There comes to all of us a night when we do not sleep. We lie awake looking at the ceiling and feel ourselves aging. Maybe we found a gray hair that day, or maybe someone younger reminded us of ourselves. But on that night we lie there stunned in the revelation that our bodies are not ourselves. The young and strong frame, the tight skin, the beautiful face, they are someone else. A faithless lover who one day will betray us. Guaranteed.
Doesn’t that thought make you sad for people? For everybody? Sad just because we all—those of us who don’t die tragically young—have to endure this cruel betrayal of eyes and legs and fingers and hearing and memory. It makes us all family, or it should.
Another part of life where we are in danger of an easy brother- and sisterhood involves babies. As long as it doesn’t cry, traveling with your baby in public will bathe you in a soft glow of universal affection. Everybody loves a baby, when it’s quiet, and I find that I perhaps instinctively try to make eye contact with babies, as if their acknowledgment bestows an affirmation on my existence. That affirmation became permanent when my wife and I became the parents of our own baby. She was beautiful and utterly helpless, yet powerful enough to pull the fabric of all space and time snugly around herself like a small blanket.
It is commonly said that as the idea set in on September 11th that the country was under attack, we all thought of our families. It is certainly true of my wife and me. A couple phone calls and I learned that Karen had left work to pick up our daughter at daycare and take her home. On that day she was exactly thirteen weeks old. News had already become more real and heavy for me since her birth, reminding me of Saul Bellow’s remark that he could not get through the newspaper without crying. On September 11th the world having gone mad, I entered a state of fear for my child that persists to this day. On September 12th, though no one mentions it, it was common to hear people acknowledge the meaningless ways they spent their days, in functionary jobs serving an acquisitive machine. People wanted to come together, drive to New York to help the survivors. They talked of wanting to start their own craft shops, read, stay home. All this was erased by a declaration of war. War on “terror,” war on Afghanistan. Indefinite war. Driving home from work one day I had something like a vision and thought I heard an NPR host provide the headline: “B2 bombers struck Ann Arbor today.” I could imagine plumes rising from the tranquil maple copses along the Huron River.
Months later, it was becoming clear that we would be invading Iraq. I argued in uneasy good humor with co-workers about the glaring absence of weapons of mass destruction, about the nonexistence of a link between Baghdad and al Qaeda, to no avail. At last a conversation became heated and I lost the friendship of a wonderful fellow. As the time approached when President Bush would order the illegal invasion of Iraq to begin, I had begun to imagine a child the age of my daughter. I called her Layla. Like my daughter she was beautiful. Like my daughter she cried at night with teething pain, her tears like crystal lenses magnifying her brown eyes. I confronted my co-worker with the prospect of Layla’s death as a result of a U.S. bombing strike. He became angry, and we did not speak again for months.
As the day of the attack drew near, I would find Layla appearing in my thoughts unbidden. Like my daughter, she was willful. She was her own person, and I pictured her standing with her mother outside their house laughing, “Bird! Bird!” Driving home from work only days before the attack, I actually found myself crying for Layla. I chided myself for such emotional self-indulgence. When I walked in the house I picked up my daughter and we played with blocks on the floor.
The night the bombs began to rain on residential neighborhoods of Baghdad (though the government and their press assured us that all strikes were “surgical” and aimed at military targets), I would not allow myself to think of Layla, my imaginary creation, my folly. But I knew that she had died that first night, burning in her pajamas until the ceiling fell on her where she lay in her crib.
After that I did not think of Layla. She was simply gone. On the third night of bombing, a news analyst floated somewhere above the stock exchange floor wearing a great smile, effusing over the market’s gains as a result of the bombing. She was followed by a series of ordinary folks, of all ages, standing before a giant flag and informing us, “I am an American.”
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