Late last December, in the quiet lull between Christmas and New Year’s, J and I made a pilgrimage to New York City, where we disembarked at Penn Station, walked to Ground Zero, and visited the 9/11 Memorial before having lunch, walking back to our train, and returning to Boston. It was a quintessential day trip: a journey there and back lasting little more than twelve hours.
Like any pilgrimage, it was a trip we’d planned months beforehand, as soon as we heard the 9/11 Memorial would be open to visitors on a reservation-only basis. The site was still an active construction zone, with workers raising nearby Freedom Tower; even with guest passes, we had to wend our way through a labyrinthine security line where no one complained about walking through metal detectors or passing their bags through X-ray machines.
On a pilgrimage, you expect your travel to involve more than a bit of travail; on a pilgrimage, you’re willing to cultivate the virtues of patience and long-suffering, recognizing that life is a journey with many unforeseen twists and turns.
Before we visited the 9/11 Memorial last December, J and I had seen a series of TV documentaries aired in honor of last September’s ten-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks. We’d seen interviews with construction workers building Freedom Tower, we’d learned about the design of the memorial itself with its sunken waterfalls marking the footprints of the Twin Towers, and we’d learned the logic behind the arrangement of names on the metal panels rimming those fountains.
J and I arrived with a scrap of paper upon which I’d written the locations of two names we wanted to find during our visit: Patrick J. Quigley IV, who is buried in a cemetery not far from our house, and Welles Remy Crowther, a Boston College graduate who died after saving a dozen people from the South Tower. J and I never met either man, but their stories helped us put a face on the tragedy, and it felt appropriate to seek out their names in order to pay our respects.
As J and I walked around both waterfalls and considered the long, low wall of names surrounding them, I kept thinking of a line from the Psalms, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Psalm 42:7, NIV). The Psalms contain prayers of praise and thanksgiving, but they also contain poems of anguish and despair.
The sunken waterfalls of the Memorial evoke the heavy-heartedness most of us associate with 9/11, with falling water that is eerily reminiscent of both falling buildings and falling bodies. But falling water cannot be wounded: in the form of vapor, falling water rises again. The day J and I visited the Memorial was brisk and breezy, and one of the waterfalls was veiled with mist and a flirtation of rainbows that hinted toward the irrepressible nature of both spirit and beauty.
A waterfall is the opposite of a looming tower: instead of rising up, these waters fall down. The sunken nature of the 9/11 Memorial waterfalls reminded me of a sipapu, the hole inside a Pueblo Indian dwelling that represents the opening through which ancient ancestors arrived in this world.
When so many spirits left their bodies on September 11, 2001, where did they go? Did they fall down, like water; did they rise up, like clouds; or did they remain in our midst, like mist? What exactly are the waves and breakers the poet mentions in Psalm 42? Are they the waves of loss, the breakers of despair, or the sea of loved ones who will never be forgotten, even under the shadow of a veil of tears?
Click here for more photos of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, taken in December, 2011.