Showing up

By Caitlin Kelly

5th-anniversary

Our wedding, Sept. 18. 2011 — grateful for our friends’ attendance!

It was a cold, gray, rainy morning and the small Tarrytown, NY church — where author Washington Irving once worshipped — was filling up.

The long, dark wooden pews held friends, colleagues, cousins, a brother.

Several neighbors from her apartment building, including me, joined them.

So did one of her physicians, who would speak about her with respect and affection.

Attending a memorial service is — to put it bluntly — rarely fun.

It’s a spine-stiffening reminder of our mortality, no matter our age or health.

But someone has died and we’re there to honor them and their life, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. To hold up, sometimes literally, their grieving friends and family, to show them that they, too, are loved and valued by a larger community.

It’s the right thing to do.

And, if you deeply knew and loved the person, it’s heartbreaking; even the female minister conducting the service warned us it would be difficult for her as she was a close friend of our neighbor.

One of my favorite writers, Susie Boyt, recently ended her 13-year column in the Financial Times; a great-grand-daughter of Freud, she is so deliciously un-British, all feelings and emotion, a huge breath of fresh air in those po-faced orange pages filled with PLU (people like us), and I will miss her!

She writes, in her farewell column:

I think that celebrating and mourning should be practiced in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.

I also loved this, from her:

You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you’re needed for the call could come at any time.

IMG_20140901_151131275

We now live in increasingly connected but disconnected times.

We check our phones constantly for some amusing text or parade of emojis.

We hang out on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, “liking” and “friending” — but rarely sitting with someone who is in pain, scared and dying.

That’s the tough part. Showing up.

More than ever, now, we need to show up in one another’s lives: when someone is ill, or injured, or their parents are dying or your favorite teacher or professor is retiring.

Not every event is sad, of course, but we need to be present, to witness, to celebrate and to console.

I’m at an age now (sigh) where funerals and memorials — for friends, for parents, for neighbors — are more prevalent than graduations, weddings and christenings, all events filled with flowers and joy, hope and anticipation.

And few moments are more sobering and searing than a virtually unattended funeral or memorial service.

I’ve been to one of those.

I’ve been to one that was standing room only, for former New York Times photographer (and someone whose life you might know from the film The Killing Fields), Dith Pran.

I’m especially sensitive to unattended milestones; neither parent attended my college graduation. My mother wasn’t there for my second wedding and neither were my husband’s two sisters or their partners. That hurt, a lot.

So I try, (grateful for the freedom as a self-employed person to be able to do so), to attend memorials and funerals for the people I know, even someone like our neighbor A., a single woman, never married, who was ferociously private.

We never socialized and rarely spoke.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

St. Marks in the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches

But at her memorial service I learned a great deal about her, and how very deeply her life, and her enthusiasms, had touched so many others.

Until or unless you’re in the room for these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime events, you’re missing a great deal.

We’re all a thread — as one late beau, cut down too soon by cancer, used to joke — in life’s rich tapestry.

He was right.

He is right.

Show up.

New York’s 9/11 Museum now open: will you visit?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

september-9-11-attacks-anniversary-ground-zero-world-trade-center-pentagon-flight-93-second-airplane-wtc_39997_600x450

It has taken a long time — and $700 million in donations and tax dollars — but the museum commemorating the attack on New York City on September 9, 2001 opens to the public this month.

President Obama went to dedicate it today:

The president’s remarks highlighted a somber ceremony at the new institution marking the worst foreign attack on American soil, one that shocked the world and ushered in a new era of fear, war, determination and clashes of values while redefining America’s place in the world. Surrounded by the wreckage of that day, deep underneath the ground where two planes felled the twin towers, the president and the other guests vowed never to forget.

From CNN.com:

Objects big and small from the greatest terrorist attack on American soil now make up a museum dedicated to that tragedy and the 2,983 people who perished. It is one of America’s largest and most ambitious memorial museums, almost entirely subterranean and erected in the graveyard of Osama bin Laden’s victims.

Construction worker Frank Silecchia found a crossbeam in the rubble that resembled a cross. It became a key exhibit at the new museum.

A police officer found Genni Gambale’s red wallet on the roof of a Marriott hotel, a few blocks south of the Trade Center, days after the attacks. In the wallet were a scorched American Express Corporate card, a $115 coupon for Lenscrafters, a Brooklyn Public Library card, pennies, nickels, dimes.

Now under thick Plexiglass, the wallet tells of a life cut short. Gambale was one of many trapped on the upper floors after American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. She was 27.

I asked a friend if he is going to visit, and his response was swift and furious.

“No! They’re charging $24. The monuments in Washington are free. I think it’s obscene to charge money for this.”

I agree.

