My father used to love the number 18.
Proudly Jewish and strongly Zionist, otherwise well educated but Jewishly uneducated, he guarded the understanding of 18 as meaning chai — as meaning life — as if that understanding, all by itself, held wisdom and insight.
I never particularly got it then, but now, with the 18th anniversary of September 11 this week, I find myself thinking about it a lot.
We were told that one of the many symbolic deaths our culture suffered on September 11, 2001, was irony, but irony absolutely was not dead. And it was not Lazarus. It did not rise from any grave. It’s been with us all along.
Irony is particularly striking on this chai anniversary of the attacks.
The official number of deaths from those attacks (not counting the 19 attackers, who should not be and are not, are never, included on that list) is 2,974. That is an unimaginable number of people to have died in terror as a result of evil on one day. Another 6,000 or so people were injured, some of them severely. Many first responders died later. September 11, 2001 was a monstrous day.
And it was so long ago! Eighteen years ago. Chai years ago. A baby born that day most likely is a high school senior, and he or she will be able to vote in the next election. People who were toddlers that day can be college students now, or members of the military. It was a lifetime ago.
For those of us old enough to remember that day clearly, though, remember it vividly.
I remember sitting on my friend Marilyn’s deck with her that day; she was then as she is now one of my closest friends, and we retreated there because there wasn’t anything else to do. I couldn’t get back to my family, so of course I was with Marilyn and Bruce.
So we sat there on the deck, Marilyn and I, with our elegant crystal glasses filled with red wine, because what else was there to do? We were maybe 30 miles away from the World Trade Center, but it was days away. Years away. A lifetime of perceived safety, all blown up, away.
The sky that day was what so many of us who were there remember as the September 11th sky. It was September 11th blue, the bluest blue anyone had ever seen in the sky, a blue of such complete serene flawless perfection that there was nothing to do when you looked at it except gasp. It was a day of extraordinary beauty, the kind of day that would make even the most unbending curmudgeon feel joy at being alive.
And we knew that just downtown, so many people no longer were alive. They’d had to make the unimaginable choice between staying in their offices, waiting for the rescue they knew wasn’t coming, waiting to burn or suffocate to death, or deciding to jump from the window so impossibly high up in the air, to fly for a millisecond, and then to crash to juddering death on the pavement. They were surrounded by foul dark particulate-laden air, air that would have been toxic for them had they not died right then, right there.
So no, with that beauty surrounding us, with the gold of the sun lighting the dark red of the wine and gilding the leaves and branches and grass all around us, with all that glitter and hope that the television on the other side of the sliding glass door was telling us was meretricious, was untrue, was to be ignored, with all that beauty glimmering at us — no, irony did not die along with Al Qaeda’s victims.
I still have no idea what to make of that beauty, juxtaposed with real hate and evil. I don’t know how to make sense of it. I know that it doesn’t mean that everything is okay as long as everything’s pretty and looks good. I know it doesn’t mean that the presence of pain and grief ensures that beauty loses all its meaning forever. I know that even acts of terror have 18th anniversaries, and that 18 means chai. Means life. I just don’t know what that means.
I think, though, that it is important to forget neither; always to remember both the evil and the beauty. Both are parts of our world. That might be ironic — but just because something is ironic doesn’t mean that it’s not true.