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The Journal News
"Learning to live with loss"
September 6, 2002
Sec E, Pg 1
Author: Georgette Gouveia
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Learning to live with loss

Loss is a gaping hole, an empty sleeve, the "Vacant Chair" of the Civil War song.

It is the biblical backward glance when you know you must move on. It is moving forward when you know you will never really let go.

Loss begs the question "Why?" the portal to all other questions. Why them and not us? And more softly, ashamedly even, Why us and not them?

It can be measured in degrees. After terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Mount Vernon painter Michael J. Singletary lost the chance to be an artist in residence there, while Somers management consultant Lorin Woolfe lost his job with the American Management Association in Manhattan, as business travel dwindled. But neither would say his loss was comparable to those who lost their lives or their loved ones.

Loss can be measured in numbers, too, even as it remains incalculable. For what mind can grasp, what heart can hold the some 2,800 who died in the Twin Towers' tidal wave of glass, steel and smoke?

The mind that seeks to understand, the heart that truly loves sees the numbered lost as so many multiples of one.

"I didn't feel it was 343 firefighters (who died at the Twin Towers). I always felt it was 343 times one," says former New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, author of the new "Strong of Heart: Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York" (Regan Books). "It was Bill Feehan, it was Pete Ganci. To me, it was always one, and that was what made it so difficult. One (firefighter's widow) told me her husband was 6-foot-one. All they gave her was an ounce of remains. It's terrible to think of a young woman going through that One of the reasons I felt I had to leave the department (at the end of last year) was I said to myself, I can't do the funerals, I can't do it next year."

Loss is as concrete as that fireman's remains and the single tooth that looms so large in "Beyond Ground Zero: The Forensic Science of Disaster Recovery," Richard Press' photography exhibit at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. And it's as intangible as the dread that wells up inside you when you wake from a nightmare or the dream that was your life.

"Sept. 11 revealed my naivete, a loss of innocence in my assumption of how safe we were and the world was," says North Carolina textile artist Marguerite Gignoux, whose "Uncommon Threads" exhibit, commemorating the first anniversary, is at the Katonah Village Library.

The loss of security and solace or rather, the loss of their illusion creates fear, the parent of resentment, rage and revenge. In the untitled pair of plaster arms that White Plains artist William Becker has sculpted as a possible Sept. 11 memorial, one is raised in a defiant fist. That anger is something photographer Jeffrey R. Hewitt encountered in the days after Sept. 11. Hewitt part of the "Surviving 9/11/01: Three Photographers Remember" exhibit at the Historical Society of Rockland County in New City had just moved from Hastings-on-Hudson to the East Village, with the end of his marriage. He was not looking forward to Sept. 11: It would've been his 25th wedding anniversary.

"One loss stirs up past losses," he says. "I saw after Sept. 11 in the East Village both the desire for no more war and retaliation times 10, the Achilles syndrome."

Loss is Achilles dragging around Hector's body to avenge the death of his beloved Patroclus. It's Lear howling in the storm for his irretrievable sense of himself as a wise king and adored father. It's Heathcliff begging the ghost of Cathy to hound him for all eternity. "I cannot live without my life," he says. "I cannot live without my soul."

But he does. And we do. Loss is the negative space that outlines the positive. The measure of its pain is the measure of the possibility of gain.

"If anything, I think I gained more than I lost," says David Greg Harth. "I've gained so much strength, whether it's doing more as an artist or spending more time with my family or appreciating a butterfly."

Harth who grew up in New City but lives in Manhattan went to St. Vincent's hospital to volunteer after the Sept. 11 attack. There was already a waiting list an indication perhaps that a city so brutally ravaged nonetheless contained everything and everyone it needed to heal itself. Soon Harth whose art consists of stamping U.S. paper currency in different denominations with patriotic phrases was trading more than 150,000 bills that say "I am not terrorized" and "I am not afraid," via his Web site.

"When I was in Washington Square Park (after Sept. 11), I saw a sign that said, 'Like the apple bitten that has not fallen from the tree,' '' says Harth, who donates blood every 56 days and bolsters his friends. "I'm sticking around, because this is my city."

What is cherished is never lost as long as you hold fast. "Death ends a life," playwright Robert Anderson writes in "I Never Sang For My Father." "But it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor's mind toward some resolution, which it may never find."

