Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Requiem For All That Is No Longer Forever:
Mourning Lost Diamonds, Safe Skies and Everyone Who Died Wearing Pantyhose

by Regan Brown

Generally, the bodies that endured best were those of firemen, because they were wrapped in equipment and heavy clothing, whereas the most devastated were those of women, whose stockings and blouses offered poor protection during the collapses and after death.
-William Langewiesche, "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, Part Two", Atlantic Monthly, September 2002.

I was working in a high-rise in downtown Austin when I heard the news. In my typical, media-oblivious way I had arrived early to enjoy a couple of quiet hours in the cubicles. Absorbed in my work, I couldn't figure out why people were late, or absent or standing silently around television monitors in the lobby.

"What's with all my dot-com buddies today?" I wondered. Most of them were 24/7 party kids who talked and laughed constantly. I figured the only thing that would stop them in their tracks was the entire Internet disappearing overnight, or the company going under (which happened four months later). I didn't know anything unusual was happening until people started crying as the second tower fell. I confess: I kept working. The towers may have given way but my deadlines weren't about to. I kept doing what my employer paid me to do. My responsibility was to show up on time, dress appropriately, observe company regulations, meet or exceed expectations, put my personal concerns aside and otherwise be a good little worker bee. It was part of the agreement I had with my company.

Most of the women who died on September 11 had similar agreements with their employers. They got to work on time that day, dressed in the office attire so familiar to us all. It was a warm day outside, but they probably wore sweaters and jackets against the chill of the air conditioning. Like most women, they more than likely fussed over finding affordable shoes that looked good and were also comfortable. The ones who sacrificed comfort for style were sorry that day -- if they survived it, that is. When I see pictures of the disaster, I think of all the women trying to walk down all those stairs in high heels or barefoot, and of the sidewalks littered with shoes that a few hours earlier had been lined in closets, chosen to go with a particular outfit.

I wonder, in a more ghoulish train of thought, if the remains of women who wore polyester or other manmade fibers were easier or harder to find than those of women who chose natural fibers. What about pants vs. skirts? How many of the women were pregnant? How many of them had headaches, cramps or hangovers that morning and thought about calling in sick, but thought better of it? What happened to the diamonds in all those engagement rings? The metal would melt, but wouldn't the diamond itself survive? When those rings were placed on all those ring fingers in all those loving, sacred ceremonies held here and around the world, who could imagine "till death do us part" could encompass the horrendous end in store?

As I left my high-rise building at the end of that heart-numbing day, I felt keenly aware of modern architecture and fashion as deadly weapons. I thought about being trapped in elevators that had only been conveniences before; about clothes that either exposed bare flesh to searing burns, or protected it; about the dead women who followed orders and the live ones who disobeyed them. I thought about the women who trustingly made their way to the roof to await rescue, and the ones who fell to their deaths. Was it a choice? Did someone grab them or push them? How long into their final dive did they remain conscious?

Like all of us, the women who died trusted the universe not to unleash anything like this upon them. Not in our time, we always pray. They trusted their government to protect them, their workplace to remain standing, their clothes to last until they were out of style, their loved ones to greet them in the evening. Thinking of all the trusting women who died just doing their jobs that day still brings me to tears, and I read all I can about them in an attempt to put human faces on what happened. I wonder what each wanted to be when she was a little girl. Who loved her best? Who her best friend was, and who knew her secrets? What her favorite color was? What she was wearing when she died, what her last meal was and who cooked it? What happened to her favorite things after she died, and what she might have accomplished had she lived?

I move beyond the terror of their final moments and the grisly details of the physical aftermath, and I imagine their spirits floating free above us, unencumbered by pantyhose, high heels, menstrual cramps or jerk bosses. Maybe they're up there together in the afterlife, letting their hair down and laughing about how they'd have played hooky or disobeyed orders that day if they'd only known. Or maybe they're furious about what tore them from their earthly lives before they were ready, before they could say goodbye. Maybe they're even more pissed off about what still happens to women and children every day, every hour in this world of ours. I picture them looking down at us, wondering why we can't find a way toward a kinder, better world -- a world where crime is a rarity, buildings keep standing, and no one dies before his or her time.

A year ago we learned how few things really are forever -- diamonds, high-rise buildings, safe skies, faith in our government -- and how abundance can be snatched back in a moment. This Wednesday, the women who died will be in my thoughts and prayers, and when I light candles to their memory and ask them why, I suspect the answers will be what they always seem to be:

Because not enough of you object

Because dreaming a better world and acting to make it so are two different things

Please don't stop trying

But you must all try harder
Regan Brown lives and writes from the wilds of Wimberley, Texas.  She is the author of the book, The Woman's Way: Celebrating Life After 40.

RELATED LINK: Women at Ground Zero -- a book celebrating the heroines of 9/11