To Be A Heart

by M.C. Williams

We buried my father on a bright blue late summer morning. Ten years earlier, the Twin Towers fell on a day just like it, and my father looked up in time to see the first plane hit.

He helped build the Towers in the ’70s, and after he married my mother he took her to the Windows of the World restaurant on top. He was working as an electrician in the Towers during the 1993 bombing, and when he heard about the explosion, he thought it was his fault, caused by whatever electrical equipment he’d been fixing in the building’s basement. 

“What a relief,” he said, “when it turned out to be terrorists.”

On 9/11, he spent the night drinking alone at the kitchen table. A few days later, he went to work at Ground Zero as a safety supervisor, clearing out what was left. He’d come home covered in a strange black soot, which he called a mixture of concrete, asbestos, and bones.

Even when I asked, he didn’t talk much about Ground Zero. As a child, I didn’t know much about my father’s job at all. I only knew that it took him down into the city’s tunnels and up into its tallest buildings. One night, when we were driving over the Manhattan Bridge, I asked him exactly what he did. He pointed to the glittering city. The reflection of my face and the reflection of the skyline overlapped in the window.

“My job,” he said, “is to make sure it all stays lit.”

That satisfied my curiosity for years. He was the man who lit the skyline. When I asked my father if he ever got scared climbing up into the skeletons of skyscrapers, he said that he didn’t have a mind for heights but that the trick was to never look down. You had to keep your eyes on the sky.

The only time I ever heard about the technical aspects of my father’s job was years later, from his co-worker.

“Your father’s doing one of the most difficult tasks we have right now,” she said. “He’s bending pipe. Normally only the strongest men can do it because it takes so long. At first, the boss thought your father was lazy, because instead of starting right away he spent all morning arranging the pieces and the tools. Eventually, we realized that once he did start, he did it faster than anyone. He was putting it together in his mind first.”

That was my father. Quick but careful in his thinking, he was always calmly arranging the pieces of something in his mind. And when he determined that life had handed him an unsolvable problem, he didn’t believe in complaining. After receiving his terminal diagnosis, he looked up the average age of death in America and said, “It’s seventy for men. I’m not far off. I’m not dying young.”

At sixty-eight, he was the oldest man in his family for generations. His Polish grandfather had worked himself to death in a factory, his Irish father drank himself to death in an alleyway, and his older brother had died of AIDS in the ’90s. The last time he saw his mother was through the window of the tuberculosis hospital where she was quarantined. My father breathed in poison and got cancer. Their deaths tell the history of New York City as much as anything else, and maybe mine will, too.

•••

My father was at the Twin Towers on September 11, 2000, working in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald. My mother still has his employee pass from that day. My father kept all his passes because he liked the idea that he could get into any building in the city whenever he wanted.

He told this to my mother after they were married. She shook her head and said, “You couldn’t get into my building. My building requires an electronic card.”

“Oh yeah?” He grinned. “We’ll see about that.”

The next day he strolled right up to her desk with flowers. She asked how he’d gotten in, and he said that all it took was an outdated employee pass and a screwdriver in his back pocket.

This, of course, was pre-9/11 New York, decades before Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 employees, more than any of the other World Trade Center tenants. More, even, than the New York City Police Department.

Back then my parents lived in Staten Island, in an apartment that overlooked downtown Manhattan. Every day they saw the World Trade Center my father helped build. It was in the background of their lives.

Once when my father had temporary light duty at one of the towers, which meant that he was supposed to stay there through the night, he snuck out early and went home. My parents kept the bedroom curtains open that night.

My father got into bed, shut his eyes, and asked, “Well, are they still on?”

My mother looked across the dark harbor to the Twin Towers.

“Yes,” she said, and they fell asleep.

My father had rough hands from working his whole life, and he could not flex his pinky finger. I loved his hands, even though they scared me sometimes. He drank coffee and smoked Lucky Strikes. He tried to grow a beard once at my request. He let me stay up late and watch TV with him. He’d spread peanut butter on saltine crackers, our favorite snack, and even when he didn’t want any more, he’d keep making them for me. He taught me how to eat lobsters. I’d watch them wave their ragged claws as he dropped them into the pot of boiling water.

