Unexpected encounters with grief


We’re standing in the front atrium of our high school, forty or so girls in rows of ten. We’re all in matching warm-up clothes, and there’s a boom box up front, blaring hip-hop music. We’re rehearsing for our halftime dance number.

Suddenly our coach comes hurrying down the hall. She pulls the team captain aside and speaks quietly into the girl’s ear. The girl crumples. Without a word of explanation, she walks away, supported by the arms of our coach. Practice pauses while the other team leaders figure out what to do.

Later we learn that the captain’s father has been in poor health for a long time. She’s only a few months away from graduation, but they don’t think he’ll make it. Eighteen years old and facing life without her dad.


September 11th starts as television broadcasts from a faraway city. Then it becomes rumors whispered in the hallway between classes. Buildings falling, dust clouds flooding the streets, a plane crashing into a field.

I’m in third period calculus when a front office aide interrupts the lecture and hands a note to our teacher. He reads it, then asks the pretty blonde girl two rows in front of me to gather her things and go with the aide. Terror and tears gather in her eyes as she leaves the room.

Later we learn that her brother worked in the Twin Towers. That’s all we ever hear.


It’s the summer after my freshman year of college, and I’m getting ready to go to my parents’ office. The bathroom radio plays Top 40 hits while I brush my teeth, wash my face, and get dressed. Through the closed door, the phone rings, but I know my dad will get it.

He knocks a few minutes later. I open the door and find him braced against the frame, his head buried into the crook of his arm. My brows furrow, but even then I’m not alarmed. Just confused.

Later, at my uncle’s funeral, I will think about that moment over and over. I will hear my dad’s voice, calm but thick, as he tells me that his brother is dead. I will think about how we are never really ready for something like that. Never expecting to lose someone that we love.

But I will also remember the strength that my dad showed in the moments after. He grieved, but he did not let grief shut him down. He cried, but he did not drown. He was changed, but not diminished.

I don’t know if I can be that strong that quickly. But I’m glad to have a model for it in my life.

The other side of Sept 11

I don’t typically blog on/about Sept 11. Last year was an exception, and my thoughts weren’t only about the anniversary, but they happened to coincide nicely.

Speaking of coincidences…

The other day, my mom suggested that I watch this documentary called The Cats of Mirikitani. Today, of all days, I finally watched it. It’s about an elderly, homeless Japanese-American whom the filmmaker sees every day in her neighborhood and begins to worry about. But he’s content to live and sleep on the streets of Soho, so long as he’s making his art. And that’s the part that I think my mother wanted me to see. That tunnel-vision passion. That ability to subsist on one’s dream and little else.

And I did see that, and appreciate it, and admire it.

But I also saw the part where the Twin Towers bled flame, and smoke swallowed the sky, and dust and ash flooded through the city like rivers overflowing their banks. Caught unaware, I started to cry. I didn’t know this would be part of the story. But really, how could it not be? Is there any American life that isn’t touched by that day? By those terrifying images?

(How weird is it that the post-Sept 11 babies are almost teenagers now? That they have no memories of what happened, besides the ones passed down to them? That eventually there will be babies for whom Sept 11 means practically nothing? Just another date on the calendar. Another tick on a timeline for history class. Another melodramatic story that their grandparents tell. Time marches on…)

As New York City becomes a ghost town of sorrow, danger, and uncertainty, the filmmaker invites Mirikitani into her home. She learns more about his past, and as a result, the documentary begins to juxtapose his experiences in the Tule Lake internment camp (after the Pearl Harbor attacks) with the racially charged aftermath of Sept 11. The verbal slurs. The physical attacks. The vandalism, arson, assault, shootings, and harrassment. The way neighbors suddenly looked like strangers. The way friends suddenly acted like foes.

It was a stark reminder that not everything — or perhaps everyone — in America came out better and brighter. That not everything that rose from the ashes of the World Trade Center was triumphant. That for all the incredible, inspiring bravery and beauty of human spirit that we saw, there was some ugliness too. That when we say “never forget,” we have to remember everything, and learn from our own dark side as much as from our enemy’s.

I know that might not be a popular sentiment, but I thought it was too important not to say.

Before and After and scars

I just want to say a few things today. Connect the dots as you will.

Everyone has scars.

Some are bigger than others.
Some are so big they split our lives into parts.
Before and After.

Some scars fade with time.
A month, a year, a decade.
Some stay fresh forever.

Scars are a symbol of pain.
Scars are a symbol of healing.
We have an amazing capacity for both.

Scars are stories.
Stories are how we learn, grow, and connect.
Everyone has stories.

Everyone has scars.