On The Potomac


Jill spoke of reading her daughter’s day planner, an unordered list of to-do’s and shopping lists punctuated by this one non-sequitur:

“Be Nice!”

We laughed. We needed a laugh. Jessie had probably really meant all two words of it, the verb and the adjective and the exclamation point, especially. I felt like I knew what she had really meant, though, in that private space she couldn’t have imagined being read at her funeral, couldn’t have imagined dying at 18 three days before our map of the world changed. Couldn’t have imagined there’d be stickers with the phrase kept for years later, on our car rear view mirrors.

My girlfriend’s mom had driven us from school to the chapel in mid-town, numbering the flags we drove past on the way. She lost count.

Before leaving campus for the funeral, my teacher shared his wisdom.

“Remember to eat.”

It was the first Friday afternoon after the towers fell. The art would come from the white carpeted balcony as much as it would from everywhere else, dozens of us signing Ave Maria. But I can’t remember now all those long days and quick years later if we all wore our singing uniforms, appropriate as we would have been in all black, but perhaps too formal.

That was half a lifetime ago.

The grief snuck up beside the nascent patriotism, the anger bent into a confusion from the gravity pulling us down into this broken precipice of adulthood. The unfairness of the coincidence did something strange to the tragedy, by making all that uncertainty smaller and closer and more. The second or third hour of 9/11 was the hour I learned Jessie had died that past weekend in a car accident. That first unexpected death right up along all the others. It didn’t just magnify the proportions — it made everything about that first week when everything changed more known and numb at the same time.

In the short mess of mornings and evenings between the 11th and the 14th, I’d collected and edited footage of her together from a series of videotapes we’d collectively shot on our choir trip to DC in the spring. On the last day, my father had taken the camera and interviewed her among a dozen others. I imposed her smile on the website beset in a frame of clouds. The edited short film on the plastic and metal of a DVD I presented at some point to Jill. It gave me something to do that week, a clear and present purpose to create, an heirloom of a lost friend and a lost voice and a lost child. Later Jill would write me a thank-you card, sharing that she watched the DVD every night.

When the cold slumber of doubt confides that entropy will take us all, I find her inscription of losing and finding reminds me that just about everything is worth the effort, especially when there are ways we can help each other remember.

On the last week of her senior year, Jessie had pulled over in her big old car on the old road out of school after I had waved and we talked through the passenger window.

“You know,” I said, “I think about that night on the cruise and our crazy dance a lot.”

She agreed that she did too, “Really!”

We both smiled and laughed for a minute about how funny that was. At the time, on the side of the road, as much now as it does seventeen years later thinking about it, it felt reassuring to know that whatever about that one song we danced to had been something she remembered fondly, too. And while there was little or nothing romantic about it at all except a love for the moment itself, it was something only the two of us would ever know. That it just seemed to have happened, learning what we did about our temporary language of movement, shared a vocabulary of feet and hands and rhythm, as outrageously and formally all at once, pretending like we really knew how to dance, like we really knew what we were doing, kids who really had something to dance about. Freeing, joyful, as unexpected as anything ever could be.

That one song, I can’t remember the lyrics or the melody, or much of the specifics of the night, but I’ll never forget the smiling and short laughter we had that afternoon about the end of a sunset cruise on the Potomac.

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