“We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” – George Orwell
‘Twas a scene serene last Sunday eve, especially at our house. DefCon Zero. Wife and I contentedly closing out a busy weekend toddling. Even little Atticus went down without incident. Win, Win, Win. The height of drama? 60 Minutes. I’m older than I think.
Halfway in, likely over a Flomax ad, the house phone unexpectedly rings – that’s rare. Only immediate family has the number, and they all know better than to dial it when a high degree of probability says a certain baby boy may be slumbering nearby. “Cell baby cell!” I’ll politely remind them. Tomorrow. When I retrieve the message. For now, they can wait. Let freedom ring.
Few seconds pass, resuming telepharma fogey hour programming. A text message enlightens my Mephone. Connected? … Probably nothing. It’s Sunday us time, check it later. Let go, be present.
Pause. Relax. My phone abruptly lurches in urgent vibration. And my heart starts to race. Something going on? Then another text pops up all expectant, followed immediately by another. Best dial in stat. Tap-tap. Another! Battle stations. Cell now pounding in vibrastic seizure, staccato text volleys sparkling for attention. Status? All right. Concerned. Something is definitely up. Pleading please please please, don’t be bad.
Spot check. Idoya? Ten-hut by my side. Little one? Monitor read – positive ID, sleeping peacefully. Principals copacetic. Continue. Basset hound Humphrey lain out unresponsive on floor. Standard. All key hands and paws accounted for and secure. Probably little different from any other young, young, parent.
Not Dad. That was the party I feared for the first time these alerts went viral. And Jesus, don’t let it be my sister either, don’t think I could handle that, having gotten this far. Agreed? These are my demands. Wallens family circle of trust remains intact, and we’re good. Remember, you owe us one. Bargain.
First text to turn my insides out is from a mythically mirthy Irish buddy stationed in London, phew. Relief. His headline opens by calling me “Brother.” Which could mean he’s especially mirthy, or that something wicked this way comes. Quickly, what friends do we share? Few. Proceed.
London goes on to “Offer condolences.” Standby, hold please. What is going on here? And why wasn’t I notified?
Second text hails Mary fulla grace – it’s from my sister. Thank God. But by my frenzied calculus, this could also be bad, for if it’s Nicole, then this alleged happening, whatever it may be, has officially degenerated into something personal.
All of this races through my mind at synaptic speed, faster than eye can read.
But a while later, tunnel vision catches up, I read her words, and my knees get shaky. “OMG – TURN TO CNN”.
Shheeyyiiii… I guess it’s on. Again… Well, can’t possibly be worse than the last time. Deep breath, 1, 2, 3… Maintain control. Check for intel, dive in, survey situation. Here it is, banner headline. “Osama bin Laden Killed by US Special Forces.” Clear!
And Atticus slept sweetly through it all.
How long’d it take to read this far? Two, three minutes? Took 10 seconds to happen. Nine and three-quarters years to write. Just my personal smartphone era strain of post-traumatic stress, induced by 24-hour breaking news cycle. Many of us share this affliction. I come by my case personally. The big one.
My brother Blake was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, North Tower, 105th floor, Cantor Fitzgerald, you know the rest. Dashing titans of high finance, among the unlikeliest victims, whose targeting started the global conflagration. Instantly immolated, slaughtered en masse, by millennialist jihadis, in the quantum leap salvo, that launched an endless war. So began our nation’s hunt.
Blake was my closest friend, confidante, supporter. I stood as best man at his wedding; he was conscripted to serve as same in mine. Blake led from the front. Two years my elder, he was wiser than that. I trailed Blake’s legend through high school, and followed his star to college. He was blessed with a graceful irrepress not even a stilted New Yorker could resist. Smart, charming, handsome, connected. How he loved children, and they adored him. But Blake was himself no child of privilege. He displayed elegant intensity. One friend labeled Blake “Five-Star Supernova”. And it stuck. Blake avidly spread his contagious passion for the art of living; one revered motto urging concisely, “Think Story.” He coupled a prodigious ability to forge sacred friendships with a genuinely inquisitive, highly tuned mind.
Since the evildoers’ objective was to strike at the heart of American industry, Blake and his winsome cohort on Wall Street were most assuredly it. Blake had no truck with zealots. But ya’ try not to take it personal. Mortally wrong place, historically wrong time. Last lottery anybody oughta aspire to. And my closest ally protector was caught up in it. With a worldwide blast, witnessed by billions, his 30-year soaring success story turned into a short-lived tragedy.
