by Karen Spears Zacharias
On Monday, Sept. 10, 2001, my daughters and I sat beneath a banyan tree at Punchbowl National Cemetery in Hawaii and watched an aged vet buried. Gray-haired men with bent backs lifted the flag off the casket.
My daughters, raised in Oregon, and far from military installations, had never seen a military funeral. For me, the daughter of a soldier killed in action, that folded flag was entirely too familiar.
Tuesday we woke early to catch the sunrise over Diamond Head. We were due to fly out that morning. As the girls posed for photos, clusters of people gathered on the jetty.
A big-boned woman sat on the rocks, elbows resting on her knees. We stood near her, unaware that death clouds had exploded over New York City, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
“Have you heard?” the lady asked. She had a Brooklyn accent.
“Heard what?” I asked.
“Somebody bombed the World Trade Center.”
I didn’t flinch. I was a reporter and used to headline news. Besides, the World Trade Center had been bombed before.
“Do they know who did it?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “But they bombed the Pentagon, too.”
I sucked air, as if she’d socked me in the gut. Every Army brat knows the Pentagon is Holy Ground.
“All planes have been grounded, nationwide. There are no flights in or out,” she told me.
Looking up, I noticed the lavender sky was as still as a dead father laid out for the viewing.
Thirteen years hence, it feels like I’ve been sitting in Oregon’s Umatilla River while spring runoff cuts a sharp course for the Columbia. I’ve been immersed in a cold river of sorrow.
There’s the young war widow in North Carolina who spends sleepless nights peeking out from behind blinds, listening for intruders who never come. There was the Vietnam veteran in Tennessee who, even on his deathbed, railed against demons who’d resurfaced in the infrared midnight of new wars. There’s the Oregon mother at the end of the dirt drive, remembering when the UPS driver carried her mischievous son home after the tyke took off down the blacktop. The last time her boy came home it was in a flag-draped coffin.
Lillian learned of her daughter’s death by watching the Today Show. “I knew when they showed where the plane hit that it was Marjorie’s office,” Lillian says. The 87-year-old lives alone back beyond the pecan grove; alone except for the memories of the daughter she grieves more with each passing day.
And there are the not-yet-etched names of the dead and maimed servicemen and women who turned their faces bravely toward the fight, because for them, honor and love is about sacrifice.
You’d think such weeping would rust an old soul, roughen a heart and make it coarse. But it hasn’t. Instead it has freed me to live life more fully, aware that if such things as 9/11 and countries at war in the name of a God abused aren’t worth crying over, somebody, pray tell me, what is?
Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of the memoir After the Flag Has Been Folded (William Morrow), among other books.