A few weeks ago, I saw the 9/11 Memorial for the first time. When I peered over the edge of the South Pool, I was aghast. It is a huge, dark gap in the earth, with water flowing down all the walls into a drain-like hole in the center that seemingly had no bottom. Encircling the memorial are the names of those killed in the attacks, engraved in bronze. A short distance away is the North Pool, which has the same design. I stared at the water in the abyss and felt like I was gazing into an enormous sink-tomb of hopelessness. I didn’t like it at all.
But later, I found myself thinking of the memorial again and again. It was unforgettable. It had somehow deeply resonated with me. I realized then that perhaps this memorial was not designed to be liked—but rather, to be honest.
There are things in life that we cannot bring ourselves to like, no matter how much time passes. There are losses that amputate dreams we’ve cherished. There are losses that leave us feeling hollow of hope. There are losses that feel bottomless, because we know there is no possible way to fill the void, that there can never be a replacement for what was lost. There are losses that don’t have a silver lining—bronze, perhaps, at best. There are losses that we can never forget.
The 9/11 Memorial pools show what loss feels like in the heart: a big, black hole where it rains inside all the time. Like any other rain shower, this rain that follows a great loss falls no matter how much we wish it to let up. But unlike a real rain shower, this rain goes on at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes it pounds in angry torrents, sometimes it weeps in sympathy, and sometimes our attention is diverted elsewhere so we don’t notice it as much, but it is reliably and relentlessly falling in the bottomless hole. Eventually, we may learn to be soothed by knowing that it is there, faithfully falling. Meanwhile, we try to live with it.
Mary Oliver, whose birthday was yesterday, wrote in a poem: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
It’s impossible for me to like what happened 16 years ago today. But I can appreciate the memorial now. The wound to our country was deep and real, and the loss was just as deep and real. The memorial tells the truth.
(Out of respect, I didn’t photograph the site. You can view an animated aerial shot here.)