In dream my skin has been charred soot-black, not all over my body, but on my arms, my legs, my penis, my chest. In dream I only notice the burns if my eye happens to fall upon that area of skin. There is no pain. No pain, but a deep, shuddering fright when I see my blackened flesh and am reminded once more of the severe burns I carry.
It was a dream the night of September 11th, 2006, five years after that other September 11th. I was awakened from my dream by the sound of laughter, the splashing of water, my daughters and my wife playing in the pool in the back yard; we were on vacation in the sunny blue melancholia of Southern California. I didn’t have to look at my skin to know it was a dream. I walked into the back yard and found my family. Sunlight danced on the surface of the water like bright fish, dazzling.
Because we were on vacation I had been traveling on a train the day before, cut off from newspapers and television and the internet and thus all the speeches, the footage, the grief. I had read that CNN was showing footage from 9-11 all day long, in real time, as it had unfolded that morning five years ago. I was happy to miss it.
My dream was not a dream about 9-11.
I assumed at the time that it was, almost immediately after waking. Charred skin, September 11th, it only made sense. I did not learn of the real reason for the dream until I started crying in the bathroom perhaps an hour later, while we were giving our daughters a bath. My wife was the one who told me, as we knelt on the carpet of the bathroom with washcloths and soap in hand, and I knew she was right the second the words came whispering out of her mouth.
“Could this be about your sister?”
I am uncomfortable mixing the personal and the political. I remember a poetry reading years ago, in my beloved New York City, right after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The riots were all over the news that afternoon, along with predictions and false reports of similar riots happening in New York (they did not happen; New Yorkers are too sensible). The woman on stage was reading a piece about how she was breaking up with her boyfriend on the roof of a building in Brooklyn, and how the whole time they were looking over their shoulders at the streets below, to see if the predicted riots had materialized. It was a well-written story, but I remember being offended that she was attempting to compare such an event with the trivialities of her love life. I was saddened by the events in L A. I didn’t care about her.
My wife—then my girlfriend—woke me up on that other September 11th, five years ago, telling me a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. She had found out from my sister, who had called to tell her the news, and my wife had in turn told me. As we watched the coverage our next door neighbors came over for awhile, my wife’s sister and her son, all of us watching the subsequent crash and burn of the towers. Work was cancelled. Morning stretched into afternoon. My sister called again to see if I was watching. She seemed oddly excited by the event.
She killed herself eight days later.
It had little, if anything, to do with the events of the week before. It had to do with her, and her alone. I actually remember thinking the fall of the World Trade Centers might help her feel less depressed by pulling her out of her own life and into the larger world around her. It didn’t.
Her death still feels connected to 9-11, coming only eight days later. The posturing speeches and relentless media coverage of the anniversary has always felt like a co-opting of my own personal grief into the public arena. The anniversary of 9-11 comes along like the slow turning of a wheel, the anniversary of my sister’s death right on its heels. September 11th is the edge of the penumbra, the anniversary of her death eight days later the umbra, a darker, truer shadow. And after that life resumes its rhythms, the everyday minutia of life pulling at my attentions.
I am uncomfortable mixing the political and the personal, and so I will not. The aftermath of 9-11 leaves me angry and sad, but on the anniversary of the event itself I feel only weariness, resignation. Echoes of grief, the same footage over and over, a bad dream returning.
The week in California contained a few more nightmares. One has a daughter of mine dying; she is as tiny as a fetus in my hand, blood ringing her mouth. Another involves vampires and thin, sharp teeth like needles, the details culled from an alleged children’s movie we had started watching that morning, a movie we had to turn off because the kids found it too frightening.
Our vacation ended, we took a train back home. It arrived very late at night, and the drive from the station to our home took us two hours and into the early morning of September 19th, the fifth anniversary of her death. The day is filled with unbidden memories of my sister, good ones and sad ones both, but they are eclipsed once again by the day-to-day of unpacking, preschool, snacks, sandbox. One of my daughters has a new friend at school. We’re out of milk. Can we play with glitter?
The world moves on. Ground is broken, girders laid over the holes. Wounds heal. We lay flowers on gravesites. Memories fade, faces grow distant. And they return in unexpected ways, blessedly, in dreams and nightmares and memories, the dance of sunlight on water, the whispered words of your wife as you kneel together on the carpet of a room a thousand miles away from home.