Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering a victim of 9/11: My personal memorial

9/11 Memorial, originally uploaded by chrisfreeland2002.
My partner & I traveled to NYC in January 2002, less than 4 months after 9/11. People were still covering fences, trees, buildings and any other available space with memorials and fliers for those who had gone missing in the WTC attacks. The Port Authority had built a viewing platform over a section of Ground Zero that winter, and we went to view the site. It was somber, standing on the street beside Trinity Church and then walking past the hundreds of signs and posters and shrines as we approached the platform. What I remember about Ground Zero that night was that it looked like a regular construction site - bulldozers, bare earth, building materials stacked around. Nothing unusual, except for the giant American flag hanging from a neighboring building and hundreds of people walking around as if at a wake, which it was.

We left the platform and walked more than a block before crossing the street to return to our hotel, passing more memorial signs, and were stopped by a traffic light. I pushed the "Walk" button on the post and stopped to look at the sign taped above it. Staring back was a smiling woman and her sister, or maybe close friend. They very clearly had a bond because of the way they were standing together. The sign was weathered and torn, as if it had been posted for a long time. Many of the other homemade signs and color printouts we had seen on display were newer and labeled "In Memoriam" but this was clearly older and posted with "MISSING" in big, black letters along the top. I knew that woman's family, maybe the other woman in the picture, had made this in hopes of finding their wife/sister/mother/daughter in the days after 9/11. Because the sign was weathered it was starting to tear away from the tape on the post, and I could see the ripped edges fluttering in the winter breeze. When we were standing in line we had overheard two women talking about how every few weeks some municipal authority (Streets or Port Authority, maybe even Refuse) gathered the signs and trinkets left at the site; some were kept for archival purposes but the vast majority were taken off-site and burned.

Without thinking, I reached out and tore off the piece of the sign that was freed from the tape, about to blow away on its own in the wind. A woman standing behind me gasped, as if by tearing the sign I was somehow interfering with the woman's rescue, or desecrating her memory. I stuffed the piece of paper in my pocket in spite of the disapproving looks from the woman behind me, and from my partner as well.

For months, years, afterwards I couldn't explain why I felt the need to take that piece of paper that night. What I knew from the start was that I didn't take it as a memento or a souvenir. What became clear to me over time was that freed section had the image of her face, smiling and full of joy, and I couldn't bear the thought of her picture becoming lost along the gutter and swept up like trash. I could only imagine that she herself, her being and her soul, had suffered far worse on 9/11, and I knew she deserved more respect than to be cast aside in body and image. I keep that piece of paper in a special place, and I think about her every 9/11, her family, and the other Americans who lost their lives that day.
I don't know her name. I hope to one day, somehow. But I know I'll never forget her face.