This past weekend a magical vortex was created in New York City. The axis created by Halloween falling on a Saturday night, the NYC Marathon the following day, with an extra hour of much needed sleep tossed into the sweet spot center thanks to the arrival of daylight savings time.
After we slept off our Trick or Treating fun, and before Julia and I headed to an uptown Marathon viewing party, we made our way to church Sunday morning. And it was at Unity of New York that a reminder came that this Sunday, too, was different.
“Today is ‘The Day of the Dead’,” Barbara Biziou our guest speaker said. “When most of the world honors its ancestors. Let’s all take a moment and honor the shoulders we stand upon.”
Since September, my town has celebrated and honored our special dead. We face 9/11 feeling the heaviness of the past as it extends into the present. We try to shake off the day, to a certain extent, going about our meetings, and our days, and our lattes as we had on September 10th. But we cannot, not fully.
Annually, the city is asked to pause at 8:46 am for a moment of silence at the time the first tower fell. We stop for the reading of the names televised at the annual memorial service at Ground Zero. We see the portraits of friends and family, loved ones lost; the stained grief on the faces of those left to mourn. And we know, as New Yorkers, everyone of us lost someone that day.
And on Marathon Day 2015 those lost on 9/11 came back to me in a fresh way, rekindled by a poem I’d read from Next Door to the Dead, a collection from Kathleen Driskell, a Kentucky based poet.
The volume gets its name from an interesting fact. Driskell and her husband purchased an old church and renovated it into a cool, modern home for their family. Still, one of the most salient features of their repurposed home is its backyard cemetery. The family was assured that the cemetery was no longer in use. But, soon after Driskell, her husband and children moved in, a funeral party showed up, and dismantled that idea. So be it, Driskell probably thought. Artists take their inspiration from many sources. Even death.
While time and elements refilled
you with nothing but your own red dirt,
have you thought long on who managed to skirt
your fixed and final embrace?
A solder’s miraculous recovery
from the bluing fever of Spanish flu?
Or knocked cold by the back hoof
of an ornery mule,
the blacksmith, hair slicked neat and combed,
and his only suit, nearly nailed
into the box but for a pallbearer
who saw a finger twitch?
Or perhaps the remarried wife,
whose last letter cut deep,
revealing she’d really rather sleep
for an eternity next
to her first husband?
Or perhaps when excavated,
you sprang a leak and your bottom
became a bay where no one wanted
to launch a loved one’s final ship.
No matter. Whoever’s escaped you
has now long been caught.
The anniversary of 9/11 reminds every New Yorker of the grave we escaped that day, of the graves that still lie at the edge of Manhattan, the graves of loved ones elsewhere, and those that wait for us all.
Then, in September, Pope Francis came town. Followed by the runners. And citizens took to the streets, to remind one another of our better selves; that we can do better. Love better. “That our best days are ahead of us, not behind us,” as I heard from the pulpit of Unity of New York.
“Why do New Yorkers come out so strongly for the marathon?” Friends across the country ask. “Why do you watch for the last runner to cross the finish line under darkness from the comfort of your couches on the eleven o’clock news? Why do people who’ve never even laced on a jogging shoe care about a 26.2 mile race? Because the runners that travel from all over the world to pound it out across our five boroughs remind us of the importance of moving forward with positive intent. To live fearlessly and well, for ourselves, our families, friends, and the nearly 3,000 lives that perished. That raising our collective voices in support of another is one of the greatest ways to celebrate the Day of the Dead. And to leave the pondering about graves to the poets.
Infant Daughter, Marcus 2 Years Old,
Myra 8 Days
Among these tiny grave markers, I think of my own
little terrorists, my budding suicide bombers.
They shriek against inoculations, squirm, refusing
the spinach on their plates, try to swallow marbles,
run from the care of the woman who is
CPR certified. They smile when they see me
watching their plump fingers fingering the cord.
Every day, with such joy, they threaten
to blow apart my heart so utterly.
And as I watched Julia and her tiny pals lining the street of upper Fifth Avenue in Harlem, the bright sun and their inner glow lighting their faces, I thought of the above poem. And as each runner approached their awake, the children raised a rainbow of hands–tan, pink and brown–to deliver high fives, tiny, soft prayers of support, I saw their affirmations against suicide bombers delivered to all those present, running or not.
Next to the Dead by Kathleen Driskell
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