Love, Loss and All That Remains

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything—if you do you start missing everybody.”  Holden Caulfield

From The Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger

I don’t know whether it’s fitting, or selfish that on this anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks I was remembering my friend Catherine Doyle, who died last December 18.  I had gone into the local branch of Wells Fargo, to finally close out a couple of accounts we held jointly—as Catherine said, “In case you have to pay for my funeral.”  I don’t know why it took me so long—after the cremation, and the payment of the legal fees of the estate, there were only a few dollars left and it seemed like a lot of bother until the service fees started coming in.  As it turned out, I owed the bank $6.95.  Perhaps I expected that with time, I would not mind the finality of it.  Instead I found myself telling the bank teller the story of Catherine’s life, and much to her dismay, crying while I did it.  Some things just don’t get easier, and presenting a death certificate is one of them.

The annual Western Regional Scottish Deerhound Specialty was dedicated to Catherine this past July.  She had been a longstanding member of both the National and Regional deerhound clubs and it was important that we honor her service to the breed.  I gave a eulogy, and others spoke as well, and our comments are too lengthy and at this point, too foggy to reproduce here. But there is one thing that lingers in my head, and so, with apologies to those of you who were there, I will repeat myself here.

After Catherine died, her jeweler Barbara called me and said, “I have something of Catherine’s that you will want.”  She mailed me a plain gold wedding band, worn thin from use, that she thought had belonged to Catherine’s mother.  As it turned out, that was not the case.  Inside the old band was inscribed “F. J. Malone to Clara, 1917.” As I turned over the ring and read the inscription, it seemed as if I was suddenly flooded with images and snippets of conversation from the past, across two continents and two World Wars:  Franklin J. Malone, a young Irish soldier presenting this ring to his betrothed, Clara, in a hurried ceremony just before departing for the Continent to fight and perish in the trenches of World War I.  Clara Malone, pregnant with her only child Alice, poor, bereft and with no means of support, booking steerage to come to America to find work as a seamstress and a better life.  Alice Malone, growing up fatherless, marrying a military man, Pierce Doyle, whose blue eyes and strong jawline reminded her of the only photograph she had of her father.  Alice, alone and in labor at a military hospital stateside, giving birth to Catherine while her husband served his country until the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought him home to his wife and only child.  Alice, Pierce and Catherine moving to New Mexico so that Pierce, now a high ranking Army officer, could oversee the nuclear test sites in the southern part of the state.  Catherine, smart, multilingual and witty going off to Barnard before a taxi cab hit her on the streets of New York, shattering her legs, and her dreams.  Catherine, coming home to New Mexico to live out her life in a place they had all grown to love.  And finally, Catherine in a photograph, imposing in her cape and tartans, holding a leash of deerhounds against a mountainous landscape of endless sky.

Sometimes, an act of war or terror changes the entire history of an individual, or a family, as it did for my friend Catherine’s grandmother Clara, and for the survivors of 9/11, and Iraq, and Afghanistan. I have nothing but the deepest respect for those who fought, those who rescued, and those who were left behind.  Someday, I hope that I hold that gold ring, and the fleeting images and fragmented conversations take the shape and form of a real story played out over the last hundred years.  And then, I will write that novel.

The Stars are Misaligned Tonight

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.  King Lear, Act IV

There are certain days that everyone will always remember.  People of my generation uniformly remember where they were and what they were doing the day that John F. Kennedy was shot.  My children’s generation will never forget 9-11.  For my parent’s generation, images of Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were burned into their brains.  But these were all public moments—John John’s salute, the mushroom clouds, the fall of the twin towers.  Amongst these more public iconic moments are the quiet ones, the ones that hit each of us hard individually.  For me, I think of the Challenger disaster, played out on the television screen in the waiting room of my department.  I tried to go on seeing patients as Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space, and her crewmates exploded before our eyes.  I had wanted to teach, and had dreamed of being an astronaut while growing up in Houston.  They were there, and then suddenly, they were gone.  The bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City was another of those moments—for me, that firefighter will be carrying that baby out of the carnage forever. Thirteen years after it happened, I dragged my youngest son to Oklahoma City to visit the museum, and to sit and contemplate one of the loveliest and saddest public memorial spaces ever built.

