Did You See Darya in the Stairwell?

May 9, 2009

6 min read


The visit that wasn't: An unexpected lesson from a visit to Ground Zero.

"God, hold our heroes in the palm of your hand." (scribbled on the backdrop of the Ground Zero V.I.P. Viewing Stand.)

This is not a story about September 11th.

It was supposed to be, but it just didn't turn out that way. Allow me to explain.

My desire...need...urge...wish...to visit Ground Zero was born early -- in late September, I think. Like many others, I knew I just had to go there, but I wasn't sure why. Access to the concrete graveyard was, of course, severely restricted at that time, but maybe that was part of the peculiar allure that gripped me over three months ago.

"I'll go soon," I reassured myself.

October came. Sukkot, weddings, deadlines, daily nightmares in Israel, kids homework, seminars, war, conferences...October went.

Friends went. They reported back to me.

"The rubble itself must be 10 stories high."

"I couldn't see much, but it didn't matter. The stench was enough."

"We all just stared in silence. There must have been hundreds of us."

I heard their descriptions. They were punctuated by pain, enveloped in emotion, and searing with uncertainty. But somehow...they just didn't sink in.

"In memory of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice." (scribbled on the backdrop of the Ground Zero V.I.P. Viewing Stand.)

November arrived. Time to begin the "research." How do you get there? When's the very best time to go? Who should I go with? Where did I put my old shoes? Do I have any ‘connections' that can get me up close?

Where does one park? What is my REAL PURPOSE in going? Is it wrong to take a camera? Binoculars? Are my children ready for this? Can the new Mayor Bloomberg ever fill Rudy's shoes?

Could I be "resisting" the very urge I wanted so much to satisfy?

The fine line between "research" and "rumination" was fading fast. So was November.

In therapy, they call it "resistance." You think you want to change, but the fear is too great. Could I be "resisting" the very urge I wanted so much to satisfy? Could I be avoiding the startling visual and visceral stimuli that could ultimately be utilized to help generate genuine life changes? Impossible. Seeing the carnage that can penetrate the deepest recesses of the soul is not only something important; it's something I really want to do! I just want to go when it's "right."

"Did you see Darya in the stairwell?"(scribbled on the backdrop of the Ground Zero V.I.P. Viewing Stand, next to Darya's picture.)

Along comes December. The Taliban is tumbling. Anthrax is slipping to page 23. Global warming meets New York City. The Dow rebounds. And the 24-hour Ground Zero work teams forge ahead. The buried pockets of endless smoke are no more. Wood planks of various sizes are shaped into official spectator viewing sites. The final standing charred remnants of the North Tower are dismantled and reunited with its crushed beams and mortar. Ten stories of rubble are dumpstered, dissected, and carted away. The crew is already months ahead of schedule.

Predictably, I intensify my plans for the inevitable visit.

It is 115 days after that unforgettable Tuesday morning -- about 80 days later than I should have gone.

The day arrives. The calendar reads January 4, 2002. It is 115 days after that unforgettable Tuesday morning -- about 80 days later than I should have gone. The sun is brilliant...again. I find my old shoes, but I no longer need them. Even with the police escort that I was able to arrange, I get no closer than the V.I.P. Viewing Stand. I felt like I was in Row W of the bleachers at Wrigley Field. But on this day, there were no players on the field. The game, you see, was long over.

Oh sure. There was plenty of work going on. Cranes in place, trucks shuttling back and forth, a security guy fumbling with a stubborn, wind-blown American flag etc. And images of the specter of what took place nearly four months ago, did dance through my mind as I leaned over the makeshift railing. But the game was clearly over. No striking evidence, no real remnants of the horror, no smoke...no tears. I felt embarrassed. I looked down at the stupid, old shoes I had donned for the occasion and just shook my head.

"Steven I miss you so. Please help me to be strong for our Emily." (scribbled on the backdrop of the Ground Zero V.I.P. Viewing Stand.)

I stood there for about 30 minutes. I had reserved 2 hours for the visit and hoped it would be sufficient. My son, Naftali, 25, stood beside me and feigned emotion. Neither of us spoke. But our thoughts were the same: "We missed the boat."

I thought back to the beautiful lesson attributed to the Ba'al Shem Tov, 18th century sage and founder of the Chassidic movement. Small children are the paragons of purity on this world, he said. We grow up and forget what it is like to be a child, unencumbered by conflict, shame, and pride. But observing the daily activity of any healthy child can afford us some wonderful reminders of what life should be like. Three important lessons emerge:

  1. When you really want something, cry for it. Kids are relentless in their demands.
  2. Approach every situation with vitality and freshness. Their get-up-and-go attitude prevents boredom from seeping in.
  3. Kids want everything NOW. Their inability to put things off for later can be frustrating to parents, but it is often a blessing in disguise and a powerful message to us. Never...ever...delay.

Lesson # 3 haunted me as I took one final gaze at my lost opportunity. I so much wanted to see something that I could take home with me. A vision... a memory that would impact me forever -- perhaps a tidbit of morbidity that could remind me to treasure every precious moment of life. But it was too late for that.

I pulled my scarf a little tighter around my neck. A slight wind blew and the temperature was a couple of degrees above normal. But it felt a lot colder than it really was and I knew it was time to leave. I turned to Naftali. "I'm glad we came," he lied. We both grinned a little and he shrugged his shoulders. My old shoes led me back to the steps. I looked at the scrawling on the backdrop as I left, desperately seeking some parting message of inspiration or consolation. The handwriting was painfully young.

"Dear Daddy, I miss you. I love you."

This was supposed to be a story about September 11th. I was hoping to learn something from the visit. Strangely, I think I did.

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