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Weekly Wrap: Our Shared Trauma

by Susan Henderson on September 15, 2006

My kids have been back in school for one week, and already I got a call from the school nurse. Green-Hand Henderson was in the nurse’s office complaining of a “tingly tongue.”

“I checked for swelling and didn’t find any,” she said. “Green-Hand was worried he’d had an allergic reaction.”

“To what?”

“Oh, he was eating ants on the playground today to impress the girls.”

“Put Green-Hand on the phone, please.”

I told my son to get a drink of water and go back to class. “You’re not allowed to eat ants at school.”

I have to say, I’m not exactly shocked when I get these calls. My boys, afterall, spent the weekend inventing a new game called Spiffle (think Magic Cards), featuring “Samurai grandmas from Uranus.”

I asked the nurse, “Is this something you’ve had to do before – you know, call about ants?”

“Never.”

Sigh. I guess only my mom understands what it’s like to get a phone call like this.

*

This is all relevant to my feelings about 9-11, believe it or not. I was going to tell my story of where I was and how that day and the months afterward played out in our family, but I realized I’m tired of reliving it. That’s not where I am anymore.

The short of my story, the part of it that I can’t disconnect myself from is that I was the messenger. There was a little girl in Green-Hand’s class of 10 students who lost her father, and that little girl stayed with us as her mother slowly learned of and came to accept her husband’s fate.

The problem was that several weeks went by before she was ready to believe her husband wasn’t coming home, and by that time, she didn’t know what to tell her daughter. So she asked me, and one October morning, I told the little girl that her father died and what death meant – how he couldn’t come home again and eat dinner or tuck her into bed.

This is a picture of that little girl, my boys, and a neighbor of ours on September 12, 2001. They’re in the boys’ clubhouse, happy as can be because they don’t know a thing. The weather is beautiful and there are no planes in the sky, which is unheard of when you live near JFK and La Guardia.

I stopped writing for over a year. I lost my sense of humor. I lost my sense of fearlessness. And mostly, I worried that the kinds of things I was writing about – relationships, silly things kids say, quiet disappointments – were too trivial.

Instead, every month, I met with the moms from Green-Hand’s class for Mexican food and girlie drinks. Slowly, we learned to laugh again. It was the year Green-Hand got pecked by a rooster on the class fieldtrip to the petting farm. It was the year we sat around that table, tipsy, dreaming of moving farther from the city. And within two years, that’s what we did – every one of us.

Sometime after that first anniversary of 9-11, I was thinking about the little girl’s father, my friend, who had died up there in Windows on the World. I missed his smile and how he sat on my floor outside the kitchen putting some little plastic train track together. I missed our barbecues and talking to him about the funny stories our kids brought home from school. He would have liked the rooster story.

And I thought: sometimes it’s the little details that create meaning in our world. There are writers who look at humanity from a long lens and show us sweeping themes about our behavior and our culture and our history. But there are also writers who focus in close – who wake up the senses to the smallest details and moments. There is tremendous value in both of these ways of telling stories. And I needed to realize this before I could write again.

*

Thank you to all who answered the Question of the Week: Carolyn, who spoke of the plunge taken by the travel industry and yet the heart of the traveler still seeks adventure; Lance, who spoke about the state of vigilance we’ve entered into as a result of the attacks; Peter, who asks what inspires us to make weapons of mass destruction; Gail, who uses this catastrophe to better understand the divisions and oppressions of others, and who tries to remember that our nation is also guilty of inflicting this kind of horror; Kasper, who wants to make sense of 9-11’s aftermath and how we can make progress toward world peace; Pia, who found that 9-11 exposed unspoken troubles in relationships, and who is now a part of rebuilding New Orleans’ spirit after Katrina; Patry, who uses this new sense of impermanence to give away more, plan less, and love with more abandon; girlgrey, who sees this anniversary through the eyes of her sixth grade students and the lies they believe; Mikel K, whose poem reminds us that it’s always the regular folk who get screwed in these wars; and Joe, who experienced such personal loss that day that he doesn’t have enough distance for insight or geo-political musings. Thank you for your stories.

*

Tomorrow, stop by for a conversation between BookSlut reviewer, Angela Stubbs and author/editor Gina Frangello. Have a good weekend!

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

rdl September 15, 2006 at 12:13 pm

Great Post!!

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Robin Slick September 15, 2006 at 12:37 pm

I love Green Hand, I really do.

Stocking gift at Christmas this year has got to be a box of chocolate covered insects. In fact, I may send them to him myself.

In other news…

Susan, I read the remarks to your September 11 post and decided to stay out of it because I do have such strong feelings about what happened and since they involve government conspiracies, etc. because I am so anti-Bush administration and would put nothing past them, I felt it would be an improper/arrogant move on my part in light of your grief and loss as well as that of your readers. I didn’t know you in 2001 and had no idea of your own personal history associated with that tragic event and I wept when I read about the loss of your friend and how you stepped up to the plate for their family.

