at his brother before ascending the stairs. Even now, I can see his last name picked out in reflective letters on the back of his fireman’s coat.
His name is in the center of the panel and I saw it by complete happenstance because I wasn’t searching for names. I was searching for…..myself? the September 10 world? The ability to live at peace with what had happened and finally stop voraciously reading everything I can to just find that one last fragment that will finally help me come to my own level of acceptance that still eludes me?
When I recognized his name and saw his face once more, saw the edges of the reflective letters in the dim recesses of my mind, I broke. I hicupped-wept and I couldn’t contain the tears that slowly eased out of my eyes and down my face.
I don’t cry in front of my children. I can’t. I won’t. And I am grateful that they gave me some distance as I slowly walked the acre long tapestry of names and dug my fingers into the edges of the letters, as though I was bestowing some sort of good-bye or benediction to people I never knew and will never know but have shaped that angles of my life for almost a decade. Maybe, I wasn’t reaching out to them so much as I was trying to pull them out of the void that terrorism and death had thrown them.
Please, this is not me talking about purgatory, hell, or heaven.
But, for me, because of what I teach and the fact that I teach this every year, it seems like the names are constantly with me.
At one point, as I turned a corner, a newly-married couple went to a specific panel and, holding their child together, they posed for the camera.
A wedding guest who will never be late or on time or even present but will be in the pictures….or at least the person’s name and the spirit of love.
At different sections of the memorial, high school students clustered together and quietly gossiped about the newest drama, texted or played games on their phones, or looked with idle distraction at the water coursing into the hallowed ground that used to be Ground Zero. I wanted to throttle them, to demand that they leave because they didn’t care. But nothing I was about to say or do would even invite them to reach outside of their comfort zones and create a molecule of an emotion I’m not sure they were ready to experience. They were like my son, blind to the events that had happened, and these young people lived in an existence of blissful suspension. They know of the events but the events have not touched them yet.
At other parts of the memorial, small pairs of adults stood together, one of whom would be almost whispering his or her story as the person dug his/her fingers into a name, or rubbed the edge of the memorial wall, as if to leave a sign that he/she was there. I wanted to stop, pretend that I was focused on something else, and eavesdrop, collect another story to my growing collection of 9/11 stories.
But this wasn’t story-time. This wasn’t research-time. This was my time to walk an acre and quietly weep over names who were powerfully important to me, and find my way back to September 12th.