5 years later

Old rituals give way to new

September 11, 2006|By John Milton Wesley

Most of the rituals are gone now, although I still catch myself staring at the yellow Lands' End short jacket she hung on the closet door in the foyer before she left that Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001. She was on her way to Dulles to board American Airlines Flight 77.

Perhaps it was an omen, a kind of warning for me to use caution in the days ahead. We were to be married Dec. 22. And maybe it was just a jacket she forgot in haste. It now hangs in my bedroom closet, not in among the rows of stuff but out where I can see it and be reminded that caution has now become one of the rituals I live by. Others I have learned to let go in order to heal.

Candles no longer burn 24 hours a day and family pictures are long gone from the walls up the stairwell.

Most of the clothes are gone from the closets; only sweaters remain, neatly folded on one shelf. Somewhere in Houston or New Orleans, survivors of Katrina are leaving new footprints with shoes once neatly stacked in boxes in the bedroom closet.

For some reason it was easier to give away the dresses and suits - so many colors and sizes 4-8, one couldn't remember them all. Well, I couldn't, but Sarah did; she had a system that helped her remember. Over the past five years, I needed a system to help me forget, so giving her clothes to people who could put them to good use also helped me heal.

The shoes were harder to let go; I knew them one by one. I knew every nick, scratch and stain, every bruised heel and scuffed toe. Polishing them was always more than just a Saturday night ritual; it was also a way to accrue Brownie points like breakfast in bed. That ritual is gone too; now I just polish the ones I am going to wear to church on Sunday, another ritual begun at her urging that continues. No, I didn't discover God because of 9/11 - thankfully, I had done so years before. However, before Sarah was in my life, I spent most of my Sunday mornings for thirtysomething years either hiking the trails of the Patapsco State Park or walking the 17th-century labyrinth maintained by the Sisters of Bon Secours off Marriottsville Road. Sarah loved this park too, not for the hiking or the labyrinth but for the chance to play on the swings while I pushed. Now at the park, I miss the ritual of pushing her.

Now shirts hang neatly in rows where blouses once hung, and pants line a lower shelf once used for short skirts and tops. And on the bureau across from where I sit and write, her familiar smile no longer looks back at me from a photograph.

Before 9/11, rituals for me were autonomic, like always putting my pants on right leg first, or going downstairs each morning and grinding equal amounts of Southern pecan and vanilla coffee beans, and brewing four cups. My new rituals would help keep me alive, and though not autonomic, they somehow became just as important. Five years later, I can gauge the level of my healing by my ability to let them go or keep them.

In fact, the past five years for 9/11 survivors in particular and Americans in general have been all about letting go. If you lost someone close, such as a relative or friend with whom you were very close, the process began for you immediately.

You learned early on that despite the enormity and shock of the tragedy of 9/11, only by letting go could you begin to wrestle with the real-world issues of pain, media, DNA, wills, bills and memorials, and searching for remains, and autopsies, and briefings by the FBI, and CIA, and counterintelligence, and conspiracy theories and theorists, and computer generated re-enactments, and boarding gate videos, and yes, America, the one we all knew back when the only time we took our shoes off at the airport was to rest our feet.

Just as those of us who lost someone that day are finally able to let go of some of our rituals, collectively, as Americans, we are forced to learn new ones, and it is no easy task. Rituals are like that: They begin either out of necessity or expedience, and before we know it, difficulty and time become relative. Soon the ritual becomes second nature, and we take part unconsciously almost.

A year passed before I was able to fly. My first trip was to Mississippi to take part in my family reunion. Somehow, the fear of being on a plane vanished in the thought of standing on the land in Port Gibson that my great-great-great-grandfather bought in 1868 for $1,000. I knew that standing next to the fence where I stood in 1954, looking east toward where his Tennessee walking horses roamed, surrounded by his timber farm, would be a healing experience.

Going home again has become very important. Since 9/11, I have gone home to Mississippi more than I did in all the 33 years I have lived in Maryland. I have attended every family reunion since, and, like many other Americans, have come to experience and appreciate family much more. So I have added another ritual: keeping in touch. I keep in touch with Sarah's children, the ones she bore and the ones she taught.

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