That being said, I did want to shift gears and comment specially about two of your readers, and I hope links work here but if not, you guys know what to do:
One is Mikel K, whose poem blew me away and I therefore naturally visited his site and was further blown away so Mikel, you have a new fan; and two…

Joe, who has a blog post titled “Probe Me Deadly, My Love”, which really made me smile today…again, you’ve got a new fan as well, Joe.

This site is fantastic, Sue. What a treat to be turned on to all of these new (to me) and fascinating artists.

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Ric Marion September 15, 2006 at 1:23 pm

How wonderfully touching, poignant and personal.

I would be interested to hear how you worked through the not-writing stage in more detail. Care to elaborate?

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Kasper September 15, 2006 at 1:38 pm

Susan Henderson, how is it that you are so full of good that it overflows constantly into the world? There are times when you remind me slightly of a female Fred Rogers, one of my all-time heroes.

Thank you for your moving and well-written tale and the accompanying photos.

I’m glad you liked the iris painting, by the way.

Kasper

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PD Smith September 15, 2006 at 1:39 pm

Yes, I agree with the previous comments – that was very moving, Susan. And you’re absolutely right in saying there are (at least) two ways of approaching tragedies like 9/11: tracing the big, global themes, and zooming in on those telling, human moments that are often so revealing. Sometimes it’s more effective to write about a subject like this without even mentioning it. As Kafka shows so wonderfully in his writing, the real subject often lies beyond the words…

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Elizabeth Crane September 15, 2006 at 2:23 pm

Once again I have to echo what everyone else has already said, this was very moving, and I’m glad you’re writing again and providing this wonderful forum for us all to connect.

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Lance Reynald September 15, 2006 at 2:30 pm

beautiful.

and I hate to be the one to break it to you, but;

Susan-
that post put a smile on my face. Not that anything about it was the least bit funny, but, your words and depth of sharing= fearlessness.

so, from here on out I’m just not buying that you lost that. Maybe it took a holiday but it’s back now.

love, respect and endless kudos!!

xo-L.

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Kasper September 15, 2006 at 4:52 pm

Having commented on how your post made me feel, Susan, I wish to exit this week of post 9/11 discussion with a meditation on the possibility of peace, from the Buffalo Report:

http://buffaloreport.com/2006/060914.christian.retaliation.html

–Kasper

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mikel k September 15, 2006 at 6:03 pm

your writing today is beautiful…
it somehow reminds me of this poem,
because you remind me how lucky
i am to be alive and that my children
are alive…

to show me the stars
by mikel k

there is nothing to calm
the fear of the day
full of creditors
who can t be satisfied
dunning letters that can t
be replied to

except for…

a walk in the dark
to the store for ice cream
with a dog happy to see me
and a daughter who brings
a flashlight
to show me the stars.

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Aurelio September 15, 2006 at 8:47 pm

“And I thought: sometimes it’s the little details that create meaning in our world.”

And I thought: Sometimes there are people like you, Susan, who bring special meaning to the details.

Thank you for making me smile so often.

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Carolyn Burns Bass September 16, 2006 at 1:30 am

I thought about refreshing my spaces today, pulling down the 9/11 memorial graphics, but I couldn’t do it just yet. After five years of stillness, surely it deserves a full week of shouting.

* * *

BTW, did Green Hand ever say whether the girls were impressed?

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Susan Henderson September 16, 2006 at 11:32 am

You all are good people. Thank you for the big-hearted comments. I’m on my way into the city this morning to meet my funniest friend, writer John Leary, who’s visiting from Shanghai. I’ll respond to each of you when I’m back. xo

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Susan Henderson September 17, 2006 at 5:32 pm

rdl – Thank you.

Robin – Don’t ever worry about what you post here, and feel feel to track mud on the carpet while you’re at it. My feelings about 9-11 are so complicated and layered – the love, the priorities falling into place, the rage, the rage at our government, the shutting down, all of it. If you have something to say, it’s important and welcome here.

I’m glad you checked out Mikel K and Joe. And I’m right with you about Green-Hand.

Ric – That’s a good question. I think part of dropping out of writing had to do with feeling depressed and hopeless. I tend to avoid grieving by trying to play rescuer and caregiver, and then at some point, I’ll get whammied by my own emotions. So part of it was just needing time to move through that depression and also the sense that my writing was too trivial or personal for such monumental times. I ended up auditing a writing class where Mr. Henderson’s a professor just to see if I still had it in me. And it helped to have topic assignments and deadlines. What I found was that I was still alive in there, and the writing came out more ferocious than ever.

Peter – I’m a huge fan of Kafka and appreciate you bringing him into the discussion.

Elizabeth – I need to drop you a note.

Lance – Mutual about the smile.

Kasper – Well-chosen article. And thank you for the irises!

Mikel K – Thank you for bringing everything into perspective.

Aurelio – I like you.

Carolyn – The girls were grossed out, which, for Green-Hand, means they were impressed.

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RAJ September 11, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Thanks for this Sue it’s a wonderful commentary. It seems that we (adults) all somehow lost our innocence that day…

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Susan Henderson September 12, 2010 at 2:35 pm

You’re right about that. Hey, I’ll see you at the Brooklyn reading in a couple of weeks. Looking forward to it!

Reply

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