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Prologue: Pilgrim's progress

The first thing I did was call my wife. She was crying on her other line, where she was connected to our daughter, a BC sophomore who was crying in her room in Walsh Hall. My desk chair sits 300 yards from Walsh Hall, but when it comes to comforting, I know my place. I hung up. A half hour later, I called my 300-yards-away daughter. She sounded sad, but told me she'd stopped crying. I told her to come up to my office. I did not say who needed the company more. My daughter came up. I had brought our aging, anxious dog to the office that morning. My red-eyed daughter and the aging, anxious dog are sisters. They embraced immediately. Then my daughter sat in an armchair and stroked the dog and watched me work. I was not really working. I was reading news Web sites. I was also waiting for a call from our son in New York City. He does not live or work anywhere near the World Trade Center. He had no reason to be there on a Tuesday morning. But I had already come up with half a dozen. At noon, I took my daughter to a prayer service on the O'Neill Plaza. The bells of Gasson tolled 12 awful tones. The chaplain spoke. Fr. Leahy spoke. A small choir sang. The head of buildings and grounds, who was standing near me, stroked his cheek with his fist. I held my daughter and gazed at thousands of students who had filled the plaza with less than an hour's notice. BC students always look young to me, but today they looked so young. Some stood with arms around each other. Some stared at the ground like they'd been scolded. Some hid their faces with their hands. Afterward I walked my daughter to class. I walked right through the door of the classroom, checked the place out, embraced her, and left. I heard from my son later that day. He wanted to talk. "I tried calling Mom," he said, "but she started crying."

I went to to a memorial service a few nights later at a local temple. A punchline to an old joke says that every Jew needs three synagogues: the one he attends, the one he doesn't attend, and the one he wouldn't attend if it was the last synagogue in town. This was the one I don't attend, but it's close to my house and the service was jointly sponsored by the local Catholic parish, a circumstance that appealed to me. After brief talks by the priest and rabbi and a psalm sung by the cantor, the rabbi brought a remote microphone down into the assembly. Many people took the opportunity to express their feelings. Some broke down in the middle of sentences, a few grandstanded; some older men talked about their world war and what we could now expect from ours. A tall, young red-haired man told us that he had been hired to make a presentation at a financial services conference at Windows on the World on September 11. For family reasons he canceled a week earlier. The meeting organizer asked him to recommend a substitute speaker. "I sent a good friend to his death," he said and handed the microphone on. Later there were prayers. But I came home uncomforted. Maybe this is why I don't favor this particular synagogue.

A week later I drove down to the Cape with my wife and youngest son and the aging, anxious dog. We are a family that avoids the Cape in summer, but each fall by tradition we drive down on a weekday--a fresh sabbath stolen from work and school--and walk on empty beaches and eat fish and chips, and poke in shops that smell of candlescent. We used to do this with three children; now with one.

We always finish up with a walk on one of the Cape's outer beaches, where the land faces eternity and has the look of land that always has. Usually we have our pick of beaches and parking spaces. But not this year. The first parking lot was full; the second, nearly so. Down on the beach, a stunning sight: sweatshirted families gathered on blankets, couples on the sand in each other's arms, dogs running ahead of their mistresses, teenage boys in black rubber suits leaning on surfboards, and old men in folding chairs holding hats against the ceaseless wind.

We walked about a hundred yards and sat down. There, among my countrymen and women; beside my wife and youngest child; beneath an ardent sun; my head resting on the throbbing earth; there I fell into a deep and sweet sleep.

Ben Birnbaum

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