My son woke me ten years ago on the morning of September 11 to tell me to turn on my television. Something very wrong was happening in New York. I saw the second plane hit the towers and then the Pentagon, and made phone calls, wanting to speak with my family and beloved friends to anchor myself in the world.
September 11 was scheduled to be the first day of work restoring a 100 year old mosaic that would be installed in a pocket park as part of the public artwork I was creating for a North Portland light rail station. I had a young assistant, Jamie Meyers, who had been working with me all summer on the almost three hundred hours of mosaic work that the final project required, and we had arranged to go to yoga class together. I almost called and canceled, and then thought – if there was ever a day for yoga, baby this is it. I lay in Shavasana at the end of the class, tears behind my closed eyes and thought, How will anything ever be okay again?
We returned home in late morning and went out to the meadow where we had set up the salvaged mosaic, a four-inch-thick slab of concrete with a six foot circular mosaic on its surface. As we began transferring the mosaic we had so laboriously set in the studio I kept taking breaks and going into the house to watch the news that was on every channel, the same images over and over again after the catastrophic events unfolded in New York and Washington DC. Jamie came too at first and then stayed out in the meadow with our dog Barney, who was in his last days of a struggle with cancer. He lay in the shade of the ferns and watched us work in the fine weather. Birds came and went from the Mountain Ash trees that line the dirt road alongside the meadow, their clusters of red fruit irresistible.
As the days passed and the story began to unfold in the news we worked in the sun, surrounded by the smell of dried grass. My sister had flown home from Seattle to Paris that morning and had been directed by one of the flight attendants on United Airlines flight 93 to her connecting flight. Friends and family in New York were living through the shock and loss, the horrible smell of the crash site, the ash and debris, with friends and acquaintances lost. It was personal for everyone I had any contact with in the weeks that followed. How could anyone speak of anything else?
But in that week of the 11th I was in the meadow, guarded by Barney, who had a more and more difficult time struggling up from his station under the ferns, and buoyed up by Jamie who had the advantage of being young and of a sunny disposition. She saved me, as did the work. Piecing together the new border we’d constructed, repairing the broken tile with replacement pieces that, a hundred years later, were exact matches, we were absorbed and braced against the tragedy. We had a job to do and we did it.
The mountain ash tree played host to an ever changing tribe of birds. All four of the native woodpeckers that live in the woods around our house visited over the days. Stellar’s bluejays chased away all comers. Goldfinches were streaks of yellow and black; a hawk alighted and then cleared off, alarmed at our presence and how close to the ground he was. A flock of cedar waxwings visited over several days, handsome and rare. Did they come to the trees every year while we sat in the house or worked in the garden, oblivious to their presence? I felt blessed, lucky and that felt weird, to be lucky in that time. Lucky not to have lost a husband, a child, a dear friend. Lucky not to be in that stricken city, much as it would have helped in some odd way.
By the end of the week I had to carry Barney out to his post, and to take care of his needs during the day and before sleep. On Friday I took his bed out to the lawn under the Bigleaf maple, where he spent a cool and pleasant day. His back legs no longer supported him. Even if carefully placed, they collapsed. It was time. I persuaded Vic to come with me, though he was a little impatient. Couldn’t I go by myself? To him this was simply another visit to the vet. We’d all be home soon enough and late for dinner. But I had a feeling that we would be saying goodbye, and that the week would be ending in loss as it had begun.
And so we said our goodbyes to this most domestic of animals. Alone in the room with Barney and me, Vic wept with his hands buried in our dog’s fur.
“I never thought this day would come,” he said, a look of disbelief and loss on his face. When we carried Barney out to the car, our dachshund Millie was waiting for us. We put Barney’s body in the back of the station wagon and Millie jumped over the seat. She was back there with him for a long time and then scrambled forward to sit in my lap, tucking her head under my arm.
We buried him by the front walk where we could visit with him easily. That night candles were lit across America in remembrance of the great loss to the country, a loss we are still calculating. We lit ours and placed them on the slab of granite we had set as a headstone for Barney. There was great comfort in the light burning in the darkness, though of course it answered none of the grief felt in the country that night or in our household, but simply acknowledged it.