Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11 images and a lost essay

I wasn't going to use a picture with this post, but as I wrote, I realized this picture needed to be here. Not a picture of the falling towers, or the hijackers, or Marines in Baghdad, or even an American flag. This picture--this very human picture.

I remember driving to work that morning, and one of the lead stories was about Michael Jordan coming out of retirement to play again in the NBA. I had two patients in labor, and I can recall rushing into an empty room to watch the TV reports after someone told me about a terrible plane crash in New York. I was back and forth between labor and delivery and the office all morning, trying to catch snippets of news, not quite comprehending what I was seeing on the TV. I remember telling one of my partners that he had to be wrong--the buildings hadn't fallen, that they were just obscured by all the smoke; even when I saw the replay of each tower collapsing horribly yet majestically, it was surreal--it was like a movie, or a strange dream. My patients delivered later in the afternoon, easily thank goodness, because I was finding it harder and harder to concentrate and focus. I slept poorly that night, and I think also for almost a week or so afterwards. It was difficult for me to wrap my brain around the enormity of what happened. The images were disturbingly compelling, like the cliche about watching a car wreck and not being able to avert your eyes.

I thought after awhile the impact would lessen, but at the one year anniversary, I ran across an essay that described the victims who jumped--how they streamed from every floor, how their clothes billowed out, some actually trying to parachute with curtains or articles of clothing. The most powerful part described how a man and a woman held hands as they stepped through the broken window. They held hands; such a simple everyday gesture, transformed into something so profound. What were they feeling and thinking?

Since then, I have tried in vain to find that essay again. I think the title was "Jump." I don't recall the author's name. I believe it ran in The American Scholar (published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society), but my Google attempts have come up empty. (Actually, not that empty. When I Google "Jump 9/11 essay," the first hit brings up the Wiki article on Ward Churchill's sickening 9/11 essay, in which he refers to the people working in the World Trade Center that day as "little Eichmanns.")

I realized the other night that the anniversary of 9/11 was again upon us when I noticed a number of cable programs devoted to the subject. I still can't watch them; if I do, I find myself very anxious and disturbed. I'll probably avoid the National Geographic channel and The Discovery Channel for a few days. I don't think I will ever be able to see that United 93 movie--ever. Yet, I am still drawn to those people and those pictures.

Tom Junod's Falling Man piece in Esquire is very moving and quite similar to what I remember reading in the "lost essay." It is about the picture at the top of this post, and who the people were who jumped that day, and in particular, the identity of the falling man. I enjoy Junod's writing immensely. He writes about our "resistance" to the images of 9/11, and how our society has tried to grasp the horror of that day. It is this line that really reached out to me:

The resistance to the image -- to the images -- started early, started immediately, started on the ground. A mother whispering to her distraught child a consoling lie: "Maybe they're just birds, honey."

I'm still resisting those images, I guess. Perhaps this one image is the best memorial to the victims of 9/11.

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