A Decade

Ten years ago I still got carded every time I went into a bar. I had a state ID but not a passport (I still don’t have a driver’s license). I had never even imagined that I would or could end up living in Japan, China, and (now) Northern Ireland. And I had rarely flown. So it was quite a coincidence that I had landed in Oakland just a little more than a week before 9/11.

It was a terrible coincidence: I was flying home from my father’s memorial service. My father, though you never would have known it from his accent, grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey. He cheered for the Yankees. He was twelve years old when they broke ground for the construction of the World Trade Center.

It was a terrible coincidence. He died the day before the orientation for my Poetics MFA program; I had only moved to the Bay Area a few months earlier. I attended my first class the day after the memorial service. Not many people in the program ever knew that. How could they? It wasn’t as if I could introduce myself by saying “Hi, I’m Elizabeth. My daddy just died.” His death came up in a few poems, but workshops run smoother if you never ask each other what is or isn’t fictional. Start asking that question and suddenly certain kinds of writing become unsafe to bring in—it’s easier to confess to a faceless reading audience than to flesh faces you see every week at the very least.

Of course, we also spent a lot of time in workshop—in all our courses—talking about how poetics could and should respond to 9/11 and the wars that followed. My life and my poetics would have been in turmoil regardless of 9/11. But when something so dramatic happens so soon after you lose someone, it draws a line between your life and theirs. And that line turns out to be a chasm.

Someone who had been alive less than a month earlier never saw the towers fall. (I heard they had fallen before I saw it since I didn’t check the news before heading off to my job selling opera season subscriptions.) My father never knew about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which I spent so much of my time in San Francisco protesting. (I doubt he would have been impressed at my getting arrested for the cause, but who really knows?) He never knew that I finished my MFA or moved overseas or started working on a PhD.

It’s normal to be able to create that kind of list after a decade, but when something like 9/11 happens so soon after you lose someone, the gap opens up too fast. It complicates grief. You get that sense of distance, as if you’ve moved on to the point where missing that person has become just another part of you—except not enough time has passed, so the loss is still raw. You’re never sure how much you need to grieve. Or how to grieve in a world so different from the one in which you knew them.

But eventually your grief ends up where all grief ends up: a small sense of loss, neatly bound by rituals and monuments which are, for the most part, enough to keep you from remembering that the loss is always with you.

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