In second grade, my alternative San Francisco elementary school gathered all the students together for a "share" session. It was a tiny school. We crowded into the library, where a teacher calmly announced that there had been a tragedy over the weekend.
A girl a few grades above me had lost her father in a freak accident. For some reason, I remember that this accident happened in Mexico, that the body was being shipped back. We were asked to be respectful and kind in this girl's time of grief.
At this point, the only being I had ever lost was my tabby, Gobbles. This news, the thought of this girl never talking to her father again, how unfair it all was, just shorted out my 8-year-old mind.
I remember sitting in class saturated with sorrow for this shy girl I hardly knew and her father, a hazy image I created of a dead man stowed away as cargo on TWA. Biting my nails, feeling a clenched fist take hold of my stomach, I knew I had to take action; I had to do whatever I could to let her know how sorry I was.
And that's where things went wrong.
My mother loved homemade cards. That's all she ever wanted as a gift for any holiday, a card and maybe a poem. On her birthdays I usually got out the crayons and markers to draw a cake motif for the card's cover. Valentine's Day was a heart; Chanukah was a menorah. You get the idea. All at once, I had a solution, a way to communicate my condolences to this girl whose plight had me unglued. I did the only thing I knew how to do: I made a card. The only thing I couldn't figure out was what to draw on the cover.
Staring at the nicked top of my wooden desk, I got an idea. I would render a tombstone with the letters "R.I.P." This I did, lovingly drawing in weeds around the base of the tombstone and perhaps a crow flying overhead. I was only 8. That was the only image in my death file.
By the grace of some power far beyond me, a teacher intercepted the card. She was kind enough not to shame me; she just swiped the card off my desk to some secret teacher place on her person, and it was never seen again.
All this is to explain why it's been so difficult for me to write anything since Sept. 11. What if the way I express a sense of sadness and loss comes out all wrong? Experts say everyone grieves differently, but let's face it, with this much tragedy in the air, there's not much room for error. I'm afraid of being one huge talking crayon R.I.P. card -- my heart in the right place, but my ability to project proper human behavior sorely out of tune.
I'm not an expert on anything, least of all the affairs of terrorists and their plots or the history of conflict in the Middle East. Over the past few weeks, I've heard brilliant oratories on heroism, on restraint, on national unity. I've also tuned in to a trio of DJs -- let's call them Flaky, Drippy and Johnny -- giving the tragedy the "morning zoo" treatment: two parts uneducated cliché-mongering, one part trumped-up gravitas. The last thing anyone needs is for me to add my own uninformed cliché chain to the slag heap.
I've never been much good at talking about the big things. I usually don't feel I have the right, especially in this case, because I didn't lose anyone I knew personally, and so many people did. This leaves me only what follows.
The day after the towers came down, I saw a bus come to a stop in the middle of the street. A burly driver got out so he could move an injured pigeon from the road, cupping the bird in his big hands. A lemonade stand materialized on Larchmont Boulevard, manned by three girls not much older than I was when I drew that awful card. A crayon sign announced that they were raising money for the Red Cross.
Cars slowed down to let me cut in front of them. Merging on the freeway was graceful.
My elderly Japanese neighbor stopped by to show me her new American flag. "You don't know what I've been through," she said suddenly, shaking her head and thinking back to her days in Japan during the war. I froze with the old panic of not knowing what to say. She began to cry, looking at her slippers, at my rug. I bent down to hug her in my doorway, not saying anything. I let her hug me until it was awkward, until it was her idea to let go.