The bagpipes of 9/11

I can hear the bagpipes from my window now, as I write.

It’s September 11.

It was easy not to think about it early this morning. The sky was overcast, almost pre-November in its steel gray, with none of the essence-of-blue sky that always has been the unbearable backdrop to the evil that fell out of it.

But I live at the west end of 100th Street in Manhattan, and the Fireman’s Memorial is at the end of my block. The memorial, built in 1912, is built in earnest early 20th-century civil style, features a straight-featured matron cradling her dying straight-featured firefighter son in her arms, her stern angles softened by a century of rain and snow.

Every year police officers and firefighters from all over gather here to remember September 11. The ceremony ends with a bagpipe dirge — the one I’m hearing now — and the flowers they leave droop and die over the course of the next week.

Bagpipes are not unlike shofarot, whose blasts we will hear in just a few days. They are primitive, they bleat and wail — come to think of it, they both are made from sheep — and they evoke primal fears and memories.

For me, they evoke September 11, 2001, and my last kaddish. That day, with its mockingly, perfectly blue sky, was the day I stopped going to minyan to say kaddish for my daughter Shira.

September 11 was a Tuesday, that first year after Shira died, and school had started just the day before. My younger daughter, Miriam, was a senior in high school, and I had been thinking a great deal about how this was her last year at home. Andy and I had splurged on a car — my nonnegotiable demand that it must have a manual transmission resulted in a Saab convertible, hugely fun to drive — and the day was flawless, with its blue and gold and green, the blue above dotted with tiny fluffs of white cotton clouds.

Miriam usually took the subway to school, but this was not a day to send her down into a hole in the ground. It was not a day to go sit in my shul’s dark wood-and-gilt sanctuary, race downstairs when my grief propelled me out, and then storm back up to mutter a lock-jawed kaddish. No, it was a time to push the button that rolls the car top down, stomp on the gas, kick down the clutch, feel it engage, move the stick up and over and up again through the gears, race up the Henry Hudson Parkway, count the boats in the river, and glory despite everything in being alive.

I was playing hooky, and it felt good.

I had been saying kaddish for a long time, loathing every second of it, and there still were two months to go.

Traditionally, although people mourned their parents for 12 months and said kaddish for 11 months, they’d say it for only 30 days for a child. I assume that’s because only parents are irreplaceable biologically. That has changed; now that children are less expendable, now that women don’t keep having children until they drop, expecting that although they’ll die early most of the children will die even sooner, we are expected to mourn formally for 11 months. The ironies are so obvious that to point them out would to risk being heavy-handed. My mourning never will end. Going into a room filled with people I don’t know or don’t like to say words I don’t mean doesn’t help much, but it’s better than nothing.

So as Miriam and I headed north on the parkway, past the Cloisters, next to the elegant sweep of the George Washington Bridge, through the tollbooths that go over Spuyten Duyvil, and then off the main road and through the neighborhood of huge old rambling slate-roofed houses to her school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, I was thinking for once about life, not death. The trees hadn’t begun to change color yet but the anticipation of that burst into red and orange fire was in the air. The schoolbuses were masses of yellow and the children in them were wearing new clothes and clutching new notebooks. The high schoolers were trying to look blasé but they couldn’t quite pull it off, not yet, not that day, the second day of school, although by the next week they’d have perfected it.

I dropped Miriam off and then drove down the highway and over the bridge to New Jersey to go to work. The George Washington Bridge is beautiful; its lines soar up, swoop down and then up again, then go down, gently, onto the Jersey Palisades. The twin arches remind me of the arch in a line drawing in one of my favorite children’s books, “The Amulet,” by E. Nesbit, one of Shaw’s Fabian friends. In that book, Anthea, the oldest of the children, puts her hand onto the amulet that grows into an arch that leads her to ancient Egypt. So the bridge always reminds me of the time when I was a child, before I had and then didn’t have my own child, and its oddly delicate beauty and clear majesty always captivate me.

When I pulled into the parking lot, WNYC, our public radio station, had a short piece of breaking news. There seemed to have been an accident. Some kind of airplane seemed to have collided with the World Trade Center. The station would keep us posted.

By the time I got upstairs — it was a small building and the office was on the second floor — both the tenor and the content of the news had changed. It was clear that something bad had happened, although we didn’t know how bad yet. So we pulled out an ancient television, which occasionally could get a picture or sound, never both at the same time, put on the radio, and started to listen.

As the news started coming in, I remember leaning up against a wall and shaking, my legs collapsing under me. Another plane hitting, one tower down, the next tower down, the looks on people’s faces as they ran, the soot, the sirens, the stories. The plane down in Pennsylvania, the other planes rumored still to be in the air. The uncertainty. The rumors. The flames.

I shook because I already had learned something that many other people were lucky enough not to know yet. Most of the time the world goes exactly on its course but occasionally it doesn’t, and then it leaves disaster in its wake. And then we have to deal with both the disaster and the knowledge of exactly how fragile everything is, no matter how solid and firm it seems.

It had been nine months since Shira died. It was as if the world had been impregnated with evil when she was killed, as if her death opened a passage to some netherworld. It was as if she’d been a canary and the world her coal mine.

I never went back to the daily minyan.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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