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Falling Tears Amid the Sounds of Sorrow

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

I keep crying in my car. With the exception of Mass on Sunday, it is the only place I have cried since the horrific events of last week. Maybe it’s because this is where I heard the news, en route to work downtown, disbelieving as I scanned the L.A. skyline, suddenly so visible, so vulnerable. Or maybe it’s the hundreds of flags that blur by on the freeways, flapping from antennae and roof racks, stretched against rear windows, or the “God Bless America” signs posted near onramps, on front porches everywhere.

Most likely, it’s the radio. As stunning as the televised reports of the attack and destruction of the World Trade Center and of the maimed Pentagon have been, the voices on the radio have been somehow more powerful, more heartbreaking.

An American living in London sent an e-mail to his friends about hearing the news from so far away in a place where there was no television. Without the images to distract him, he wrote, the horror of the events as they relentlessly unfolded was even more vivid--the terror in the voices of the witnesses, the strained anxiety in the words of the commentators, the actual noise of the destruction.

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The sight of those towers falling was, for many Americans, simply unbelievable, unreal, almost anesthetizing in its proportion. But the sound of human terror--the screaming, the hoarse cries of denial, the cries for help--was all too real. When we huddle around the television, or even in grieving groups, we can transport ourselves to the scenes of death and outrage. We are a part of what has happened, what keeps happening. In the car, however, there is distance, separation, and it is impossible to ignore the contrast between our lives and theirs, between this city and those with which so many Angelenos feel a psychic connection.

Now we’re hearing from the survivors, from those who have lost so much, from the rescue crews who seem at times superhuman in their ability to continue, to endure. Without the images to distract us, we hear every crack of exhaustion, every quaver of resignation, and it is as if these people are in the car, as if we are somehow transporting them along the broken road of this moment in their lives.

I am driving to see my friends, who are well and whole, to the park with my children, to work where only hearts and minds are battered. The sky is an impossible blue, a breeze has blown the city clear and temperate, and the light is September’s burnished gold.

Then from the radio comes the voice of a new widow, telling me what her husband’s last words were, or a young soldier who had only marched in parades, describing what he has seen as he helped excavate the Pentagon, or a window washer returning to work, overjoyed to see that longtime client. I think I am done, that today will be different, and suddenly I’m crying so hard I have to pull over.

Although it is a choice, it seems impossible, almost dishonorable, not to listen, impossible to turn off the voices simply because the words are too painful to hear. It is, I think to myself, the least I can do, bear witness, share somehow the sorrow, find relief in expressing emotion.

On the way home from the grocery store, I turned on National Public Radio only to hear the live broadcast of the memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s. “Baby Jesus music,” said my 31/2-year-old son, who had that morning said his first real prayer, asking the blessed family to help the firefighters.

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So there was no question of turning that knob. Cardinal Egan was only halfway through his homily when we arrived home; Danny Mac was fast asleep, but I could not bring myself to interrupt the words. The cathedral was so silent that between the cardinal’s words there was only the sound of his breath. So I sat in my car in my garage breathing with him, with all those people, many of whom were undoubtedly crying, like me, but silently, so silently.

When he spoke of honoring the firefighters and police officers, the emergency and health-care workers, the applause that rose was deafening, even through my little radio, even thousands of miles away.

And in my car, through my tears, I applauded too, feeling stupid and helpless. Because there was nothing else I could do.

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Mary McNamara can be reached at mary.mcnamara@latimes.com.

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