Living With the Dead
Oakland, Calif.—And where do the dead go after they have sucked down their last breaths and drowned in the rafters of their homes? After they have died in the aftermath of fiery explosion? Do they gather, as some believe, together, and ascend to an otherworldly level; or do they remain, watching; or disappear altogether? Do they wait to hear the stories we will tell?
The truth is, none of us knows what the dead do. But on earth, where we remain, the living become the keepers of their memory. This is an awesome and overwhelming responsibility. And it is simple: we must not forget them.
These first weeks after Hurricane Katrina, this fourth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, are not the dangerous days. The dangerous ones are ahead of us—always. They are the days when if we are not careful the dead will fall away from us because of our neglect.
There are the grieving families who will never forget. The co-workers and neighbors who survived, who, like those left living at the end of war, may be haunted for the rest of their lives. Why was one person taken and not another?
What I would wish for us is that we would turn away from being obsessed by numbers or by politics, and sit with our dead. That we would listen to what they have to tell us instead of doing the easier things: tossing back and forth volleys of blame, recrimination and muscular public bluster.
No, New Orleans will not come back as it was. And yes, it will come back.
No, a new building is not the World Trade Center, but there can still be a new heart for downtown Manhattan.
But no matter what, you cannot bring the dead back. They are gone.
What can the living do in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, where loss has greeted us twice on a national scale in such a short span of years?
Do the dead wish you to suffer? Do they want you to watch CNN and Fox News for days on end? Do they want your guilt or pity? All of these things are like jewels to them. In other words—valueless where they have gone.
Instead, a woman wants her husband not to forget her but to go on and live. A child longs for a lost mother’s arms again. A man grows peaceful when his partner finds new love. Some of the dead, I imagine, get enraged at these things. They are dead after all. They get to do and feel—I hope—what they want to.
The living who were close to the dead have a well-marked path of grief to walk down. But what about the rest of us? What can we, the distant—those of us who live in Nebraska or California or the very tip of Maine—do?
You are in your kitchen or your backyard or stuck on an endless elevator ride. You are sitting with a book in the park. Perhaps it is an image you remember having seen. A handmade grave of sheets and bricks. “Here Lies Vera. God Help Us.” Perhaps it is the voice from a message left on an answering machine. “They have told us to remain at our desks. I’m O.K., Mom. I love you.”
Perhaps it is less specific: Bodies falling from high windows, bodies floating in muddy water. Bodies wrapped in dirty bedding and tucked along the sides of bridges and highways. The faces of the missing, taped and tacked up on a wall.
Whatever it is that comes to you in three months, six months, a year or more, don’t turn the page of your book and forget, don’t stab the elevator button trying to hurry up the trip. Stop.
These tragedies, it’s worth remembering, grant us an opportunity to understand what is perhaps our finest raw material: our humanity. The way we at our best treat one another. The way we listen to one another. The way we grieve.
Who can forget the funerals of the firemen lost in the twin towers? Who can imagine the funerals to come in the weeks and months ahead in Louisiana and Mississippi? We won’t be present, in front of our television or through the newspaper, for all of them. The press itself cannot, beyond a certain point, do anything but name and count the dead.
So grieve for the particular lives that come to you. Think of the grandmother slumped in her wheelchair under a plaid blanket, or the body of a young financial analyst from West Virginia who was never found but whose smiling face still greets us from a Web site of the dead. Let them guide you to understand that it is our absolute vulnerability that provides our greatest chance to be human.
Look up from this newspaper you are reading, ignore the morning traffic you may find yourself in tomorrow, turn off the television one day this week and watch the moon. Think of the dead of 9/11 and of Hurricane Katrina. Stay there a moment. Remember them.