Yes, it has been a long ten years.
On August 29, 2001, I sat beside my wife’s bed as she looked up at her doctor, exhausted, pale and gaunt after two years of unrelenting chemotherapy, and said “No more. No more chemo.”
Quietly, the doctor said, “You know what that means.”
“Yes,” Rita answered. “How long?”
“Up to six months, probably less,” the doctor replied.
We were both silent. The doctor left us to move to his next patient.
Rita’s hospitalization at Medcenter One in Bismarck had been lengthy. We had settled into a routine. I had supper and spent every evening with her, and went home after watching the first ten minutes of the ten o’clock news. That night was no different. Except that when it came time to go, she asked me to lie down beside her in her hospital bed. I did, and we held each other close, and I asked her if she was afraid. “I’m not afraid to die,” she said. “But I am afraid of the pain. Please don’t let there be pain.”
The next day, we went home together, under care of hospice, and although she insisted she was going to stretch that six months to the limit, we began making preparations for her death. Our priest came and we talked of the funeral, of the scripture verses we would use. We talked to Chuck Suchy about the songs he would sing there. We talked to the funeral home about cremation. We called the kids, and other family members, and told them what was going on.
And then came that awful day in September.
By September 11, my employers and our friends had rallied around us. I was working mornings only, caring for Rita the rest of the time with the help of our hospice nurse, and three of Rita’s best friends were rotating morning caregiver duty while I was at work. That Tuesday morning, September 11, I was walking from my office to the conference room for a staff meeting, and as I walked by the TV in the lobby, I heard the announcer say that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We buzzed about it a minute as the staff meeting began, and then, as the meeting ended and I walked past the TV back to my office, I watched in horror as the second plane hit the Center. Then we knew the first plane had been no accident. All morning, we huddled around the TV to learn what was going on.
I left at noon to go home, and arriving there, found Rita and her caregiver doing the same. The friend left. We continued to watch. And then, at some point during the afternoon, I stood up and shut off the TV. We decided that was enough. We had enough to deal with in our own house, without fretting over something going on thousands of miles away. We decided right then that we would not watch another television report, or read a newspaper or magazine story, about what had just happened.
And from that moment on, we blacked out the events of September 11, 2001.
“We’re going to think happy thoughts, have happy conversations, and we are not going to let what goes on outside our own world distract us from that,” Rita said firmly. “No more bad news. We’re going to do what we always do in the fall.”
And from that day on, we knew little of what happened in the days and weeks following September 11. We turned on the TV only to watch our favorite shows like “West Wing” and “Jeopardy” and “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. When we opened the newspaper, we read only the good news stories, skipping anything to do with September 11 or terrorism. Rita sat in a lawn chair as I worked in the garden, as I raked the leaves, or just sat with her on the deck on those beautiful fall evenings. She supervised my canning of tomato juice. She reminded me to water her flower beds. She greeted each visitor who came, ostensibly to say goodbye, with a smile, reassuring them that she had most of six months left to live. What she didn’t do is allow any bad news to cross her threshold—or mine.
Still today, I read the newspaper, or Newsweek magazine, faster than almost everyone, because I skip every bad news story—famine in Africa, wars in Afghanistan, tornadoes in Kansas, murders in Mexico—and I know only what I see in glances at headlines. I tune out bad news on television and radio. I can live without bad news. I cannot live without happy news. I guess my exception is politics, but for the most part, politics is not violent. So far.
And so, on this tenth anniversary, the events of September 11, 2001, have little meaning to me, little impact on my heart or my mind. September 2001 was the saddest month of my life, but not because of some terrorist attacks on our country. I watched Rita weaken, and made sure she had the pain medicine I had promised, and on September 29, with her brothers and sisters and children and mother and I at her side, she closed her eyes and took her last breath. During that month of September 2001, all of us had focused on her, on her comfort, on making those radiant eyes of hers glow with hints of happiness even in her, and our, darkest hours, on making the best of every moment she was with us. For those of us in that close little circle, it was as if the events of September 11 never happened.
I am letting this tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, pass mostly unnoticed as well. I am not watching television shows about it, or reading newspaper accounts or magazine stories. I am not attending ceremonies commemorating it. I am working in my garden, canning my tomatoes, walking with the dog, playing golf, and, hopefully, going fishing, this month. Those things I do EVERY September. Instead of terrorists and plane crashes and the terrible smoke and dust, I am thinking about Rita this month, and fortunately, I have a spouse now who both understands and encourages that. But I will not allow myself to be sad. I will think happy thoughts, read happy news, remember the good days, and my personal tenth anniversary, September 29, will pass.
Yes, my world, our world, changed forever in September of 2001. We cannot go back. But we must go forward. And we must do what we ALWAYS do in September. We’ll do it a little differently, but if we try, we can do it happily.