The Unfinished Work of the World

My father and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder surrounded by words of peace. We lean against the tall, steel fence guarding the sorrowful hole in the earth that once was the World Trade Center. Two girders form a cross with a piece of crumpled WTC wreckage attached. Underneath a banner that states "The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart," knots of workers in hard hats begin to rebuild the subway line. Jackhammers pound at the earth and the stench of diesel permeates the air. Written in magic marker on the fence are the still unheeded words, "Love is stronger than hate; heal with love, not bombs!"

My father points out a name he recognizes from the heroesí plaque -- a business acquaintance, but still a memory of a face across a conference table. Then he daps at his eyes with a hankie. Iíve never seen my dad cry and Iím not sure this subtlety counts, but Iíll take it.

"Teach our kids love not hate to make this world a better place"

African vendors hawking their faux handbags and the phony Rolexes that may or may not work approach us. I resent their intrusion into this place of mourning. Canít these few acres be free of commerce? "Wanna buy my watch?" I tease, dangling the cheap Eddie Bauer I found years ago in an Idaho parking lot. I say this with a smirk thatís meant to say "Iím hip to your entire scam." They glance back at me with a universal look of scorn.

"We are from Czech Republic. We love New York."

"We Mexicans feel your pain."

"From all the guys in England. We will stand together against all evil."

"Weíre all the same color when you turn out the lights."

Makeshift tables display September 11 wares. (The very phrase "September 11" is now a registered trademark.) Vendors hawk picture books, and the ubiquitous NYPD and FDNY hats and T-Shirts. "Get the real story of 9-11!" a man shouts as he rushes through, clutching photo albums to his chest. It is not clear if he is an entrepreneur, a prophet or a schizophrenic. People stroll by with cell phones attached to their ears communicating. A lone flute player plays an mournful loop of "Amazing Grace," "America the Beautiful," and "Glory, Glory, Halleluiah." Gray Line buses lumber by with tourists clicking photos. Jumbo jets fly overhead on approach to La Guardia and Kennedy. The planes are so low you can make out their logos.

"Our deepest sympathies go out to the innocent people who unnecessarily died here."

"Be with your angels."

Despite the distractions, the crowd is quiet and respectful, as if at a perpetual wake. They move solemnly up to a temporary, wooden wall to read and write words of reconciliationónot vengeanceóand to wrap tiny American flags and single roses into any available crevasse.

"Bhudda [sic] loves you all."

"We love you guys. We wish you didnít leave us."

"Why canít we all be friends?"

What I notice is the unexpected brightness in the middle of a dark, urban canyon. Is this beautiful summer light a memorial, too? And, what of this strong, swirling wind that blows DNA into our hair? Are we taking the souls of the victims (and the hijacker) home with us?

"You were set to retire on Tuesday morning 9/11/01 from the NYPD. God bless you John Perry forever remembered for your heroism."


Before 9-11, before we all became frightened, I rode to the top of the South Tower with my stepmother Robbie and my daughter Rose. We waited in a long line for our ride up the elevators until a guard mistook Robbie for the actress-slash-director Penny Marshall. "Right this way, Ms. Marshall," he said, leading us to the front of the line. An express popped our ears and launched us up to the observatory: the "Top of the World,"

"I had a vision about this building. Jeremiah 33-3."

Once outside, we stood on the walkway with the twenty-five-cent telescopes, and looked over the largest city in America. Despite my usual feelings of vertigo, I never felt safer and more secure. As I scanned the New York harbor at the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, then up the Hudson at the jagged skyline of glass and steel, and the North Tower with its now infamous antenna, I thought of how endless were the human possibilities down below. Each minute people created objects of beauty, wrote lines of poetry, told jokes, and gave their hearts away in a billion shifting configurations. But I forgot to imagine all the equally infinite ways we can do evil.

"Release our tortured souls from hate and violence."

Because of divorce and a lifetime of separation, each time we see each other my dad and I start over. The last time was two years ago at my home in central Illinois. He was captivated by an antique train museum and a particular Illinois Central lounge car. We boarded and much to his horror the train began to move, but only a short distance to a maintenance shed. Nobody knew we were passengers. Our five-minute adventure is not much of a story, but when there are no stories to share, it becomes a precious touchstone. Now I can say, "Hey Dad, remember when the train took off and we were stowaways?"

"Love, peace, and kindness will outlast and overcome any and all evil doings.

Today, we begin again at Ground Zero, a place of violence and reconstruction. We donít have jackhammers, but ahead of us lies the hardest work we will ever do: trying to love each other as father and son.

"Love must conquer all."

Time gallops on. He is seventy; I am forty-eight. We are beginning something that can never be finished. What is he thinking? Does it matter that we donít speak the words that need to be said? That we always stick to safe conversations about the economy and books? Who will take the first step?

"Everything will be OK in the end."

Tomorrow we will ride the Number 5 train to the Bronx Zoo. We will be the only white faces on a rolling palette of browns and blacks. My father will study the subway map, taking off his glasses to follow the color-coordinated lines. At East Tremont Avenue, we will descent a long, steep flight of ancient stairs to street level. I see my fatherís careful stepsóthe unsteady gait of the agedóand I sense his vulnerability and instinctively want to warn him. More unanswered questions: Did he feel protective toward me when I was small and our family was still intact?

At the zoo, we stand in line with the young families to view the new Siberian Tiger exhibit. As we approach the playful tigers it suddenly occurs to me that my father has finally taken me to the zoo.

"In the first year after the terrorist attacks, 105 babies were born to widows of 9-11 victims."

Back at the World Trade Center site, the crowds continue to arrive on their pilgrimage, to search for just the right words to place on the wall, and to tenderly touch the faces in the victimsí photos. Dad and I have reached the end of the walkway, where someone has Xíed out the scrawl, "Ararb [sic] people suck." This is the only sentence of hate we read on this day.

Dad says, "Letís go. This is too hard." He means the surrounding sadness and public grief, the ghosts of wasted lives, and the impossible but necessary effort it takes to confront the age-old question: "How much sorrow can a heart bear?" As if to answer, the wind lifts a huge whorl of dust from the bottom of the trade center crater and disperses it among the crowd. We cannot escape what happened here.

"I know what you mean," I tell my father. "Iím glad we came though. Iíve been wanting to come here for so long." What I want to tell him is that there is so much healing that still needs to be doneóamong all of us. The work is hard and often unacknowledged. Sometimes itís whispered; sometimes screamed. Sometimes we run away from it. We will never finish. But there is no other choice but to try.
Stephen Lyons is a native of the South Side of Chicago and, after living for almost thirty years in the West, now resides in a small farming town in central Illinois. He's been employed in nine different states as a tree planter, daffodil picker, dude ranch cook, ice cream vendor, magazine editor, phone solicitor, newspaper reporter, professional tofu maker, grain truck driver, assistant dairy herdsman, and agricultural extension editor.   He once worked for a week in Colorado pulling nails out of two-by-fours, and for one twelve-hour day picking hops in southern Oregon. He was fired from the hops job after accusing the foreman of having bad karma. He was also fired from the phone solicitor job when he was overheard telling prospective customers that the deal (a lifetime of magazine subscriptions at creative interest rates) was a scam.
Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys, a single father's memoir. His next bookóprofiles, journalism, and essays from the Inland Northwestówill be published by Globe Pequot in September. Order your copy here
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Washington Post, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USA Today, High Country News, Manoa, San Francisco Chronicle, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse.  He also appeared in last yearís anthology, Life As We Know It, Essays for Living from Salon.com.  For appearance fees or to send Lyons feedback, write: midlife@austinmama.com