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Joanna Weiss

Watching the tales of loss

The compelling stories aren’t about the dead, but about the living

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / September 11, 2011

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IT WAS a conscious choice to watch and read the 9/11 retrospectives last week, knowing how much they would case me pain. Anniversaries bring back hard memories, and they also dredge up guilt - over whether we’ve changed enough, whether we’re doing remembrance right.

Ten years later, it turns out, things are different. The images of planes hitting towers still sock you in the gut, but with disbelief, not dread. For most Americans, the worst part of that day was not knowing when or how it would end. I remember thinking life would be different forever: daily routines upended by war, frivolity replaced with a serious sense of purpose.

That’s not what happened - not for most of us, who didn’t lose loved ones or send loved ones off to war. Instead, we lived in a decade of Internet mania, economic highs and lows, American Idols, Kardashians - and, flickering in the background, occasional news of thwarted plots and new airport security routines. There has been a lot of public breast-beating over this, as if it’s a sin that we don’t feel the pain as acutely as we did. As if feeling a constant, terrible threat would have made us a better nation.

The 9/11 retrospectives often tell a different story. In a sense, there were two separate narratives last week: a public story of how a nation handled threat; and a series of smaller, personal stories of private loss and growth. On the first score, it’s easy to be critical - of questionable military actions, cynical political moves, a civic discourse that’s as ugly as ever, if not worse.

But on the second score, there has been progress, and maybe a lesson.

Yes, there’s a purpose in retelling the stories of those who died, in keeping their memories present. By the end of the week, I found myself cross-referencing them: a man featured in one documentary turns up fleetingly in another, in a photograph held in a crowd. A man whose last phone calls are played in the History Channel’s “Voices From Inside the Towers’’ is mentioned in People magazine, in a story about the daughter who never knew him.

But the most compelling part of many of these stories isn’t what happened to the dead, but to the living. “Rebirth,’’ a beautiful documentary on Showtime, tracks some survivors over the course of 10 years. One young man clings to his mother’s memory; takes a Wall Street job to feel close to her; drifts apart from his father, who remarries. Eventually, he realizes that he can’t live his mother’s life, and connects with his father again.

Another woman spends years in near-paralysis, mourning her fiancé, a New York firefighter. Eventually, she dates again, marries, has kids - and draws her lost fiancé’s mother into a new extended family.

One by one, these survivors learn a different way of remembering, through acts that are often controlled and ritualistic. One 9-year-old featured in People says that every Sept. 11, he writes a note to his father, attaches it to a balloon, and releases it into the sky. Then he goes back to his stepfather, the man he knows as “Dad.’’

Again, that stab of guilt - for him, for us. If we all sent up balloons, every day, would we act differently all year long? Or is it unrealistic to think that we should and could do more? Was it really so bad to suggest that Americans should have gone to Walt Disney World and the mall, to have chosen joy over sacrifice most of the time? Or is our resilience part of our strength, and our humanity?

Memories are powerful, after all, but not as much as everyday life. After immersing myself in so many tales of loss, I held my toddler extra long and hard last week. On a visceral level, I needed to be near him, to stroke his hair and tell him that I loved him. But after a long while, I got up to get him dressed for preschool. Read about politics. Complained about the weather. What else could I do? Life moves on.

■CLARIFICATION: A bill by Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, cited in Tuesday’s column on child obesity, would require 30 minutes of daily physical activity, not instruction, in Massachusetts schools. Also, state law requires phys ed instruction in high schools, but does not set any minimum standards or require it for graduation.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.