Maybe it is because of the 9/11 coverage for the last week, most of which I have avoided — not because I don’t want to remember, not because I don’t need video footage replay and endless commentary to remember, and not because I think it is unimportant.
Maybe it is because I’ve seen carnage by the side of the highway recently: one slight distraction, one curve into the other lane at the wrong moment in a driving rainstorm.
Maybe it is because I am dealing with frail, elderly parents and have seen too many hospitals and health care centers recently that I can smell that unmistakable combination of human fluids, disinfectant and desperate, hopeful prayers in my dreams.
I don’t know the reason, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how things in one’s life can change in an instant. How everything you have planned for a day, or for a life, can crumbled to the ground, get twisted into a different form, or create a new rhythm on the heart monitor.
Certainly anyone who knew anyone in the twin towers learned that lesson ten years ago. Many of us who were hundreds of miles away and saw buildings disintegrate into a dusty nothingness and knew it wasn’t a special effect learned that too. For those who were there, it was inhaling the dust cloud that enveloped city blocks and the thunderous roar of the collapse, and later, for days, the stench of the smoldering rubble. For those of us watching on tv, it was the ear-shattering quietness that covered hearts and frightened our souls.
Driving down the interstate, it is too easy to rubber-neck at the accident site, almost as easy as driving by without noticing who is in the car, who is beside it, whether it will be drivable again, or if there will be an empty place at someone’s dinner table this evening.
Walking through the ICU ward a few weeks ago, I noticed that the names had changed on the boards, but I couldn’t have told you which ones, only the one that I knew. How easy it must be if you worked there to not remember who was there the shift before, or last week, though everyone I encountered cared deeply for the health, comfort and safety of their charges.
“Life is too difficult, sometimes” a friend of mine said to me the other day. Then added, after a pause: “I guess it is always that way.”
Things do change in a blink of an eye. You can wake one morning and have everything planned, not knowing what will lie around the corner at 10am. It is always the sudden, the tragic, the life-shattering that we remember: the moment that changes everything. It is as tangible as a moment can be, something to hang on to.
Yet, there are moments that we never know at the time what it will bring. Sometimes the ball starts rolling towards us and we don’t pick it out until later, or, sometimes, too late.
There are other unexpected moments we remember. People talk about love at first sight. A good part of the movie industry has been about just that (and, one could argue, the other part of the industry is about making movies for those other tangible moments). We believe in it, just as we believe that we won’t be in the wrong spot at the wrong time when the building collapses, or the car crashes, or the heart stop beating. In the blink of an eye, someone falls in love. Sometimes, it is years later and there is suddenly the realization that you’ve been in love since you met. It would be sad to realize that you didn’t know until later that you didn’t recognize it, but with love, unlike tragedy, loss and death, you feel good, so it doesn’t seem to matter much.
Life is difficult, as my friend said. Difficult, unplanned things that we cannot control can seem to overshadow all else. Being open to the unexpected, to grace, in all things just might take away some of the fear of straying too far from the life well-planned. But it is damn difficult to do.
I came across this quote today by WH Auden: “The difficulty for a writer…is that it seems to be a law of language that happiness, like goodness, is almost impossible to describe, while conflict, like evil, is all too easy to depict.” Maybe that is because we hang on to the memories of the terror so much that we know the language in which to describe them. I have told and been told stories — true, life stories — before that seem unbelievable. My cousin has said frequently about our extended family: “If you wrote it in a fiction workshop, the instructor would say: No way! Too unrealistic!” I’m sure that all of our lives are like that at some point.
Is there ever a day when you can’t say “I didn’t think today would be like this when I got up”? Would we really ever want a day like that? Sure, a day without airplanes hitting buildings, and bridges collapsing, and murders unsolvable, and unspeakable violence that we know the words to too well: nobody wants a day like that. But the other moments – the ones that we find so difficult to genuinely mark — isn’t that what we really want: inexpressible joy, beauty, grace?
Maybe I’ve been thinking about this because of 9/11, or car accidents, or illness and what I know is to come of it. Those things do make me hold those close to me closer. But wouldn’t it be nice if I was thinking about how things can change in the blink of an eye because, unknowingly, I saw someone fall in love and that made me want to hold loved ones closer still?