(It is free to family members of 9/11 victims, and $18 for seniors.)

I doubt I’ll go, but for additional reasons beyond a very high ticket price. I try to avoid even driving past the site of the former World Trade Center; I find the area frightening, depressing and filled with terrible memories, both visual and olfactory.

For many weeks after the towers fell, you could smell them many long blocks north, like some evil, dark wraith twisting between the skyscrapers. It was oily, chemical, acrid — and unforgettable.

There was no escaping it.

If you were in or near lower Manhattan (or D.C.) the day of those attacks, you likely have no appetite at all to relive the terror, doubt, confusion, grief and sorrow we all experienced.

That morning, I was in Maryland on a journalism fellowship, while my husband Jose, (then a boyfriend about to move, that very day, into my suburban apartment), sat in Brooklyn with all his possessions packed into boxes.

Instead, he heard the distinctive roar of an F-15 fighter jet overhead, a sound he knows, and knew we were at war.

He helped The New York Times to win the Pulitzer Prize that year for photo editing of those awful images. This was no “it’s only a movie” moment.

Instead he ran into a local drugstore, handed off the rolls of film from Times’ photographers — ash-covered from the collapsed towers, traumatized, running as fast they could — to develop it as quickly as possible then transmitting it to the Times’ midtown newsroom from the computer in his otherwise-empty apartment.

I reported the DNA testing of remains story, and it ran in newspapers and magazines in New Zealand, Britain and France. I also interviewed a volunteer morgue worker for Glamour, a women’s magazine.

The details were impossibly grotesque and I cried a lot.

A friend of ours, Richard Drew,  took a photograph that defines the day. It is a terrible, terrible image: Falling Man. These are real events that touched people we know.

The museum includes video and audio of the event — plus intimate artifacts like wallets and ID cards of people who became body parts, some still not recovered.

I listened to some of those audio tapes when I was a reporter at the New York Daily News. Jesus. It was five years after the event, but it might have been yesterday.

No, I can’t hear that again.

Ever.

So, I’m not going.

Would you?

Wandering the graveyard

Near the house I’m sitting in Vermont is a town with a small graveyard with some early stones. Early, of course, is a relative term in a nation as young as the United States.

I wandered there at sunset, the sun low and pearly in the sky. I was sweaty and sore from a major workout at the gym, feeling as alive and strong as I have in years. What better time to contemplate one’s mortality?

I always notice the same things in graveyards dating from the 18th. or 17th. century here — people who died at, then especially, a ripe old age in their 80s or 90s, but a large number of young wives in their early 20s and their tiny babies, some dead within a few days or weeks of their birth.

How must have life, and death, felt like then?

Women died in childbirth. Their babies died of a host of diseases for which modern medicines were far distant in the future: smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza. Doctors, if one even lived anywhere nearby, arrived at whatever speed their horse and muddy, icy or snowy roads allowed them — after being hastily summoned by someone riding, rowing or running at top speed to find them. Even then, they had only a limited armamentarium in their black leather bag.

Husbands might — as one man did in this cemetery I visited — have three or four wives in their lifetime.

How much more familiar and intimate the spectre of (early) death must have been.

Where I live, in a northern suburb of New York City, I was for many years puzzled by many small graveyards I’d spy as I turned back onto the highway. They’re shaded by thick, old trees, bordered with stone walls and a wrought-iron gate. I wrote a New York Times story about them, (how I often satisfy my curiosity about something), and discovered these had once been on family farmland, long since sold off, the graves left behind.

It’s so easy to forget who came before us and what their lives, and landscapes, were like. Early graveyards are a useful reminder.

Their marker stones are often very beautiful, with a skull or an angel, and deep incised script in red sandstone or white marble.

My husband is a Buddhist and wants me to cremate him and spread his ashes at our favorite lake in Quebec. I should choose the same method as, with no kids, I can’t see anyone going to kneel at my grave. My ashes, similarly, are probably best scattered into a Canadian lake from the back of a canoe, to the haunting cry of a loon.

If my husband dies before I do, who will even take care of my disposal and estate? Serious stuff I still have to decide and write into a longer and much more detailed will.

I have no idea where my grandfathers are buried, or my paternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother, a grande dame who squandered much of her considerable wealth, was cremated. My mother buried her ashes in a silver Russian tea caddy (what else? where else?) in a Toronto park. Yes, illegally. I have no idea where exactly…but I wave to her whenever the subway car passes through the Rosedale station, nearest to the park.

My maternal great-grandfather, a prominent businessman in Chicago in the late 19th. century, has a gorgeous mausoleum I hoped to visit when I was there last year, but ran out of time. At least I know he’s still there.

Do you ever visit cemeteries to which you have no personal attachment?

Why?