The Most Terrible Conversation
How 9/11 caused our brains to go to unimaginable places
On this day of remembering, what I remember most is the fear that caused us to consider scenarios that had been previously unfathomable. I wrote this piece in late September, 2001.
On Saturday afternoon, my husband and I left our daughters with friends in Oakland and drove across the long swooping Richmond bridge, then through small towns and redwood groves until we reached water again, the narrow strip of Tomales Bay, to our favorite small cottage in Inverness. It was a brief refuge of less than twenty hours, to eat a good meal uninterrupted, to be with each other alone in the little room with the peaked ceiling, to make love noisily and to read quietly, all things that are so rare in the midst of family life. And at the end of this idyllic little pocket of time, celebrating our thirteenth year of marriage, as we were driving the winding road back through the dry tawny hills, the hawks spreading their shadows over our car, that we had the most terrible conversation of our fifteen years together.
All weekend we had been circling each other, holding hands as we spoke in low voices, of the most sobering and frightening events that have gripped our world in the past two weeks. It has been shocking to comprehend how differently we view these acts, and our responses to them. It has always seemed that part of our bond, what drew us together fifteen years ago, was our shared worldview. We spent our honeymoon in a war zone in Nicaragua, studying Spanish and working in a village laboratory. We have always spoken the same language.
And it was not until this month, when thousands of innocents were killed, that our words, our beliefs, and our actions diverged for the first time. My husband, who has marched in countless antiwar demonstrations, who nearly fled to Canada to avoid fighting in Vietnam, has been talking about enlisting as a medic. He would do it tomorrow, he says, if it weren’t for us, his wife and children. And I see the determination in his face. “We can’t sit around and do nothing,” he says, and I know he is dead serious.
One of the films that moved us deeply, that evoked half an hour of weeping in the theater, is The Mission, which tells the age old story of oppression, greed, power, domination. In the final moments of attack upon a small Jesuit mission in the Brazilian rainforest, the two main characters diverge: the pacifist priest, Jeremy Irons, prays silently on his knees as the fire rains down on him; and the converted mercenary, Robert deNiro, runs out charging, to his death. We have never spoken of it, my husband and I, but we have always known who is who. That he will be the one to take up arms, to defend his home, and I will be the one to gather the children in my arms and pray.
He is impatient with our friends, our friends of a dozen years, the peace activists who are our community. “All of what they say might be true,” he says, “that we deserve it, that we have been sowing this hatred around the world for years. But they do not address, ever, what are we supposed to do to stop it, now that it has come to our doorstep. What are we going to do to protect ourselves?”
My husband is a physician. Quickly, he moves on to the next terrifying scenario. We have already received countless emails from friends begging for prescriptions, the Ciprofloxacin to counter the anthrax, the antibiotics, the cures. For some reason he is not worried about anthrax. But he has been pacing the house at night, rubbing his hand through his hair, worrying about smallpox. What if the smallpox comes?
And this is what led us to the conversation, the most chilling conversation of our married lives, as we drove through the beautiful golden meadows, the black cows wandering slowly, oblivious, through their paradise. What if, he said. What if that is the next thing—smallpox? What do we do if we know it is coming? Do we leave? Where would we go? Do we rush to the country? Do we seal off our home and huddle together inside? How?
My husband is the only one of the four of us who is old enough to have the small smooth star on his forearm, the scar from his childhood smallpox vaccine. It is probably worn into uselessness by now, but it is more protection than we have, our daughters and I. It would be up to me, then, he said, his eyes filling with tears, to take care of you. We would do it at home, he continued, because hospitals would be useless, and I tried to imagine it, hanging IV bags from lamps in the living room, our seven year old wrapped in her yellow blanket, black lumps crusting on her body. We would need fluids, he said, and painkillers. Morphine. A lot of morphine. Ticking off a list in his head, just like a shopping list: bread, oranges, milk.
We drove over the San Rafael bridge, toward home, and the water was sparkling, a million lights over the deep blue surface. We talked about how far we would go, in such a scenario. I don’t want to be alive, I said, if the whole world has smallpox, if there is nothing around us but death and suffering. I don’t want the girls to suffer. Our voices cracked and we talked about the people who leaped from the towers, the sure death of it.
The bridge, he said. I am not taking my daughters off a bridge, I told him. Our voices got weaker and weaker as we laid out the different options, of guns and pills and the terrible things we could do to each other and to our children, if the world disintegrated into such an unbearable place. And then the conversation itself became unbearable and we grasped each others’ hands and drove in silence the rest of the way home, under the unblinking afternoon sun.