"Each time you tell the story (of loss), you integrate it into the narrative of your memory," says Hewitt, who volunteers at the Bereavement Center of Westchester in Tuckhoe. "In doing that, you move forward."

Loss, then, is about moving forward by looking back and holding on by letting go. The raised hand in Becker's untitled sculpture may be clenched, but the other lies open in acceptance.

"You have to let go at some point and accept," says Gignoux, who grew up in Bedford. In her textile work "Tuesday's Sky," richly patterned stars float on a blue background. They represent the individuals vaporized in the Twin Towers.

"People were snatched out of the air," she says. "I felt I had to help the souls go. You no longer have your body, so how do you cope with that? I felt I could somehow show how beautiful they were, the same and yet different, all locked in that world."

Loss is colored by how you lose. The people who died on Sept. 11 were taken by a horrifically willful act of malice in which their countrymen were forced to be either terrified participants or helpless witnesses. That will always haunt.

The places in which that loss occurred a quiet Pennsylvania cornfield, a citadel of military power, the towers of global industry are forever tethered to tragedy, like Gettysburg, Chernobyl and that grassy knoll in Dallas.

"It's impossible to separate human relationships from the places where they occur," says painter Michelle Mackey.

On Sept. 11, she stood on the roof of her Brooklyn apartment building with 19 other people after the Twin Towers were hit. In her painting "Knowing," on view at Paul Sharpe Contemporary Art in Manhattan as part of "Art: 911," an abstract of the Towers' grille-like skin seems to waft above water.

The Towers.

Amid all the missing posters in Union Square and Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan were those for the "lost Twins." Ultimately, the loss is about the buildings, too, isn't it? It was there that Mackey, as a newly minted New Yorker, went swing dancing at the Windows on the World restaurant. It was there that Michael Singletary would pick up his wife Michelle, also a painter, who worked across the street. And it was in the shadows of the Twin Towers that photographer Camilo Jose Vergara would capture his children playing. You can see those photographs in his book "Twin Towers Remembered" (Princeton Architectural Press) and the accompanying exhibit at the New-York Historical Society.

"There were lots of great things down in that community arts, music, people congregating, different types of people," Singletary recalls. "That whole scene is lost."

Loss is what was and what might've been.

"I lost the sense of the infinite future," says Jeri Riggs, a quilter from Dobbs Ferry who's part of the "America From the Heart: Quilters Remember September 11" exhibit at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers. "Looking at the skyline, I feel very sad. It's a jarring dislocation."

In loss, you lose your moorings. The Twin Towers were like the double mast of a ship-shaped Manhattan, says Camilo Jose Vergara, who came to New York in 1970, when the World Trade Center was still under construction:

"The Towers were full of contradictions. Up close, it was the raw power of how tall they were. On top, everything human looked so small. At a distance, they were evanescent, with this tremendous reflective power There was that brutality. We want to awe you. But then, they were so gentle, too."

Loss is what was and what still is, in the mind. In death, the lost beloved is no longer part of the past but of a never-ending present, in which all phases of life are contemporary. Older Elvis coexists with young Elvis. The Jackie of Camelot with Jackie O. In Vergara's exhibit, the Twin Towers rise, fall and rise again.

And yet in their timelessness, the lost are of their time.

"I find I look at movies, and all of a sudden they are historic, periodic, because they have the Twin Towers in them," says architectural historian Barry Lewis.

Similarly, he says, you can never see an image of the Twin Towers now without knowing their end. So you gaze at a Vergara photo of the Towers in sunset, and you shiver in recognition, for it and they have become metaphors for the sunset of an era.

In loss, the lost are transformed, but so are those who've lost. Lewis, a lifelong New Yorker who co-hosts PBS' walking-tours series, never liked the Twin Towers. And yet he remembers coming back from Europe after a six-week trip, spotting them from the plane and knowing he was home.

"The Towers are an emotional symbol," he says, "like certain people in your life: You didn't realize what they meant to you until they were gone, and then you realized you missed them."

In Henry James' novel "The Wings of the Dove" the expatriate New Yorker's valentine to the city of his youth British journalist Merton Densher romances a dying New York heiress, Milly Theale, solely for her money. She dies leaving him her fortune. But he no longer wants it. All he can think of is her.

The Towers are our Milly. And in their loss, we are likely to remain under the shadow of their wings.

For in truth, we loved them so.

Copyright 2002 The Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc.