Not long ago I ran across my birth certificate tucked away at the bottom of an old wooden trunk filled with important papers. I looked again at the signatures of my father and mother next to each other, along with my inky footprints. I was heartened to see all our names together.
Here are the facts: I was born on a cold, windy morning on Chicago’s South Side to a clerk and a housewife, both from dying farm towns in Iowa. But the marriage didn’t last, and the three of us had to learn to survive and go forth in the world. I was seven, and it is hard to know what I felt at the time. Kids rarely understand the long-term effects of what’s happening around them. I felt scared. I do remember that. But I still had my mother, and I did what any kid would do in those circumstances: I held on tight and grew up.
Court-mandated, twice-a-month weekends with my father ended four years later when he remarried and moved to New York. Trips there to see him were awkward and infrequent. Then my own life gained momentum, and I lost track of my father. Many years went by between visits. There were new marriages for both of us. Slowly, my dad and I started to gravitate toward each other — perhaps out of an unspoken sense of obligation, or perhaps simply out of curiosity. Now we are trying to make room for each another in our lives and our separate histories. Most of the time it feels as if we were starting over again, as if the ink were still wet on the birth certificate, as if most of our lives were still ahead of us. But nobody’s fooling anyone. He is seventy-two, and I am forty-seven.
I am not bitter about all my years without a father. No apologies are needed. Despite everything, I’ve had a great life and been lucky in many respects, and I suspect he might say the same. Who am I to deny him the right to be happy? I am at an age where to blame one’s parents for one’s own shortcomings is boorish at worst and inaccurate at best. But I am curious about all those years apart. Did he feel the loss of a son as strongly as I sometimes felt the loss of a father?
The last time we began again was two years ago at my home in central Illinois. My father was captivated by a train museum — an Illinois Central lounge car in particular. We boarded it, and, to our dismay, the train began to move. It traveled only a short distance, to a maintenance shed. Nobody even knew we were on board. Our five-minute adventure is not much of a story, but when there are no stories to share, such tales become touchstones. “Hey, Dad,” I’ll say, “remember when we stowed away on that train?”
Today we begin again at New York City’s Ground Zero, a place of grief and reconstruction. My father entwines his fingers into the tall steel fence around the sorrowful hole in the earth where the World Trade Center once stood. Two girders with a piece of wreckage attached form a cross. Several stories below, underneath a banner (“The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart”), workers in hard hats rebuild the commuter line. Jackhammers pound the earth, and the stench of diesel permeates the air. Written in magic marker on the fence are the words “Love is stronger than hate; heal with love, not bombs!” Dad and I don’t have jackhammers, but we have hard work ahead of us: the task of getting to know each other as father and son.
My father points to a name he recognizes on the heroes’ plaque: a business acquaintance, a memory of a face across a conference table. Then he dabs at his eyes with a hankie. I’ve never seen my dad cry. I’m not sure this counts, but I’ll take it.
Vendors hawking faux designer handbags and phony Rolexes approach us. I resent their intrusion into this place of mourning. Can’t these few acres be free of commerce?
Makeshift tables display September 11 souvenirs: picture books and the ubiquitous NYPD and FDNY T-shirts. (The very phrase “September 11” is now a registered trademark.) “Get the real story of 9/11!” shouts a man clutching photo albums to his chest. It is not clear whether he is a vendor, a prophet, or a schizophrenic. People stroll by with cellphones talking in their ears. A lone flute player plays a mournful loop of “Amazing Grace,” “America the Beautiful,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Despite the distractions, the crowd is quiet and respectful, as at a wake. They move solemnly up to a temporary wooden fence and read and write words of reconciliation — not vengeance — and stick tiny American flags and single roses into any available crack or crevice. The memorial they create is as moving as any poem.
I notice a ray of unexpected brightness in the middle of the dark urban canyon. Is this beautiful summer light a memorial, too? And what of this strong, swirling wind that blows through our hair? Does it still carry particles of debris from the disaster? Are we taking the DNA of the victims (and the hijackers) home with us?
Before September 11, I visited the towers with my stepmother Robbie and my daughter Rose. We were waiting in a long line to ride to the top of the South Tower when a guard mistook Robbie for actress-director Penny Marshall. “Right this way, Ms. Marshall,” he said, leading us to the front of the line. An express elevator popped our ears as it launched us to the “Top of the World.”
Once outside, we stood on the walkway with the coin-operated binoculars and looked out over the most populous city in the United States. Despite my usual vertigo, I felt safe and secure. I scanned the harbor, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, then up the Hudson, following the jagged skyline of glass and steel to the North Tower, with its famous antenna. I thought of the endless humanity down below, creating art, telling jokes, giving their hearts away in a million different ways. But I didn’t imagine all the equally infinite ways in which we do evil.
Time gallops on. My father and I are beginning something that can never be finished. What is he thinking? Does it matter that we don’t say what needs to be said? That we always stick to safe conversations about the economy or books? We may never know what we need from each other.
“Let’s go,” Dad says. “This is too hard.”
“I know what you mean,” I say. He means the public grief, the ghosts of stolen lives, and the impossible but necessary process of healing. What I want to tell him is that there is still so much healing for him and me to do. The work is hard and often unacknowledged. We will never finish. Still, there is no other choice but to begin, again and again.
The next day we ride the Number 5 train to the Bronx Zoo. My father studies the subway map, taking off his glasses to follow the colored lines that curve and intersect like an ancient family tree. At East Tremont Avenue, we get out at the elevated station and descend a steep, weathered flight of stairs to street level. I watch my father’s unsteady steps — the wobbly gait of the aged — and instinctively want to warn him to be careful. (Did he feel this 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 cats, it occurs to me that my father has finally taken me to the zoo.