I look at my house now. It balances on criss-crossed wood. A stack of plus signs: more plus more, higher and higher. Greater than the sum of its parts, in our hearts. There is further to go, higher to climb. We will not stop until we are several feet above base flood elevation.
Our house is like us—standing on a precarious pile of sticks, waiting for something solid to form underneath our feet. Our house looks like everyone and everything, exposed. Beneath all that seems solid is this delicately criss-crossed structure of dependences. We are up today. What happens tomorrow? Will we find ourselves higher, stronger? Or will a piece be pulled from the stack? Will a storm hit before we are up and strong? Will cancer come? A fire flare? A plane hit?
The scaffolding along our bodies and our buildings may not always hold us. The structure within is not always enough. This week has reminded me. A beautiful man, friend, father, and teacher is reaching the end of his treatment options. A fire takes all of Seaside Park. And 9/11 comes back again.
Almost twelve years ago, on 9/18, we walked along West Side Highway toward Ground Zero, desperate to help. We had heard they were looking for lay people, volunteers to serve food and distribute water bottles. They weren’t.
We weaved through side streets, past 20-foot flags draped over silent brick fire houses and MISSING posters for a young man, younger than me now, with my last name. Before being turned away again, we got close enough to glimpse the jagged shadows of the split steel, stories high, gray smoke rising. I was shocked by the sheer mass of the remains, but also the clear structure of it. The lower lines had held; it was not only twisted steel. I recognized the design. I’d stood below it in awe in my youth, trying to make my eyes understand. Attempting to estimate the scale of the grandeur from ground level was dizzying, and those lower lines and narrow arabesque arches hardly hinted at what rose beyond. Now, these sawed-off burning black edges could not reveal enough to show the world the enormity of what we had lost.
The image of the towers had risen tall at the end of my grandmother’s Brooklyn street since I was born. They continued to grow, as I did, until I was 19 months old, and then they became a fixture in my sky. Driving to class in college, I would pass them every day from a distance. Most mornings I would not think to look. But they were visible even on overcast days, depending on the type of cloud and the distribution of moisture in the air. I could spot a rainstorm, a snowstorm over the city, with the Towers punching up into the billowing gray. I couldn’t watch, because I was driving, but I could glimpse, and when I did, the towers stamped my mind: This is your life. You are part of this. This is your birth, your home. This is what people can do.
The Twin Towers icon stands for all of life now, wordlessly, as it must: it is us, rising together, holding everyone safe. Despite all our elaborate designs, we remain the only true structure: the first responders, the family, the friends, the rememberers. The buildings were gone and still we stood side by side, side by side, side by side, stretched across a city and beyond.
And so it was through Sandy, and so it will be in Seaside. Our loved ones still hold us up as we mourn for our Seaside sister. Here in Long Beach we measure our return in blocks of boardwalk and reopened shops, a long row of plus signs in the sand—and theirs have all been taken away. The aerial view shows nothing but eraser ash on the paper.
But the close-ups show people. No one stands alone. Father and son, husband and wife, long-time business partners, standing side by side. Despite their dread, they state boldly that they are ready to rebuild. The slow criss-cross of climbing begins here, with hope.