Life goes on. That is what we say, because if we are alive to say it, then it is true.
I didn't believe that in 1996. That life went on. There were a few times that year when I sincerely wanted for mine to do nothing of the sort. I had been out of school for almost a year and was slowly learning that everything my parents had told me about making a living was true. I was living in Austin, I had a comedy troupe, a lousy part-time job at a bookstore and I was writing like a fiend. Those were the good things.
As for the bad, 1996 was the year that I said goodbye to my first fiancée. Our lives were going in different directions, and we decided that we'd be better off apart. She gave me back my ring. I gave her back the shirt she kept leaving at my house. She washed her toilet with the one I left at hers. In all, It was a pretty standard break-up. Except for the fact that it was mine. I was strong for about a day, then collapsed in front of the couch and remained motionless, awake, for more than six hours. I felt dead. The feeling did not fade for weeks.
Later that same year, my father died. He was not even 50, and we'd never gotten the chance to reconcile our differences. In his hospital room, where he sat smoking a cigarette and waiting to die, I tried to tell him goodbye. I started to apologize for ... so many things, but he stopped me. He put out his cigarette, said "I hate that goodbye sh*t," and went to the toilet. Those were his last words to me. They echoed in my brain as I and the rest of the family stood over his corpse, saying goodbye and passing around the bottle of bourbon that he'd bought himself for the occasion.
I remember 1996 as a time of both the most heart stopping joy and the most exhilarating despair. For every crushingly agonizing memory, I have another that pulls the breath out of my body with painful satisfaction.
Then there's the memory that evokes both simultaneously. It is of a road trip. The road trip. I and five friends set out from Austin in March of 1996 on what we called our White Trash Tour of the South. We had planned to hit five states in seven days with a visit to Graceland (the white trash Mecca) as our grand finale. We were young and dumb. We ultimately didn't make it as far as we'd planned. Not much farther, in fact, than New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi, but it was one hell of a ride.
In times of trial and hardship, I think of that trip and remember how it was, by turns, the most wonderful and the most terrible time of my life. I think of how a broken nose can instantly reverse a day-long Hurricane buzz, how seeing a girl's breasts swinging heavy and free less than two inches in front of your face is somewhat shy of pleasurable when a man named Tim is standing behind you with a shotgun and how the best gumbo in New Orleans tastes like bile when you fear that your best friend may be dead (or worse).
What I think about the most though, is the fact that life goes on. That no matter what happens, no matter how terrible it seems, the world does not stop turning. Somehow, and for some reason life goes on.
One morning in 2001, I thought that I had finally seen the day on which that would no longer be true. It was about 6am, and the weather that day would be: seventy-two degrees. Sunny, with a light, south-westerly wind. A nice day. I remember that because I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in San Francisco it is always: Seventy-two degrees. Sunny with a light, south-westerly wind. A nice day. For ten months out of the year, my girlfriend and I could literally sing along to the weather forecast on the radio. Seventy-two degrees. Sunny, with a light, south-westerly wind. A nice day. Believe me, it sounds nice, but after a year of it, you'll go insane. I promise.
This morning, about all I knew for sure was that it was going to be, as I've already said: A nice day. And that was based purely on speculation. Everything else was a mystery to me. I could not find a single news site on the Internet. They were all down for some reason. Had this been a normal day, I would have read the news and drank coffee for about half an hour, showered, eaten breakfast and driven across the bridge to do my job. This was not, however, a normal day (despite how nice it was). This was the date which, in America, has become synonymous with the words disaster, grief and betrayal. This was September, 11th, 2001. The Pearl Harbor Day of the War on Terror. Setting aside for a moment the uneven parallels of that analogy, this was (I think we can all agree) not a normal day.
Three time zones away, millions of New Yorkers had already started their days, and close to two thousand had ended their lives. All before I'd even had my first cup of coffee.
The first piece of news I was able to find that morning was a posting at Slashdot. Someone said that they thought a plane had struck the WTC, and that it might have happened on purpose. After spending a few moments attempting to quantify the sensation of my intestines shrinking inward and down, the first thing I did was switch on the television.
CNN had been so thoughtful as to provide immediate confirmation of the rumor I had just read, in the form of live video of World Trade Center One with a gaping, flaming hole in the side of it. As I stood silently staring, the second plane hit.
I called my mother in Texas, who was fine, and then I woke up my girlfriend. I believe my exact words to her were "Wake up. All hell's broken loose. Somebody's flying planes into the World Trade Center." She crawled out of bed, came to the living room and before she was even fully awake, noticed that I was clearly not alright. She then turned her attention to the television, and the light went on. As the realization dawned on her, I observed the unique spectacle of a human mind making the transition from vague, groggy irritation to complete, unbridled freak-out in less than a second.
