Today is September 10th. It was twelve years ago today that I last saw and spoke to my father before he died with thousands of others the following day. I remember a few details of our family dinner that night. I remember my father sitting at the head of the table as always while I sat two chairs to his left. I remember talking about play tickets I wanted to buy. I remember my mother telling a story about what happened at church that day with her friend Grace and her Yankee T-shirt.
The following day my sisters, cousins and I would sit around the same table, calling 311, hospitals and the families of my father’s colleagues. This way, we convinced ourselves we were making progress; we were doing something other than waiting. But that’s all that day really was for us as I imagine it was for the other families…a waiting game.
That very ordinary day, a day that tricked us with its gorgeous blue sky and autumn breeze, and then twisted and contorted itself into a real-life, grotesque nightmare. A nightmare in which the murderous terrorists weren’t the only villains. No, the other devil that stalked us that day, that crept up behind us while we weren’t looking was time, the steady and constant passage of time.
Every hour, every minute, and every second was another in which we had not heard, another reason for the prickling truth on the edge of our brains to pull us toward reality. We tried not to sleep for to sleep was to admit that the day was over. But soon, despite our resistance, the day turned to evening, evening to night, and night to early morning. I, along with my mother, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins succumbed to the heavy hand of time. Eyes began to close and heads began to fall. One by one we fell asleep, in chairs, on couches, and at the kitchen table.
Even though most of us slept for less than two hours, I suspect there was a time when we all slept at once and all rested together in the wee hours of the morning. And I imagine my father came to us then. I imagine he walked about the house, in and out of each room, looking into each of the faces of those he loved and those that loved him back. And as he said goodbye to each of us, his words were like a lullaby, gently soothing us, for just a moment during this time of horror.
After entering through the front door, he approached the staircase. His hand slid against the grain of the wood as he ascended the stairs. At the top he turned left and crept into the bedroom he shared with his wife. There, he had watched television, a sambuca in his hand, while she lay behind him reading a mystery novel. There, she had held him as he wept, as he had done for her. There, they had talked about their children, their grandchildren, and parents. There, they had made love. There, they were in love.
Now, she lay on their bed, curled up in pain, in a sleep forced onto her. He looked down at her face that he knew by heart and savored each feature in his mind. He walked around to his side of the bed and lay down next to her. He brushed his fingers through her hair and wrapped his arm around her. Then, as he softly stroked her cheek, he kissed her lips for the last time.
Good night, my angel, time to close your eyes
And save these questions for another day
I think I know what you’ve been asking me
I think you know what I’ve been trying to say
I promised I would never leave you and you should always know
Wherever you may go, no matter where you are
I never will be far away
Leaving his bedroom, he moved throughout the house to find his four daughters. When he did, he looked on their sleeping faces, thinking of the lessons he had tried to instill and of the many he would now never get to teach. He bent down over each of them and pressed his lips to their foreheads. When he did, a memory of each of his babies flashed in his mind: Michele’s tiny, slender body always dressed in her red plaid jumper, Katie’s blonde ringlets that often fell into her bluest eyes, Kristen’s freckled cheeks each with a coin-slot dimple, and my walnut-sized brown eyes with eyelashes that reached my brow bone. He held each kiss as long as possible, then stood up and smiling at the women he saw before him, he moved out of the room.
Good night my angel
Now it’s time to sleep
And still so many things I want to say
Remember all the songs you sang for me
When we went sailing on an emerald bay
Following those to whom he had given life, he went to those who had given it to him. He encircled his mother in his arms, as he had always done. He held her into his chest and pressed his cheek to her head, her white hair grazing his skin, and then turned to his father to whom he did the same. In his embrace, he used his arms to say thank you for the love they had so willingly shared with him. He hugged his parents tight, squeezing his gratitude into them.
And like a boat out on the ocean
I’m rocking you to sleep
The waters dark and deep
Inside this ancient heart you’ll always be a part of me
He went next to his four grandchildren. He wept as he stood above them knowing he would miss most of their lives. He remembered the moment he found out each of them was to be born. He had wept then too. Squatting down beside them, he studied their every detail. He examined Lauren’s plump pink lips, the half-moon shape of Julia’s chin, Joseph’s fleshy cheeks, and the auburn hair atop Vincent’s head.
“I love you,” he whispered to each of them, “I loved you before you were born.” As he stood up, he thought of his grandchildren that had not yet been born, nor even conceived, and he said good night to all of them.
Good night my angel now it’s time to dream
And dream how wonderful your life will be
Someday your child may cry and if you sing this lullaby
Then in your heart, there will always be a part of me
Leaving his grandchildren, he continued into each room of the house until he had seen everyone. Each sibling, niece, nephew, and best friend. And to each face, he gave one last look, shared one more touch of love, and said one more goodbye.
Some day we’ll all be gone but lullabies go on and on
They never die that’s how you and I will be
Joel, Billy. “Lullaby (Good night, My Angel).” River of Dreams. Columbia, 1998.