June 25, 2003

Living in Historical Time

My father died unexpectedly two years ago on June 5th of a heart attack. My daughter was born two and a half years ago in January. My first Father’s Day in June 2001 as a father was one without my own father.

One and a half years ago the World Trade Center lay in smoldering ruins. American forces occupy Iraq today, sentries at the gate to an unknown future.

I sometimes tell friends that I am just now coming out of the “toddler cave”, newly ready to socialize.

This is true. It is equally true that I am perhaps just emerging from the shadow of a grief that reduced me to a ghost of what I had been, from feelings I hesitate to label "depression" because of all the pop-psychological narratives the term invokes and the casual access to my most indescribable inner spaces it seems to promise.

Until two years ago, no one very close to me had died or even been seriously ill. Three of my grandparents died when I was an adult, one of them this year, and certainly I mourned them, but their loss did not strike close to me. I sometimes feel I am like a child with a defective immune system, kept in a bubble, and then suddenly exposed to a serious illness as an adult. I had no defenses against loss, no expectation of tragedy.

Perhaps in that respect, I was like most Americans were on September 10th, 2001. It is hard for me to resist coupling my own feelings with the larger canvas of history. 2001 welded the two together for me. My strong reactions to 9/11, my sense of wrenching dislocation between the world that was and the world that is coming to be, are conditioned on my experience of personal tragedy. This confluence has inflated my feelings about both moments. I feel like I am living in historical time now, the narrative of my personal life entangled with the unfolding story of my own era. I don’t think I have ever felt that before—perhaps that is quintessentially what Generation X has always seemed to lack. It may have been a heady sensation for the Baby Boomers. It is a debilitating one for me.

In this case, it only redoubles my sense of grief and loss. For me, the scene of the towers falling was directly fused to my mental picture of my father dying alone on the floor of the bathroom in his office building, working too early in the morning to be found while he was dying. My sense of general fear about the threat to my life, your life, all our lives—even and especially including the lives of others caught up in the “war on terror” elsewhere, as victims, perpetrators and in the no-man's land that lies between the two—is intensified by the deepening of my love for my daughter, my sense of engagement with and responsibility for the future that she represents.

A few friends have suggested that therapy might help me with grief, with my feelings of confusion and wonderment at the pains and powers that come with crossing into the gravity and shadow of mature adulthood in such a short span of time. I don’t think so, any more than I think the therapeutic impulse can confront usefully the social transformations that September 11th has wrought in the world as a whole.

Some things cannot be cured, and must be endured. Or if not just endured, instead changed for the better and faced with responsibility and a principled understanding of what the limits and possibilities of action are. We can know, learn and grow in wisdom, and even fight back against the burdens of our time, looking for and making the miracle of progress in a world that has ceased to believe in it. But grief is grief. It is right and just that we feel loss from which there is no restoration.

I can raise my daughter, and try to move back from grief. I can try to find again my sense of joy in the world and reconnect to friends and life. My father is dead and will always be, and everything that depended on the changing possibilities of his life in the world is gone. A ruin is broken stone and scattered metal forever, no matter what gets built on it later.