“Does it hurt them?” I asked.

My mother said, no, they don’t have nervous systems, so they can’t feel pain. I looked at my father and asked, “Does it hurt them?”

A lobster tried to crawl out and he pushed it back down.

“I don’t know,” he said.

•••

The first time I drove was when my father drank too much before picking me up from school. It wasn’t the first time he’d done it, but this time I had a learner’s permit. I couldn’t remember which buttons did what, and we sped out of the parking lot in reverse with the windshield wipers pumping. I shouted at him the whole way home, and he quietly reminded me to signal a turn, to slow early for red lights.

“You’re doing good,” he kept muttering. “You’re doing good.”

My voice was hoarse by the time we reached the turn onto our street. As a child, whenever I fell asleep in the back seat, I always woke up when we made that turn. No matter how late or how dark, I could always feel when we were home. Even though I was furious there was still some satisfaction in making that turn myself for the first time.

My father wasn’t usually a nice drunk. We only called the cops on him once. When they arrived, my father was polite and calm; he didn’t get angry again until they had left. But no matter how mean he got, I held onto the memory of the first time that I confronted him about his drinking. We were home alone and I was very young. He sat next to me on the couch and slurred, “How’s my girl?”

“I don’t like it when you’re like this,” I said.

His smile vanished. His eyes became wet, and his voice changed.

“Thank you,” he said. “You’re very brave to tell me that.”

•••

The first time I noticed the World Trade Center I was six years old. I was at the Empire State Building, but when I looked out and saw two dark towers looming above all the other buildings, I turned to my mother and asked, “What’s that?”

“The World Trade Center,” she said.

“Is it bigger?” I asked.

“Yes,” she admitted.

I stared at it hungrily.

“I want to go there now,” I told her, the allure of the Empire State Building evaporating as I stood on it.

When my parents took me to the World Trade Center a few months later, they lost me in the crowd and eventually found me slipping onto an upward-bound escalator, trying to go even higher.

My mother was driving across the Whitestone Bridge when she saw smoke unfurl over the water and heard on the radio that a plane had hit the Twin Towers. Other cars were pulling over to watch, but she kept going, assuming that it had been a small fighter plane like the one she’d seen fly between the towers during the bicentennial in 1976.

She didn’t realize how serious it was until she arrived at the hospital where she was visiting my grandmother. They were moving patients into the hallways to make space for the anticipated influx of injured people. Nurses crowded around the TV, watching on the screen what they could have seen by looking out the window.

“We’ll be working overtime for days,” one of them said.

But a few hours later, my mother saw the nurses going home.

“No one’s coming,” a nurse explained. “They’re all dead.”

I was in class when the loudspeaker announced that a plane had hit a building in Manhattan and the nation was under attack. We all looked at one another, perplexed, and then our teacher continued with the lesson.

That afternoon, a woman came and said that she needed to escort me to the principal’s office. I asked, “Is this about my father?”

By then there’d been rumors that people were dying in the city. Some kids had already been picked up by their parents. I hadn’t heard from mine, but I knew that my father was in Manhattan. I knew his job took him all around the city, down into its deepest tunnels and up into its tallest buildings.

The woman said, “I’m so sorry, I don’t know.”

She gave me a sad smile. He wasn’t dead—it just wasn’t possible to me—and I was annoyed by her pity. But I still remember that long, silent walk down the hallway.

The principal’s secretary explained that my mother was visiting my grandmother and couldn’t make it back because all the bridges were blocked. I would have to go home with a friend after school. He didn’t know how late he’d be, she said, but my father was already on his way home. I gave the woman with the sad smile a look of triumph. 

When my father came to pick me up from my friend’s house that night, he sat us both down and explained what had happened. He asked if we understood and we both nodded. But how could we? We were eleven years old. How could we understand that the next time we went to the Twin Towers, there would be two holes in the ground?

Although it would be years before I went back to where the Twin Towers stood, I was in Manhattan less than a week after 9/11 because my parents and I had tickets to see Les Misérables. My mother was scared to go, but my father insisted. None of us had ever seen the city so empty or so dark. Apart from the constant wail of sirens it was quiet. Hardly anyone was in the audience that night, but the actors gave the performance everything they had. When it came to the song “Bring Him Home,” everyone began to weep. At that point they were still hoping to find people alive in the rubble.

