My grandfather was a man of habit. He walked the same three miles every day. He always stopped at my aunt’s house to see his grandsons. He worked at the New York Shipping Association Pension Fund for 40 years. When he retired as Executive Director, he settled on a once-a-week transition. On Wednesdays, he took the train into Manhattan and rode the elevator up to his office in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. By all intents and purposes, he should’ve been at home that day. Maybe bouncing a baby on his lap or waving at the neighbors who knew him as Walking Joe. He shouldn’t have been in New York at all. But he switched his routine, and he went to work.
He walked home that day, soot-covered and forever shaken. It took him hours. He made it back, but he was never the same.
We started recounting the story with my brother-in-law recently, and I thought about how hard it must be to believe someone when they say, “You woulda loved him.” We inflate people we love when we eulogize them. The person you’re telling always thinks, “Yeah, yeah, sure they were great.” And you want to grab their shoulder, catch them right in the eye, and say, “No.” You want to say, “Sometimes, they aren’t. But this one? This one was great.”
It’s like wringing out a wet dish towel, trying to make it dry. You can twist and squeeze, twist and squeeze, but there will always be that little bit of water left, until you let it fall flat and dry on its own. Until you succumb to the reality that you might never be able to show them. Sometimes I think we try too hard to explain how much someone means, because we can’t bear but to try.
I think about his diehard love of the Mets. I try to imagine him at Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The way he never took off the shiny Mets varsity jacket. I think of the day he took me on the ferry to Shea. The weekends spent at the Poconos. The songs he sang us, made up and out of tune. How he could fall asleep standing up, leaning on the half-wall between the kitchen and family room. How he ate apples with a knife and brushed the salt off his sourdough pretzels. How he couldn’t swim so he’d stand in the shallow end of the pool with a baby in his arms.
I go back from time to time and read what I’ve written about my grandfather over the years. Because I can’t bear not to. Because the good parts, they deserve to be remembered. Because even though that day got the best of him, and he turned away from his family and lifelong friends until the day that he died, suddenly, we got the best of him first. For a time, we did.
I could run myself ragged thinking about the calendar. If September 11, 2001 had been a Monday or a Thursday or a Friday. Would he have met my husband? Would they have spent hours together, talking about everything and nothing? About the agony of postseason baseball. And the buzz of the stock exchange. And the comfort of a good book.
His story may never have a better ending. But the middle, the part I remember most, was just magic.