Could Have

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .

So you’re here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.

——poem (above) by Wislawa Szymborska

When the first plane hit the Twin Towers on September 11, my students who would join me after my prep first period, happened to be watching a news summary in social studies. Their teacher, at first not understanding what he was seeing, continued airing the spectacle. Then the second plane hit and Kevin, a new student to our school, jumped up and said, “My dad works in the Towers.” This proximity to the event would play out numerous times in our community, and on that day, in our school.

When the students came to me, stunned, silent, they asked me what we were going to do. By now the front office had informed all the teachers, but no one really knew what was going on.

On our nearby beach that glorious Fall morning, Steven’s dad had taken his son surfing. Celebrating his newly-retired status, he’d decided that school could take a back seat to time spent with his son doing what they both love. When the planes hit, the guys were sitting in the water. Can’t you see them there, looking over their shoulders, hopeful, awaiting the best one of the set?

From shore they could see the smoke. They were not alone as the ocean emptied and surfers stood watching the horizon, but Steven and his dad were together.

Steven’s dad had retired one week earlier from Cantor-Fitzgerald, an investment firm that lost 658 people in the attack that changed our world.

That moment? His heart still pounds inside me.

7 thoughts on “Timing”

  1. Oh wow, a new perspective on such a world changing event. Thank you. Your poem deftly captures all those almost but not quite moments, when something terrible is escaped, often unknowingly. How awful for that little boy in class.

    1. I need to reformat the blog to make authorship clear. The poem is by Wislawa Szymborska, a Polish Nobel Prize winner. I wish I could write like she does!

  2. There are so many memories from that day and the subsequent years. It’s history now, but visiting the Memorial site, visceral and still right-now for me. Thanks for reading.

  3. You brought back such vivid memories of that day. My 6th graders were in chorus and I went into the office to get something. The TV was on (which it never was) and what I saw did not register until much later.
    You have written this in such a powerful way, the ending took my breath away. (I reread the poem after reading your piece, and I got so much more out of it the second time around.)

    1. Thanks for reading. That poem always transports me back to that day and into a world of stories. The year after, on the anniversary when one of my students had gone to the memorial service in NYC for her uncle and all the students knew, we read Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” You’d like it, too, a balm whenever I read it. Again, thanks.

      1. I read “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” last night – some beautiful/wistful images we need to hold on to, set against the stark references to the mutilated world. Thank you for recommending it.

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