I wasn’t even in the United States. I was on vacation, with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, and his parents, in Costa Rica. We were hiking, oblivious, as the events of 9/11 unfolded. Someone who worked at Lapa Rios, the ecolodge where we were staying, told us what happened upon our return. There were no TVs at Lapa Rios, but someone, somewhere, found a small black-and-white one and hooked it up. We watched the images as someone translated for us. I remember hearing the words “casa blanca” over and over. It was so strange to be surrounded by the luxuriousness of the lodge and the beauty of the Osa Peninsula while such tragedy unfolded back home (I lived in Alexandria, Va. at the time).
And yet, even on the most beautiful of days, some tragedy, for someone, is unfolding somewhere.
I’ve always had a difficult time feeling connected to 9/11, in part, because my experience of it was so different from everyone in the United States. Eventually the little black-and-white TV was unplugged. There was a lot of silent staring over balconies. A lot of somber talks over dinner. A lot of trips into town to call home. But the fact of the matter was, we were on vacation. Eventually, we and everyone else, got back into the pool, back to our scheduled horseback rides, back to listening to the howler monkeys and watching the scarlet macaws bicker with their mates. And there was excitement (I was in Costa Rica!). And guilt (what right do I have to enjoy this with such tragedy taking place?). And sadness (the loss was unfathomable to me). And yet, there was beauty. Beauty in our surroundings, beauty in the living, beauty in the lives lived.
I can only share where I was 10 years ago today. The story of 9/11 belongs to others. Like Salvatore Siano, a retired New Jersey bus driver. (Read his story, by Ian Frazier in the September 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, here.) Or Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, whose bravery is astonishing and admirable. (Read her story, by Steve Hendrix in the September 8, 2011 issue of The Washington Post, here.) Or Lauren Charette, whose letter to her father who died that day, 10 years ago today, left me sobbing in bed tonight. (Read her letter, here.) I’ve been careful about the images on TV this week, careful because Sophie is beginning to see things, hear things and understand things that surprise me, daily. She’ll know, someday. But not yet. And I can’t help but think of all the children who didn’t have that choice—who had to be exposed to such hate, sadness and tragedy—in order to explain the absence of someone they love.
To be surrounded by such beauty when 9/11 happened was a gift. But what seems beautiful (a jungle, for example) always has hidden ugliness (jungle animals eat other jungle animals). There was a guest book at Lapa Rios, which we all signed. I wrote about having always wanted to visit a rain forest and how that dream had finally come true. My father-in-law was much more poignant. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote (I wish I did) but I remember it being about the beasts of the jungle and how we humans aren’t much different.
Although I often feel (unreasonable) guilt for being where I was on 9/11, it has also taught me this: beauty and ugliness, even the deepest and darkest ugliness, can and does coexist. I think of the raw, natural beauty of the jungle on that day. I think of all the babies born that day. I think of Frank DeMartini and Pablo Ortiz, who walked up instead of down that day, giving their own lives to save more than 75 people from the North Tower. I think of the hundreds of thousands of small acts of kindness that happened that day. And yet, I struggle with the why. Why was I allowed such beauty that day, while so many others were not? Why am I allowed such beauty every day, while so many others are not?
“The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” —Virginia Woolf