Aftermath. Morning after, worst part? The dull blade gnawing curiosity. What were Blake’s last thoughts? What fear and bewilderment Blake scrambled to understand in his final moments. He died alone, scared, and no doubt reproaching himself for his lovely wife Raina. At the fix he found himself, and the break he’d leave her with.
In Los Angeles, Sept. 11 is regarded with just slightly greater awe than a box office blockbuster. Here, people’s perceptions of the world around us and events within it seem to spring less from perspective reality than from our ancestral love of movies. Where you better believe it, we absolutely always get our man. Or simply re-shoot the ending. So in the sensory deprivation chamber that is L.A., I, we, tend to feel a bit alone with this pain.
Had I one regret above all else about that dark day, strangely it’s that I had turned down a job offer that would’ve put me right there in the middle of it. Cantor offered me a few years prior; Blake even sweetened the deal by insisting he’d buy me the apartment next door.
But for the first time, I declined to follow, inexplicably, regrettably. I sorely wanted to be in that building that morning, to sacrifice my life to be by my brother’s side. But it wouldn’t have been fair to Dad.
We have all by now genuflected, then lamented, the non-partisanship that flowered in the days following Sept. 11. The circumstantial cohesion briefly flickered then died. People everywhere tried to help a brother out. To perform that eminently American miracle, turning defeat into a happy ending, by the third reel.
Those were the days, weeks, months when survivors each struggled to find peace, closure. But the attacks left most Americans enraged, violated. Not so much sad or heartbroken. And bin Laden’s deft evasion left us feeling outsmarted and impotent.
The years of fruitless search for the cave-dwelling megalomaniac who composed it all left Americans with a shared feeling of resignation. Even cheerleader and “Chief Bringemon” George W. Bush conceded like some hapless breakup victim that Osama bin Laden was no longer even on his radar. He’d, uh, moved on.
So how do I feel about the death of Osama bin Laden? Less than you’d think, but more than I’d have thought. What’s a guy to do? Summon all the family to a sentimentalist revival, cause our soldiers killed a guy? I don’t think so. We’ve come a long way back, and not on account of no figurehead. It’s not as if we were waiting baited all this time for bin Laden’s guts on a slab. We weren’t. The wish was incidental to the loss.
Like others who lost loved ones that dreadful day, I remain sad. No surprise there. But a couple of thoughts may surprise you. Angry? A little, but again, less than you’d think. The hatred, avenger’s zeal? All pale next to that excruciating sad. The loss fractured my world, and those of unimaginably many others. Why, just think of the dimensions of your social network – how many Facebook friends ya’ got? Now multiply by 3,000. That’s about how many lives were similarly affected.
Make no mistake, I’m glad this murderous scourge has been surgically extracted from the human race. I’m glad he was discovered in a mansion. I relish how that fact exposes the fraud that he was. Bin Laden stridently cultivated an image of voluntary sacrifice. That this privileged scion of means chose to suffer in squalor side-by-side with his brothers. He didn’t; he was a fraud. The man was neither of his people, by them, nor for anyone else’s agenda but his own vainglory. Paid for with their death. Even his misguided followers must now concede that.
Alright, truth be told, yah, I’m glad the last thing bin Laden ever laid eyes on was the barrel end of elite American enforcement. To have known Blake and me was to know that two of our close friends serve in the Special Forces. We always shared great admiration for the code they live by, the excellence they pursue, the stories they share, the lives they sacrifice, for people they’ll never meet, who will never know their names. Honor.
When asked if I get “closure” from bin Laden’s demise, I struggle to answer so succinctly. “No,” I answer, “I hoped they’d send bin Laden’s bulleted carcass on a coast-to-coast decomposition tour. I could see his soulless body paraded around like it’s Weekend at Bernie’s.” Good thing cooler heads prevailed; I wouldn’t have been as respectful as the commander-in-chief.
Among those of us whose loss that day was final, we do not derive much “closure” from this development, because for us the closest thing to closure we ever got was a funeral. There is no moving on for us. Blake is still gone. We will never again meet, hug, laugh, cry, confide. My child will never meet his hero Uncle Blake.
The whole issue of closure means everything to others and trivia to us. To those who were stung by the attacks, but not necessarily struck by it, bin Laden’s death finally gives them their pride of settlement, of control, of eye-for-eye justice. Even Jesus be cool with that.
Well we the people, we got our man. We retook control and showed ‘em who’s boss. I suppose that passes for “closure.” ‘Twas the one thing we all ever really wanted, and the only thing I’ll never ever get.
Jordan Wallens is author of Gridchronic. He works for an investment firm and lives in Los Feliz with his wife Idoya, son Atticus and basset hound Humphrey.
*Photo courtesy of Jordan Wallens.