I sat on the edge of my bed, still in my pajamas, though it was mid-afternoon. Exhausted from the emotional treadmill I’d been racing on, I could not pull myself from watching the television coverage of the tragedy in the east; a plane thrust like a dart into the Pentagon; another hurled into the ground in a vacant western Pennsylvania field, and still more, unbelievably shot straight into the massive pillars of steel known as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I had watched the second plane disappear into the second tower, a scene not wholly unfamiliar on a television screen in an era of dynamic special effects. I had to tell my brain that this was not make believe, that I did not have to pretend to be terrified.
I sat there, my toes curled into the nap of the carpet, my arms folded in front of me as if to shelter my heart. They were perfectly situated, my arms, for repeated prayer.
The news coverage went frenetically from newsroom to street scene to shots from the sky then back to the studio. I remember calling each member of my family. I suppose I needed the comfort of hearing their voices. I worried about my kids in school. I wanted Dave to come home. And I would have driven myself over to Mom and Libby’s condo but I couldn’t pull myself from the television. We stitched ourselves together by phone instead.
At one point a reporter was interviewing people waiting in line outside of New York City hospitals. There was a surreal silence and feeling of order in those lines. You could almost hear the breathing through the stunned silence. “I just need to find my daughter. Someone said my daughter would be here. I need to find her.” They did not know then that there were very few people taken to hospitals from the tragic event. If they did not walk out on their own, they were sent to heaven as little specks of dust. I imagine the masses of souls at heaven’s gate. I never imagine sadness there at the front steps of heaven. There is always just happy. The sad is held down by gravity.
Every person the reporter interviewed was crying, except for one woman who looked to be in her 40’s or 50’s. I can still hear her voice, calm and pleasant, like she was talking about the tomatoes she was planning on planting in her garden next year.“I’m looking for my husband. I just need to know if he’s OK. If he’s dead, then I know he’s OK. If he’s not, then I need to be with him.”
She smiled, and turned back to her place in line.
I hear her voice a lot; calm, and matter of fact, though not without feeling. I hear her when I get panicky; when I feel like the sky is falling or I will cease to breathe for fear of something happening. I hear her, and I want to be her.
We were scheduled to perform the Saints on the Seas Oratorio I had written with Kurt Bestor at New York’s Madison Square Garden a few weeks later. We had just returned from performances in England a month before, where we saw seven large tall ships set sail from their British ports, planning to meet them when they arrived in the US. The Seatrek event was commemorating the crossing of LDS converts 150 years before. I had been commissioned to write songs and scripts for the oratorio. The massive white sails of those ships came quietly into the New York harbor, the air still thick with smoke and debris, so that the setting sun was brilliant and strangely beautiful behind the sheets of billowing white. The concert was cancelled. But I did visit New York that next spring with my daughter Kate and her high school Madrigals group. We trekked over to the hole in the ground where the towers once stood. We saw weathered posters, handmade signs begging for information on people missing after the attack. We left untouched the small winter-worn stuffed animals tucked into the corners of plywood walls, little shrines of candles burnt down and wickless. We walked past them slowly, quietly, reverently, soberly. We gathered, two dozen high school seniors and some parents and teachers, at the temporary wooden platform overlooking the haunting gaping hole. Ms. McGuire lifted her chin. She didn’t need to even raise her hands. These kids had been following her lead for a full year. She raised her chin, then lowered it on the down beat and their voices rang in perfect four part harmony there at that holy spot:
Oh say can you see by the dawns early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming….
I’m glad, despite the tremendous financial loss it represents, that they chose not to replace the twin towers. Some holes cannot, and should not, be filled.