I don’t know what I was expecting when my mother and I visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City a few weeks ago.
All right. That’s not exactly true. I realize now I was expecting — hoping — for some grand cathartic experience, some sense of resolution about the horror of that day. I wanted healing.
The lines were long when we arrived, snaking around the block as though we were all waiting to enter some sort of dark parallel universe Disneyland. And before we entered the Memorial grounds, each of us was required to go through security — opening our purses and backpacks, putting them in plastic bins on a conveyer belt and walking through scanners while guards made sure no one posed a threat. I felt like I was in a post-9/11 airport — a stark reminder of how our world has changed since that calm September morning when two jetliners crashed through concrete and glass, and those twin towers went up in flames.
After clearing security my mother and I stepped onto the Memorial grounds and saw two massive ponds (sitting on the tower footprints) fed by 30-foot waterfalls. The grounds were swarming with tourists.
My mother, as she often does, gave voice to my first impressions. “Some people might be disappointed after waiting in line for hours to see this,” she said.
It occurred to me right then that we ask a great deal from the memorials we human beings construct — to move us, to remind us, to make us feel whole again. And the greater the tragedy behind the memorial’s creation, the more we expect from it.
My mother and I wandered around the grounds for awhile, listening to the babble of voices and the thunder of falling water under a canopy of hazy sunshine. Both of us were searching for “it” — that moment of transcendence.
Eventually we began reading the names, etched on the granite walls surrounding the ponds.
Oh, the names. So, so many names. Jorge Luis Leon, Sr., Lisa Egan, Wayne John Saloman, Jayesh Shantilal Shah, Justin McCarthy, Myrna Yaskulka, Allan Tarasiewicz, Deanna Lynn Galante and her unborn child. More names. And more.
One of them — Kaaria Mbaya — had a single white rose, tucked into the deeply carved letters. Its paleness stood out against the wall’s gray granite. The sight of that rose stopped me. Who had left this simple but powerful memento? Someone still grieving for the loss of a family member or friend?
What I learned was this — the Memorial staff keeps track of each victim’s birthday and honors that first hopeful day of a human life with a rose. You were here, the rose says. You mattered.
I thought about Kaaria Mbaya then, all the things he would never see. His family. His friends. All the things he loved and all the things he loathed. Another birthday. Another summer. Another sunrise. Such a loss.
As always the most powerful stories are told not by massive structures of stone and steel but rather by the story of a single person who, for a time, shared this earth and all its awful beauty with the rest of us.