"Grief," writes Thomas Lynch, "is the tax we pay on our attachments."
It is a beautiful line. It is simple and lovely and true. If you don't feel love, then you don't feel sorrow; to live without a close connection to another person is to avoid all the pain, all the emptiness, all the anguish, when that person dies. Yet we go right on loving, don't we?
Lynch, a poet, essayist and mortician, is the author of The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade (1997), among other luminous and moving books. Reading A Decade of Hope: Stories of Grief and Endurance From 9/11 Families and Friends, a new book offering the thoughts of many of those whose loved ones perished in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I was constantly reminded of Lynch's work.
Not because any of the voices sound like Lynch's. They don't. Lynch is a brilliant wordsmith, a writer of uncommon lyrical gifts. The people who tell their stories in A Decade of Hope aren't professional writers. They are teachers, lawyers, firefighters, police officers, politicians, students. Moms and dads. Daughters and sons. Sisters and brothers and friends.
What gives A Decade of Hope its power and originality is just that: The words aren't polished to the high gloss that people who write for a living naturally add to all that they publish. The sentences don't feel fussed over. There are no clever metaphors or finely wrought analogies.
There are just intensely personal stories of what it has been like for these people — people who lost someone they loved or, in some unimaginably devastating cases, several someones — on or as a result of 9/11. The stories thus blossom with a kind of ragged, inadvertent poetry — the poetry that grows up naturally around honest and heartfelt words, like grass between paving stones.
"I was totally distracted, and for a long time, I couldn't even read a book," says Jim Smith, whose wife, Moira, was a police officer who died while rescuing people in the south tower of the World Trade Center.
"There are days when I don't want to see people," says John Vigiano, whose sons, John and Joe, a police officer and a firefighter, died on 9/11 in the line of duty. "If there's a real bad day, I get in my car and I go to the beach in winter."
Some people established foundations and charities to commemorate their lost loved ones. Some remarried or moved far away. Some questioned God. Some grew closer to God. Some were angry for a long, long time.
"During the first four years after 9/11, I was not in a good place," says Brendan Ielpi, a firefighter, who lost his brother Jonathan, also a firefighter, in the south tower. "I really didn't care about anybody but myself, and if you didn't like it, tough." He is better now, he says: "I just try to help others, and do my best to raise my family."
Memoirs of grief have long been a popular genre, from the piercing observations of C.S. Lewis about the spiritual crisis precipitated by the death of his wife in A Grief Observed (1963) to the searing reflections on cataclysmic personal loss in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) by Joan Didion and A Widow's Story (2011) by Joyce Carol Oates.
A Decade of Hope is an honorable addition to this literary tradition. It has a raw urgency that at times makes it uncomfortable to read — other people's pain is never easy to witness — but that also makes the book so much more than just a collection of platitudes and bumper-sticker bromides about recovery.
"You can quote me: Cheney can rot in hell," declares Cameron MacRae, whose 23-year-old daughter, Catherine, died on 9/11, and who thinks that former Vice President Dick Cheney was wrong to push the Iraq War as a response to the attacks.
We can't ever truly know what these survivors went through; we can't ever understand the depths of their pain. All we can do is listen when they talk. "Sept. 11 was something that was thrust upon me," says Ray Habib, whose wife, Barbara, died in the World Trade Center. "I didn't choose to be part of it, but the fact is that it happened and I am part of it. I'll accept it, I'll absorb it, and I'll do everything I can to continue to deal with it."
Habib would surely nod knowingly at Lewis' words in A Grief Observed, as the author gropes to describe his life after his wife's passing: "The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything."