In the North Tower
WHAT HAPPENS, after death, is a silent shift.
It takes place off the page, where you’re not looking. When you look back, you see that things have altered, barely, but absolutely. A pattern is revealed. You’ve stepped back, without moving, and now it’s clear.
When that person was alive, his particularities seemed to make no sense. But they didn’t have to: They weren’t finished.
If that person were deeply involved in your life, if he had once been your husband, for example, then his behavior was important to you. It might have angered you. While he was alive, you may have held this against him. Everything he did, you may have thought, was evidence against him.
But what happens with death? Some invisible gear slips into place, something that changes, suddenly and entirely, our perception of that person.
He is not suddenly perfect, in retrospect. All his flaws have not been erased. But the flaws have lost their import because he himself is lost. The whole man is lost, and the flaws become insignificant. The flaws have dissolved, and only the heart is left.
You knew that man, and now he is gone from the world.
Looking back, you see his behavior in a different light. How could it have escaped you? All those irritating mannerisms - which you would again find irritating, were he suddenly to reappear - are insignificant. So what, if he never returned your phone calls? The fact is that, to him, you were irritating. You were always calling about something he didn’t want to discuss. (And he will discuss nothing with you now. You can’t call him to apologize for your own flaws - impatience, self-centeredness, intolerance. He is now absent from the world.)
Now all his flaws seem revelations. Yes, you think now, remembering how it was when you loved him, of course I know why he behaved like that. That’s how he was. You have always known all this, somewhere; now it returns. Now you know him absolutely, now that his motion is stopped.
All deaths are not chosen.
Some deaths are wholly accidental: hit-and-run, lightning, cancer. These are unrelated to character.
But some deaths seem partly chosen. This man died, you see now, partly because of his character. Not that he deserved this death, he did not, but you can see the connection between it and him. He loved challenge. He loved risk. He loved lofty position. In the past you have seen this as hubris. He has to be in the tallest building, you said to yourself, among the highest floors. You saw all this as unforgivable arrogance.
Now you see it as something else. Now it is simply the way a certain man was. Here was a man who tried to get as close to the sun as he could, who wanted to be the best, and now you ask, what’s wrong with that?
Now you ask yourself, is arrogance unforgivable?
You ask yourself, what are the unforgivable things?
Now that he is gone you ask all these questions. Now that his body has been consumed by a blaze of unthinkable heat and fire, in a moment you cannot bear to contemplate. Now that you will never have another conversation with him.
The last conversation you had was like all the others in the past decade: awkward, full of unspoken feeling. It took place at your daughter’s wedding. That was the day he walked with her, slowly, down a white swathe of silk laid down on the summer grass, and her soft bare arm was tucked under his, and now that occasion is flooded with an unbearable light.
Now that he is gone everything is changed.
Now, in this silence, in the flat endless hush of afterwards, you see that he was like you. That his flaws were part of him, as yours are of you, that he bore them as you bear yours, aware and unaware, ashamed and unwitting. Now that he is gone you see his strengths: what he was trying his best to do was live his life. Now you can see the truth: He was only a person, he was like you. And he is lost.
Roxana Robinson’s most recent book is the novel “Cost.’’ She wrote this piece in Sept. 2001, after her then ex-husband was killed in the North Tower.