My 2011 piece in The Awl

[Reposted from The Awl; original posting there on May 11, 2011]

There is a prominent grid square on our cultural map that I’ve learned not to see or talk about. I don’t look at the New York skyline, and I avoid the news for the three days around each anniversary of 9/11. My brother, Aaron Jacobs, was killed in the World Trade Center that day, along with thousands of others. In my daily interactions since then, I have had a terrific wife, world travels and cute kids at the ready to absorb the friendly need of others to situate me in a history. But while I no longer feel as I did in the first year—that I must be marked in some visible way by the loss that was grinding me up inside—I still steer away from casual mentions of Aaron in daily life. I don’t talk about him on Facebook, for example; my memories of him, my ongoing sense of his absence, don’t belong in that stream of grinning kid photos and funny videos.

Before the world knew what the big news of last week was going to be, my family and I were already preparing ourselves to return to 9/11. The Voices of September 11th organization had arranged to meet us at a local library the coming Thursday. We were to provide materials for a small exhibit about Aaron for a museum, the 9/11 Living Memorial, that will exist underneath the redeveloped WTC site, and online, for what we were told is forever. On that Sunday afternoon, my parents, wife and I sat around a table with photos of Aaron—photos that blipped from brace-faced youth to hairy collegiate to secretly silly and tender Wall Streeter. We told stories; we organized our photos into an order. I printed out the eulogy I had given at his memorial service and my family’s “impact statement” about our loss.

When he died, Aaron was 27, and, improbably for those of us who knew him as a smiling shrimp of a kid, a vice president at Cantor Fitzgerald. In the past nine years, we have found some ways to remember him happily. We look for signs of his mischievous eyes in my wife’s and my young girls, and think of him as an accomplished adult making light of his misadventures as a true ADHD boy on a long school-bus ride home after the Ritalin had worn off. Much harder is to think about the empty space where he should be as a son, husband, father, uncle, brother. I never took much notice of brothers and sisters as such before, but now they sneak up on me: I was reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty a few years ago on a flight and came across a passage in which she describes the two older sibling protagonists playing under their sheet-covered dining room table as kids; then they are preparing to welcome their new baby brother to their tent. “Oh, fuck, Aaron,” I thought, hurled back into that original connection of brothers growing up, and sat there wet-faced and shaking in the anonymous proximity of strangers.

And hardest of all is to go back to 9/11 and the act of murder, the men who did it, the unbearable thought of my brother’s last hours. That Sunday night, after spending the day preparing for our meeting with the museum, I felt the same cold, tight-chested premonitory feeling as I do before 9/11 anniversaries, when I stop wanting to look in the mirror to avoid seeing the tell-tales of grief. So to wake up Monday to news of Osama bin Laden’s death was a shock to my sense of context: what was going to be a private week of excavating our own loss had been put back into the public story of terrorism, war and vengeance.

I heard the news around 6:30 on Monday morning, from friends who emailed overnight to let me know they were thinking about my family and me. It has taken some coaching these past years to let my friends know, especially those who knew Aaron, that I do appreciate it when they breach the silence around this extremely public, world-historical event that happens also to mark my brother’s death. Hearing the news I felt relieved at the fact of bin Laden’s death—and yet a bit surprised by myself too. In the early years I’d played out endless fantasies of killing him, but now I found I’d left that bleak staging point behind. But I also braced even more anxiously for a major public focusing on the 9/11 attacks themselves. I was spared more than 20 minutes of solitary gearing-up, since I had to help make breakfasts and lunches for the kids and then head out the door to a full day of meetings. Riding on the T, I saw the reports of spontaneous celebrations in New York and Washington, and felt a sense of kinship with the gung-ho revelers.

But Facebook constitutes another public square, one oddly personal and yet unconstrained by the emotional cues you get from actually being with someone. I soon saw a consensus emerging on my Facebook page, one that was not happy with this explosion of feeling, and felt “weirded out” at this “dancing on the grave.” The real mega-dittos on Facebook came out that afternoon for what ended up being only partially a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.: “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” (The first sentence, which was the one most picked up on Twitter, was not written by Dr. King.)

On Facebook, you never know if something is actually directed at you, or just stated in your “presence.” But I immediately felt a certain admonition in this passage, particularly as it went viral and was shared on several friends’ status updates. Invoking MLK is pretty strong stuff and I did not appreciate being lumped (however unintentionally) with the presumably ignorant or less-than-high-minded people who might exult in bin Laden’s death. There is no headstone or angel icon on Facebook to indicate when you’re mourning someone, as there is with the heart icon for relationship status. I could not bring myself to debase Aaron’s memory or my loss by responding to a quote that a bunch of people had thought about for 15 seconds before pressing “like.”

This all played out Monday afternoon on a tiny phone screen that I could barely see as I jammed into the T again to ride to Fenway Park. By chance, my dad and I had plans to go to the Red Sox game that night. At the stadium, we entered an entirely different public space for reacting to the day’s news. Just before the game, the teams all ran out and stood along the first and third-base lines, while the announcer talked about the many feelings stirred up by the day’s news (no specifics). Soldiers, sailors and Marines marched onto the field and a huge American flag covered the Green Monster, as the Brockton High School marching band did a very creditable job with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” given the unexpected attention. Since 9/11, sports crowds—with their paradoxical offer of both anonymity and connection with so many others—have provided my dad and me with welcome opportunities to release our emotions about Aaron. There is no other setting in which we can cry publicly and also jump and cheer within the scope of a few hours, happy to have the chance to celebrate something as big and incontrovertible as an epic Pedroia at-bat.

The next morning I did type out a status update, still unwilling to refer to Aaron explicitly, even while wondering if the aspect of myself that mourns his loss has a place on Facebook: “The consensus MLK quote regarding yesterday seems to be the one about hate not driving out hate. Agreed. MLK also said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ Hope everyone is OK with those two sentiments coexisting, as they do in me and many others.” Was this a likable position? As the mixed provenance of the MLK quote emerged, some doubled down and stuck with it as their statement on the week. There were no “oh jeez, were you on that thread?” sorts of apologetics after I stuck my head out.

Thursday, President Obama visited the Ground Zero site and met privately with 60 families of those lost. In a bright room in Wellesley that same morning, we made similar excruciating gestures, explaining our Aaron through photos to a representative from the 9/11 Living Memorial. A former nurse, whose kindness and professional relation to pain were well suited to her new role, laid out some scanners and forms to help us enter in our materials. A number of these, including the image used in the New York Times “Portraits of Grief” series, showed Aaron as the best man at my wedding, in August 2001, where he looked confident and in love with his fiancée. The photos are skimmed off the high points—graduations, Bar Mitzvahs, vacations—and the problem with spreading them out in front of a well-meaning interlocutor is how easy it is to feel the old, natural, forward momentum towards what surely was going to be a long life together.

The Facebook focus has already shifted from actual terrorists and soldiers to “Cats of the US Special Forces.” That’s fine with me (although I’m back to not “liking” anything on this topic), and I look forward to resuming normal sharing of interesting links and kid photos on my own page. I’m grateful to the work of museums and memorials for the convening place they offer to those who need to remember the dead in public. But the challenge of curating Aaron’s memory continues, and I have been reminded in the past week to be careful about mixing the intense, bloody, life-long thread of that inherently private work with the carefully modulated daily life and observations I share with Friends and Followers.

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