Several months ago, J and I faced a momentous decision. Having received a job offer from out of state, J had to decide whether to accept this offer or stay with his current employer. The proffered position promised job security and the opportunity for advancement; his current job offered the stability of continuing work J enjoys with people he knows, but contingent upon research funding that came up for renewal every six months or so.
After an excruciating few weeks during which we compared the two jobs and seriously considered relocating, J announced that his current employer had finalized a job offer which would keep him in his current job on a three-year assignment, the longest either one of us has had guaranteed employment during years we’ve known each other. When J told me this offer had been finalized, I responded with a spontaneous exclamation that surprised even me: “Thank God!” After having agonized over our decision for so long, only after we knew we’d be staying with J’s current job, in our current house, and in our current life did I realize how much I hadn’t wanted to change it.
Sometimes you don’t realize how much you’ve been holding your breath, tense and expectant, until after the decision has been made, the news announced, or the other shoe dropped. Last night when I casually flipped through the channels and saw “OSAMA BIN LADEN DEAD” in boldface font at the bottom of our television screen, only then did I realize how much I’d been subconsciously waiting for that inevitable end. “Thank God,” I silently thought. “At last!” Without having realized how much I–how much we all–needed closure on the particular tragedy of 9/11, suddenly I found myself relieved.
While CNN showed throngs of college students cheering and waving flags outside the White House, all J and I could do was watch the coverage in somber silence. What I felt as we followed the coverage late into the night wasn’t so much happiness that Bin Laden had been brought to justice as the natural relief you feel when letting out a long-held breath or loosening a too-tight muscle. “Finally,” I thought. “At last.” Although I hadn’t been conscious of wanting Bin Laden’s death these past ten years, I felt something instinctive and elemental when his passing was announced, like finally a page had been turned. If I felt so much relief and closure at the news, I wondered, how profound must have been the response of the families of those who died?
On Election Night, 2008, I stayed up late watching news coverage on my laptop, afraid to go to sleep until John McCain officially conceded the election to Barack Obama. Last night felt a bit like that night. In 2008, I was haunted by memories of 2000, when I’d gone to sleep thinking Al Gore had been elected, only to learn the next morning that things weren’t that simple. In 2008, I had to actually hear Barack Obama address the nation as “the next President of the United States” before I would allow myself to believe it, just as last night J and I stayed up, anxious and expectant, waiting for President Obama to address the nation officially. “It’s not real until the President says so,” I found myself thinking. “Let’s not get too emotional until we really know for sure.”
As the President spoke, my thoughts weren’t so much centered on Bin Laden himself as on the families of those who were killed on 9/11. Bin Laden got what he deserved, the end of his story being more a matter of natural cause and effect than an act of unbridled vengeance. Although I’m not blood-thirsty by nature, I acknowledge there are some acts so heinous, the world’s religions agree they are evil and cannot be tolerated. In Zen, we don’t talk about sin and punishment, but we do talk about cause and effect, “You make, you get” being our succinct way of observing how people tend to reap what they sow. As Jesus himself said, those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and Bin Laden’s death felt like the necessary and inevitable reaction to his own actions. As I watched last night’s news coverage, Bin Laden’s death didn’t seem so much a case of what “we” did to “him”: it felt like the natural and unavoidable outcome of his own choices, a sorry ending he brought on himself.
More than anything, as J and I sat watching last night’s news coverage, I found myself naturally remembering where and who I was on that blue-skied and sunny September day ten years ago. Ten years is a long time to hold your breath; ten years is a long time to wait for justice. Last night and into today, I keep thinking of the grave J and I pass every time we walk at Newton Cemetery: the resting spot of Patrick J. Quigley IV of Wellesley, who was 40 years old when he died on September 11, leaving a pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter. Ten years later, how are the Quigleys fairing, and all the families of victims? Ten years later, does the death of Bin Laden bring any closure or comfort, even though it won’t bring back any of our precious Patricks?
This morning as I drove from Newton to Keene under crystal blue skies, the weather seemed poignantly similar to that gorgeous September Tuesday when the turquoise sky seemed too beautiful to rain down such suffering. As I pulled into the driveway of my apartment in Keene, I saw that my neighbor’s sprawling forsythias, whose bare twigs I contemplated over breakfast all winter, have finally erupted with gold-glowing flowers. “At last,” I found myself thinking, the desperate longing of a long, snowy winter finding relief in an outpouring of blossoms. Sometimes after waiting a cold eternity, you’re surprised by the spontaneous arrival of a solace you’d forgotten you’d hoped for.