There you are with your camera. There you are waving your arms, motioning for your family to nestle in closer together, a little to the left, more to the right, stay still, there in front of the wall, look this way, now smile. Big smile. All smiles. That’s perfect! That’s it!
No. That’s not it. And, let me just say, if I might, that what you’re doing is far from perfect.
Look there, just a few paces down from where you’re posing and mugging and giggling. See that woman? The one dressed in white. Put your camera down and stand still for a moment. Try to empathize. Try to understand. Has it been that long? Has it? Try to remember.
She’s been frozen there in that same spot facing the wall ever since you arrived. Behind her, visitors are passing by this way and that. All around her, tourists are chattering, birds are chirping, horns and sirens ring out from the city streets. She doesn’t seem to hear. She doesn’t seem to care. She just stands her ground. Solemn. Still. The woman in white.
In front of her, water cascades down the sides of the vast wall to the pool below then tumbles again into the black maw in the center, swallowing everything into a dark abyss. The sun splashes a rainbow on the far wall and yet, the magnitude of all that is here, all that was here, weighs down. Falling. Falling. Falling.
Despite the distractions, the woman stares straight ahead into the middle distance, her body motionless except for her hands. From left to right, she caresses the bronze parapet in front of her that encircles the great pool. Gently. Tenderly. Reverently. Over and over again, her fingers trace the letters carved there in the brass: JENINE NICOLE. Sister? Mother? Daughter? Friend? I don’t know. None of us here do.
But I do know this. Seventeen years after that day, the eleventh day, the utter terribleness of it, the pain of her loss, the memory of JENINE NICOLE still haunts her soul.
Yes, I understand it’s a beautiful afternoon. I know there are buds on the trees, tiny birds hopping about the walkways, newly planted grass sprouting in carefully manicured plots. There’s a sweet breeze from the south, clouds scuttling by in a blue sky, an exuberance in the air that is summertime in New York City.
And yes, I do understand that this is a tourist attraction. And there are photos you could take. Perhaps that pear tree over there that somehow, impossibly managed to survive the devastation. Or maybe a shot of the reflecting pools and the waterfalls to share with those who couldn’t make the trip to see Ground Zero all for themselves.
But this, no not this. The grinning son. The daughter mugging for the camera. Not here. Not in this hallowed place. This is not the Grand Canyon. You are not standing in front of the world sphere at Universal Studios or Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disney World.
This is a battlefield where those who died did not even know there was a war. This is a graveyard, a sacred site marking a terrible chapter in our country’s story, where on a crystal blue morning the world changed, where abruptly and without warning, hatred had no boundaries, where even the most mundane acts of getting up and going to work suddenly weren’t mundane or ordinary at all, but forever unpredictable and dangerous.
So, please. Put your camera down. Put away your selfie stick. Just stand still for a moment. Look around. Feel this. Appreciation for the resilience and resolve of a nation. Compassion for the woman in white and others like her who lost so much. There are so many things to take away from here.
A snapshot of smiling faces is not one of them.
Lussier is a writer.