Today was another of those days for me as I tried to keep my patient flow going and stay on time while watching the Connecticut school shooting play out on my computer.  I can read the eyewitness accounts, and I can put my thoughts on paper, but it is the images, the pictures that will forever haunt me—the teachers and SWAT team members leading the frightened children, eyes and mouths open in terror, from a school which will never be the same out into a town that will likely never be able to celebrate Christmas again.  Where is the soul of a human being who can fire point blank into the heart of a child?  I asked my friend, who is a devout Catholic, “Where is God while all of this was going on?” She did not have an answer which I could believe or understand.  It rained a cold wet rain all day, here in this city where it never rains.

As I was driving home tonight I got a call from Daniel, my farrier.  Daniel never calls me at 7 pm on a Friday night, so I knew something was wrong.  He said, “Come home quickly, Gabriel called– Dash is colicking.”  Dash is my 27 year old Quarter Horse, recently laid up and on antibiotics for lymphangitis, an infection in his legs brought on by a late season of heat and drought which triggered a swarm of blood seeking flies.  Colic in an elderly horse who has never colicked before can be a bad sign—a stone perhaps, or a lipoma twisting the gut.  John, my horse vet for twenty years, got here quickly, sedated and tubed the old boy who is now resting comfortably.  I will be on horse watch for the rest of the night, armed with syringes full of painkillers and sedatives.  I know one thing for certain—this old horse has had a full, long and happy life—something those children who died today will never have.  It is almost midnight here.  Can this day be over soon?

Fallout

September 11, 2001 was supposed to be a very good day.  It was my mother’s seventieth birthday, and she and my father were scheduled to fly from their home in Colorado to New York City to celebrate with my sister, who lived on West 72nd Street, a few blocks from the famous Museum of Natural History, where dioramas of early man invite young and old visitors to step into prehistoric times.  As my parents opened the trunk of their sedan to start to load their suitcases, their next door neighbor came running outside, to tell them, “You’re not going ANYWHERE!  The World Trade Towers have been struck by airplanes!.”  In utter disbelief, they went back inside and turned on the television, to discover that America’s worst nightmare, a terrorist attack on our own soil had come to pass.

Because my mother did not get to go to New York to celebrate her birthday with champagne and a Broadway musical, she stayed home and scheduled her overdue mammogram.  Shockingly, because she had not palpated a lump, the mammogram showed a small tumor in the upper outer quadrant of her left breast. The biopsy was positive for invasive ductal cancer, and she had a lumpectomy and axillary node dissection, followed by radiation therapy.  The cancer was Stage I.  Eleven years later, she is cured.  Perhaps it is just a coincidence that she “remembered” to schedule her mammogram the day after 9/11 but I don’t think so.  I think that sitting at home, watching human beings falling from buildings and wives crying over lost husbands, and firefighters standing helplessly as the buildings themselves collapsed, their brethren inside, gave my mother a tiny premonition, a chilly little reminder that we are all mortal, and that we should never forget it and always take care.

On the day before the eleventh anniversary of 9/11,  there was finally fall out from that day that was eagerly welcomed by many:  The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was expanded to include compensation for 58 different types of cancers potentially caused by exposure to toxic fumes and chemicals, exposures which were particularly intense for first responders and survivors at the scene, but which also affected the search and rescue volunteers and the clean up crews.  The Zadroga Act, passed by Congress in December 2010, and signed by President Barack Obama in January 2011, was named after a New York City Police Officer who died at age 34 of lung disease attributed to working around toxins at Ground Zero. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg lauded the additional coverage, stating “Tomorrow we will remember those we lost to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and also those who bravely responded during and after the tragedy.”

I have not been to Ground Zero since the attack.  But I have dreamed of that place many times since that day.  In my dream, there is a stairway that rises naked from the ashes, and reaches the clouds where it disappears.  At the bottom of the stairway, there is a policemen, standing feet apart, one hand to his mouth where he blows a whistle whose noise pierces the dust and smoke, the other hand pointing the way OUT for the survivors.  Coming down the stairs, there are two men descending very slowly, because they are between them carrying a tiny elderly woman in her wheelchair. And just above them, on their way up, their faces lined with determination, are two firemen in full gear, hurrying skyward with no hesitation whatsoever.