•••

The Sunday after 9/11, my mother and I couldn’t find seats in our normally empty church, and the priest criticized people who only showed up to mass when tragedy struck.

“If you want God to be there for you,” he said, “you must be there for Him.”

That made me proud of my father, who wasn’t there and never went.

Back then I paid close attention at mass, and for a while I tried to be religious. I liked praying, and when I ran out of prayers I repeated poems and song lyrics to God. But the real attraction of Catholicism was heaven, which I pictured as a rich suburb filled with mansions and luxury swimming pools. I asked my father what he thought heaven was like, and he said he didn’t know. When I pushed him, he said that maybe it was just the feeling you’d been a good person.

“That’s it?” I asked. “No indoor slides, no palaces with enough room for all of your friends?”

I reminded him that in heaven he could have anything he wanted.

“I don’t think that’s what heaven is like,” he said.

But I was a child, and this was important to me.

“Well,” I said, “who would be there?”

I was looking for something similar to my mother’s version of heaven, where she and I were children, the same age, playing in the forest or on the beach, counting the stars together. When I whispered to her that I thought I might be sent to hell, she told me she’d take an elevator down and get me. She said heaven wouldn’t be heaven without me. I looked at my father and wanted him to lie to me about heaven, but he didn’t say anything.

“You’d be alone?” I asked, and he shrugged.

“I guess so,” he said.

It was easy to believe in heaven on a Sunday morning, standing with my mother on the steps of the church, but it did nothing to stop the fear that crept on black feet and crouched in the corner of my room at night, a fear of death and the nothingness that came with it. Sometimes at night I panicked. My mother went to sleep early, and so my father was left to deal with my terror. I cannot recall what he said to me in those moments. I think he may have just sat with me in silence. I know he never said anything about heaven.

•••

My father died in the summer of 2011, when I turned twenty-one. It was the summer that an earthquake and a hurricane hit New York City, when Occupy Wall Street protests erupted in lower Manhattan and the 9/11 Memorial finally opened.

By then I hadn’t been to church in years, but I still couldn’t shake the habit of praying. I was taught to recite prayers on every significant occasion, in response to every fleeting emotion, whenever I felt helpless or lost or thankful. Sometimes I still recite poems like prayers. In my darkest and brightest moments—and sometimes for no reason at all—I turn them over in my mind as if the commitment of words to memory is what makes them sacred, as if their repetition can deepen any moment.

While my father was dying upstairs in my bedroom, I sat at the kitchen table late at night and read “Ditty of First Desire” by Federico García Lorca:

In the green morning
I wanted to be a heart.
A heart.

I kept reading until I had it memorized. It didn’t fit the situation, but maybe that’s why I clung to it, waved it like a flag of rebellion at death, and, later, like a flag of surrender when I went upstairs and put my head on my father’s chest. By then, he couldn’t talk. He could only moan as if he wanted to. 

Soul,
turn orange-colored.
Soul,
turn the color of love.

The hospice nurse said we needed to tell him that it was OK to die. He needs to hear it, she said. My mother couldn’t do it, so I did.

In the vivid morning,
I wanted to be myself.
A heart.

•••

I was gone for most of my father’s last year of life, studying abroad in Madrid.

When my friends in Spain asked how he was, I repeated what he always said: it was a slow-moving cancer, he had plenty of time. If the thought of death ever came to me, it passed briefly, like the shadow of a low-flying bird. When I looked up, I saw only the golden Spanish sun, and I let myself believe that time was something you could have plenty of.

The only time I allowed myself to think about him dying was at Las Fallas, the Valencian festival of fire. It took all day to drive to Valencia from Madrid.

“Las Fallas is a great party,” someone said. “But there are always people who cry.”

I asked why, but no one knew. As we neared our destination, the full moon grew bright and the sky purpled, the lights of Valencia sparkling and spreading into stars before us.

