Already Among the Dead

I walk among the dead. This began when my wife died in April 2001. So when the planes slam into the World Trade Center, my heart doesn’t move. The towers collapse, sending clouds of dust billowing into the sky, people stumble into the streets stunned, and I feel nothing. Why should I cry? Why should I grieve faces and names I don’t know? My heart’s silence tells me that I already wander among the dead.

They would not have cared about Evelyn’s death if they had known. There are too many deaths in the world to care about each one. Yet I understand the emotions of losing a loved one, and the feeling that there is nothing left that can be destroyed—no dreams, hopes, or emotions. Before those planes hit, my life had already collapsed into itself, my home destroyed, the person I loved the most gone.

That thousands died is a meaningless number because I scarcely comprehend the enormity of even one death, one sorrow. Dylan Thomas was right about this. In the larger scope, 9/11 is just one more terrorist act in a world where masses of innocent people die every day because of the hatred of others, and I haven’t paid much attention to them. In the swirling of cosmic dust we began and end, but these people, who had no inkling that this day would be their last, have returned to creation’s dust before their time, as did my sweet Ev. Yet who am I to say that their deaths were early?

Francesco calls to check in on me, as he periodically does. I tell him that the sameness of my days in the sameness of the world had been helping me recover, but this new tragedy has taken away the world as a neutral place in which to heal. The rest of the day, in the silence of my house, I watch the lives of other people flicker out. When I finally turn the television off late at night, the silence deepens around me.

Evelyn would have been devastated by the attacks, but her anger and insights would have pulled me out of my numbness. We would have held each other in the shocked stillness of the air, and her compassion would have opened up mine.

Madness will now descend on people, and fevered shadows will undo the mind’s reason. More people will die to appease each nation’s vengeance, anger, and pride. This will undo our blood’s lust, but our undoing will heat another’s up, and there will be more bloodshed, destruction, and death.

My sister Linda calls, concerned about my reaction to the attacks, “Are you doing okay? Is this bringing too much of Evelyn’s death back?”

“In a bizarre way, I haven’t felt much at all,” I said. “I’m still emotionally disconnected from the world, from everything, actually. I don’t even react to the puppy next door anymore when it sounds like it’s being hurt.”

“Well, the photos being shown over and over are making me depressed. How are we ever going to get back to normal?”

“Natsume Soseki wrote a poem that is encouraging,” I say, “about being born only to die.”

“That’s lovely,” Linda says, wondering where I’m going with this, and if the attacks have pushed me over the edge.

“Even though the poem says that the end of all our efforts in life is death, we still feel attached to this world because there is something good and warm and noble about it, even when grief uproots the landscape. That is my hope. Until this feeling returns, I try to be present to the day. Like early this morning, I was caught up in the beauty of the white orchid with red and yellow stripes on my breakfast table, amazed that I’ve been able to keep it, and myself, alive.”

A day later, my heart opens and I feel the enormity of John Donne’s words, that every person’s death diminishes me, and now thousands more are gone.

Evelyn’s love drifts over the graveyard in my heart.

 

Mark Liebenow

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Mark Liebenow grew up in Wisconsin. When he moved to California, he often went to Yosemite and discovered the transcendence of Nature that John Muir wrote about. It was during this time that his wife Evelyn died suddenly of an unknown heart problem when she was in her forties. Liebenow now lives in Illinois where he helps friends preserve heirloom seeds on their organic farm. He writes about grief, nature, and the theology of fools. Liebenow is the author of four books, the most recent being Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite, about going into nature to deal with grief. It was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2012. His essays, poems, and literary criticism have been published in journals like The Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Disquieting Muses Quarterly, Clackamas Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Rain Taxi Review. His poems have been set to music by composers Stephen Heinemann, “Mirage,” an eight-minute work for chorus and soprano saxophone; John Orfe, “God of the Night,” a choral piece commissioned by the Choral Arts Ensemble of Rochester, Minnesota; Robert Levy, “Maybe Sadness,” a jazz song that has been recorded. He has won the Chautauqua Nonfiction Prize, the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize, the Literal Latte Essay Prize, the Sipple Poetry Award, received honorable mentions for the Editor’s Prize at The Spoon River Poetry Review and the Academy of American Poets Prize. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, an Illinois Arts Council Award, and named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2012. Liebenow studied creative writing in the graduate school at Bradley University and English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He holds M.Div. and M.A. degrees., and speaks before groups and gives workshops on a variety of topics.

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