She then did what I had done, and called her family. After we had established the safety of everyone we loved (we were lucky) we both slowly drifted towards the gravity well of CNN, where we became trapped. For almost twenty-four hours we orbited the cultural mass of a breaking news story that never seemed to end.
At one point I had to get off the couch to walk the dog. His bladder did not know that it should have been too shocked to function. My legs did, however, and they shook violently the whole way down the stairs.
It became clear in the following days and weeks that the entire world had felt the same surprise, anger and disbelief that I had experienced that morning. That we had all been woefully unprepared for such an event, and that we were all now fearful of it happening again. That day was the first day of another long, deep depression from which I'm not sure I - or any of us - have ever fully recovered. Yet for most of us, life went on. The world kept turning, the sun rose and set, and in San Francisco, that day, Tuesday, was a very "nice" day despite the fact that few of us left the house to see it.
In March of 1996 the weather was probably about as close to what one would call "nice" as it gets in Texas. Particularly in East Texas, which is where all five of my friends and I unanimously decided that it was time for our first pee.
We were all coffee addicts, and had been on the road for hours. The first likely place to unzip was a McDonald's in Vidor, Texas. Vidor was home to Texas's most nefarious chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and the place where a black man had recently been dragged to his death behind a pickup truck. Our friend Joe (who was black himself) did not object, but after our lizards had been drained, he was just as glad as the rest of us to get back on the road. By pure chance, Joe had chosen the restroom stall upon which "Die n*ggerz" had been carved with a knife. We laughed about that for hours. Joe had a pretty good sense of humor.
Back on the road, we drove through Shreveport, across the swamps of Western Louisiana, and stopped for gas at Laplace (where we marveled at the fact that one could purchase hard liquor in a gas station), before following an eighteen wheeler exclaiming "Truckin' for Jesus" all the way into the heart of New Orleans. We had foolishly assumed that we'd be able to find a hotel room without a reservation. We shelled out over a hundred bucks for the "last room in town" as a result.
To subsidize this blow to our limited supply of cash, Anthony cooked up a plan. At midnight, he put on his best suit, walked into a casino and laid all of his money down on the roulette table. Had he shared this plan with us, we probably would have gone along with it anyway, because we were young and dumb, but he didn't. All I knew was that he walked out of the room at midnight looking like Frank Sinatra and smelling like a rose. When he returned, he reeked of unfiltered cigarette smoke, whiskey and failure. We spent the remainder of the trip attempting explain to Anthony why he was no longer in charge of our finances. He never quite got it.
We had planned to spend five days in New Orleans, but were forced to settle for three. Partly for financial reasons, but mainly because Jeff was a bad drunk. On what we mutually decided was to be our last night in New Orleans, Jeff (who'd spent the day draining the better part of a bottle of Irish whiskey) leapt from a second story balcony in the French Quarter and ran screaming into the night to reappear hours later at Pat O's, where he promptly punched me in the nose, removed his pants, mooned a police officer and fled. A few hours later he resurfaced at our hotel room, which was trashed in the ensuing ass-kicking. We checked out the next day at noon.
The following night found us in Biloxi, on the pure, white beach next to a giant, pink casino. There, on the beach, under a clear sky and a waning moon, Jeff and I resolved our differences, drank a case of beer between us and passed out. The next day we started home.
I watch in anguish now as I see many of those places literally torn apart. I'll never be that age, that boy again. My life has gone on. Those memories and that time have been inevitably lost to the sands of time, but my greatest fear is that that place will be as well. I may never be able to take my children there and smile, inwardly, as I think of things that I did, and the things that I saw decades before they were born. I may never have another Hand Grenade on Bourbon Street. I may never eat another beignet at the Cafe du Monde, or marvel at the architecture around Jackson Square.
I know that I am indulging in melancholy when I think these thoughts. For life, in every way, will go on. New Orleans may be rebuilt, or it may not. Still, life will go on. I will have my memories and most importantly, I will have my life and my future ahead of me. Some do not. They are the un-lucky ones, and we are right to grieve for them. But our own lives must go on. To paraphrase Kirk, how we deal with death - and loss - is at least as important as how we deal with life. Despite the sorrow and the pain, our lives go on. Whether we spend them chained to the sofa, watching CNN and wallowing in our feelings of grief and loss; whether we spend them attempting to rebuild our homes and our lives; whether we spend them cowering in suspicion and fear of nature, government and our fellow man, or stocking our shelters and our personal armories in preparation for the next one, our lives will go on. We will be changed, we will remember, but we will yet live.