The city was filled with intricate canopies of blue lights. Beneath them, crowds of people stood around large plates of paella. Children sent little firecrackers into the night. Traffic had been blocked off, and at every intersection enormous and beautiful painted statues were on display. At midnight they began burning the statues. The crowd fell silent as Valencia filled with fire and smoke.

Afterwards, on the car ride back to Madrid, we drove without speaking for a long time. When someone finally began to talk, it was to tell me about other festivals in Spain. I had never heard of la matanza del cerdo, though it’s simple enough: a crowd gathers and kills a pig. They told me that it takes several men to lift the pig. The animal knows it is about to die, and it screams, its voice high and thin like a child’s. My Spanish friends wanted to know if we had anything like la matanza del cerdo in America. I told them no, I didn’t think so.

In the United States, we’d probably call it animal cruelty. Here, we don’t even say that people die. They pass away. They go to better places. We keep our pigs in warehouses, and when we kill them nobody listens to their screams. When we talk about cruelty, I think what we really mean is that it is cruel that we should see. We are the victims. We don’t care about the pigs.

Despite having seen pigs and bulls killed, my Spanish friends had never seen a dead human. They had a morbid fascination with the American custom of embalming and displaying bodies, so I told them about my first time seeing one, when I was in kindergarten. It was my great-aunt, and when nobody was watching, I reached into the coffin and touched her cheek. It didn’t feel wrong because she didn’t look dead. She looked like she was sleeping.

So did my father at his funeral. It was nothing like how he’d actually looked in death. There was no swollen stomach, no skeleton limbs, no yellowed skin. My father’s dead body had been embalmed, dressed in a suit, and covered in thick makeup. Everyone said they’d done a great job and it looked just like him. But I remembered watching the statues smolder and collapse into themselves at Las Fallas. I remembered thinking that even if the statues hadn’t been burned, they would have fallen apart in a museum or fed termites in storage. I’d watched the black smoke spread through the sky like a disease, and I had been one of the people who cried at Las Fallas.

My Spanish friends didn’t cry, and they didn’t understand why I had. They said it was probably because I was American.

In the United States, I was a New Yorker. I was from Ossining, a sunset town in the Hudson River Valley. When people there asked what I was, I would list countries I had never seen where my great-grandparents had been born. But in Spain, for the first time, I was American.

Until I left it, I never realized how strange America was, how little I understood it, or how deeply it was a part of me. In Spain, I was often expected to explain my strange country. I was asked about 9/11 a lot, especially when people learned I was from New York.

But when they talked about 9/11, it was in its broadest, most global context: how it had been used as an excuse to invade Iraq and launch the so-called “War on Terror.” How it had impacted the whole world, even though other countries experienced acts of terror just as tragic, some of them orchestrated by the United States. I didn’t disagree, but what could I say? For me, 9/11 was a long, silent walk down a hallway in my middle school. It was a hole in the skyline my father had once filled with light.

I never had good answers to those questions about America. I came up with strange ramblings, incomplete thoughts, fragments I couldn’t fit together. I didn’t know how to explain that I think we put makeup on dead bodies for the same reason we don’t personally kill the pigs we eat: death is hard to look at. I look at death and I am a child trying to believe in heaven but too afraid to sleep. I am a drunk crying over burning statues. When I tried to answer those questions, the words turned to smoke in my mouth.

I do not know what I could have said except that my America is a river. America is a nightfall of tree frogs and a wind that comes rattling through the house like a cough. America is my mother playing the piano a few hours before sunrise because nobody could sleep anyway. America is the view of New York City from my father’s grave.

The first time I went to visit the cemetery, it was a grey winter day and storm clouds were hanging on the nearly finished Freedom Tower. I stayed by his grave until the storm clouds faded into some other, unknown sky and the darkness fell softly, pooling in shadows and slowly flooding the cemetery. With the addition of my father resting beside his mother, the family plot was full and the headstone complete. It struck me that one day I would need to buy a patch of ground like that one, and it would become a roof for me and my children. And I wanted to be a heart. I wanted to quicken and slow, unaware of the inevitable moment when I stop.


This essay uses Alan Trueblood’s translation of “Cancioncilla del primer deseo” by Federico García Lorca.

Published on January 16, 2020

2020-04-03T16:57:33+00:00