Reflections on visiting the ruins of Sept. 11

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

On an autumnal morning last March, a small knot of men clusters around a pile of rubble, which has been plopped on the ground in disarray as though a giant had been here and ground rocks beneath his feet.

Silently, they brush dirt from a hand, revealing very human fingers that once wrote, held a baseball, stroked someone’s hair.

I am told they find bits of people every day. That the assembly line to examine every bit of rubble finds ears and toes and things.

Odds and ends tossed about in a cataclysm.

Today, they will find 13 people, jumbled together like the contents of a board game that hasn’t been opened in years.

The workers will each silently offer up a prayer for every soul as they turn to another pile of broken cement and scattered lives.

I am wordless before this mess. I simply watch and listen and breathe, every so often snapping a photograph from my perch high above the wreckage.

Several of those in my group questioned whether it was in good taste to take pictures of this place of sadness. I feel I must. My children must know these things happened. Their children must know. The history must pass on so we never forget.

I want my children to know that this is a great nation. I want them to know what happens when people are blinded by hatred. I want them to create a better world where frustrations are heard and answered.

I occasionally allow a dim glimmer of hope for my species.

I had been to the great city before when the towers still stood. Now, I notice smaller things.

The way shopkeepers say thank you and smile.

The way ordinary citizens stop and watch as fire trucks rush by.

The way a small boy clutches at a policeman’s leg.

As you read this, we will be a year away from the tragedies. The site I visited where the buildings crumbled like sand castles is now clean and ready for rebuilding. The people of this country have moved on to other thoughts, other things.

So have I.

I awoke that morning to a world rent by sorrow. The day before, my grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer and now a cancer on humanity had opened the devil’s cage door and let him crawl in smoke and fury, devouring thousands of lives.

I awake a year later to a world colored ever so slightly by a mourning cloak. We remember that people died, that there was a black mark on our nation, but we think of it less and less. We have to move on with our lives. It is in our nature. We do not weep for long. Our efforts have turned to restoring a nation’s security, a city’s skyline and a people’s souls.

The media has trivialized the lives of thousands, turning them into another number. I dream that I will understand how each person touched lives, contributed to a universal web of light.

Which is why, on this anniversary, I return in memory to that grey, dusty day in an office building just across the street from where the World Trade Center was. Landmarks should not live only in the dust of memory. They should live and breathe and shake off their inanimate natures to take on personalities.

And yet here is a landmark that lives only in memory and winks at us from photographs.

That night, they flip on the two giant beams of light that shine where once the towers stood and they spring to life again. I stop and watch them from Times Square as they shoot into the night. The towers live again in glistening reflections on the softly lapping water of New York Harbor.

Light travels forever, an ephemeral echo of who we are.

Around me, people sigh with wonder. Some cry. For a brief moment, though, we are all captivated by beams of light. We close our eyes and travel with them into space.

Downtown, near the beams of light, where workmen still piece through debris, missing posters flap in the wind, now tattered, bearing the hope that through some convoluted stroke of luck, someone still lives. A few posters have been torn down by wind. They leave voids surrounded by tape. The people pictured on them leave voids surrounded by lives.

Somewhere, somehow, the people who died that day stand with us and watch too, gliding on roads of gorgeous light.

We fly a little higher and they are gone.

Todd VanDerWerff is the Collegian’s managing editor. Contact him at [email protected].