Dear Ground Zero,
I thought you should know, this is how it happened for me. I was walking back from music. We had just finished singing “Baby Beluga,” one of my favorites. Mrs. Parker was leading my third grade class back to our homeroom. We filed in to the room and made our ways to our desks, but something was different. The television was turned on. We watched you collapse, watched the smoke and dust fill the screen; hectic voices and sirens rang through the air. But it didn’t mean anything to me. I stopped listening to all the teachers trying to explain, blocked out the sobs of my fellow eight-year-olds who had no connection to the destruction, but knew simply that it was bad. I watched. And I felt.
You were once a tower named for freedom. Now you are a prison of helpless souls. Two highjacked planes and two 500,000-ton buildings tried to crush your spirit. Did you know you burned for 56 minutes before finally giving up? 3,000 dead bodies have lain upon you. Dead weight—the unrelieved weight of a heavy, motionless mass—is said to feel exponentially more burdensome. But the stone-leaden hearts of your millions of living visitors must be a more oppressive load than that.
I have no personal connection to any of the victims. Aside from being an American citizen, the attack has nothing at all to do with me. So why am I writing to you? Because I read a book, and it changed everything.
In 2005 Jonathon Safran Foer published the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He used 9/11 as a backdrop for the story of Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old boy attempting to deal with the death of his father. I have the words “I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live” from this novel tattooed on my right bicep. But I guess you don’t need to be reminded.
Tell me, what do tears feel like? I imagine them softer than rain, like a brief touch by the purest silk before it melts in to your skin. It’s a wonder to me how you’ve managed not to drown. I suppose with the burden of grief, you’ve also inherited the necessary strength. It doesn’t seem fair. But then again, none of it does.
I wonder too, Ground Zero, if your heart is filled with hate. The moment that those buildings gave way to dust, were you planted with a black seed of revenge? Do the tears of the lost and lonely feed that darkness, help it thrive and grow? Or do they mend the wounds—erase the scars etched into your body?
When thoughts of you and the other sufferers start to creep their way into my mind, I do everything I can to force them away. It’s always a hopeless fight for me. They scratch and claw their ways back in and position themselves in the oddest parts of my brain. The reason I try not to think of you is not because I’m frightened of the sadness you will bring—actually I rather wish that was the emotion—but it’s because I think of you and the people who died, and the ones who survived, and the ones who lost their friends, their family, their lovers, and a sick sort of envy boils up within me. I want to know that pain. I want to know if I’d have the courage to jump, like the man in the photograph in Foer’s novel, if I’d have the strength to grasp death by the throat and not let go until he surrendered me. I want to know if I would charge headlong into a burning building with just a possibility of saving a person I had never even met. I want to feel the kind of devastation that suffocates and paralyzes your entire being.
I plan to visit you one day. I want to steal from you a vile of dirt and attach it to a string. I will wear it around my neck, and maybe then I will be strong. And I want to see the names of the dead immortalized. Because Poe said the only way to know the beauty of life is through death, I think these victims, then, have become the greatest artists of all. My most grievous fear is that I’ll never endure enough bad as to know what is good, never be sad enough as to truly know happiness, never experience death in order to feel alive. Some people would consider me lucky. They’d trade their pain for my life of mediocrity, of nothing. But that would be a mistake. You, Ground Zero, who has seen so much, withstood what can be considered one of the most terrific disasters of our generation, are the lucky one. And you’re destined to be a masterpiece.
With Love and Envy,