You don’t get any more memories

How grief works, and a 9/11 story. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I’m still technically on vacation and not supposed to be doing this right now, so I’ll keep this fairly short. But I wanted to share an outstanding story if you haven’t seen it.

It’s especially apropos given the disheartening news out of Afghanistan this weekend.

Jennifer Senior is a talented researcher and writer with a penchant for being inspired by the world around her. I first heard of her when she wrote a bestselling book on parenting called All Joy and No Fun, at a time when, if my math is right, she would have been the mom to a son aged maybe 5 or 6.

Right now, she has the cover story in The Atlantic, which is about the story of Bobby McIlvaine, who was 26 when he was killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Senior actually knew Bobby, because he was her brother’s roommate, both at Princeton University and in New York City when the two were beginning their careers. As it happens, Bobby didn’t even work at the World Trade Center, but he apparently went there that fateful day in order to help a colleague at a conference in the North tower.

I don’t want to rewrite the entire story here, but it hinges in part on the fact that Bobby was a voracious diarist.

His final journal wound up in the hands of Jen, his “almost-fiancée” (he had bought a ring and asked her father for permission to marry her on September 9), and custody of those final 17 pages caused a rift between her and Bobby’s mother lasting nearly two decades.

“You don’t get any more memories,” said a friend of Bobby’s mother, who knew her from a circle of parents called the “limping group,” as they had all lost children. “So anything written, any video, any card—you cling to that. That’s all you’re going to get for life.”

Thanks to Senior’s journalistic efforts, Jen and Bobby’s parents and brother reunite toward the end of the story. But that story goes through so many twists and turns first.

Perhaps most marked is how Bobby’s parents developed almost diametrically opposed strategies to deal with their loss:

Helen, Bobby’s mother, spent the first 10 years after 9/11 trying to “starve” her grief, Senior writes.

“[S]he was determined not to be, as she puts it, ‘At-Least-I’m-Not-Helen.’ Living with the impossible was hard enough. But to be in the position of having to console others about her misfortune, or to manage their discomfort, or, worst of all, to smile politely through their pity—that was more than she could bear.”

Bob McIlvaine Sr., Bobby’s father, became obsessed—with the death of his child, yes, but also with what we’ll politely call “alternative theories” about how the World Trade Center might have been destroyed. Senior summarizes:

A controlled demolition, he means. That is how he thinks Bobby died that day, and how the towers eventually fell: from a controlled demolition.

It was an inside job, planned by the US government, not to justify the war in Iraq—that was a bonus—but really, ultimately, to destroy the 23rd floor, because that’s where the FBI was investigating the use of gold that the United States had unlawfully requisitioned from the Japanese during World War II, which it then leveraged to bankrupt the Soviet Union. The planes were merely for show.

I recommend reading the whole thing. It might be behind a paywall, but The Atlantic does generally give visitors a few free articles, so hopefully, most who want to read it won’t be stymied.

Today, Jen, Bobby’s “almost-fiancée,” is married with kids aged 13 and 15; I was struck to think that had 9/11 not happened, neither of her children would likely have been born. Also, Bobby’s brother is married with four kids of his own; his oldest boy is named after Bobby, and Helen and Bob Sr. are doting grandparents.

Beyond 9/11, and the upcoming anniversary, and the memory of just one of the thousands who were killed that day, I think this story is largely about the nature of grief. In fact, Senior was asked about the most striking thing she learned about grief while researching and writing this piece:

“That some people really need it. That they need to feel pain. That getting better is not really something they’re interested in doing. When we tell people to ‘move on’ and ‘get past things,’ it may be a kind of tyranny.

“I marveled at the fact that [Helen and Bob] made their marriage work given that they needed to grieve in such different ways—and each in ways the other, I think, found genuinely baffling.

“What bonded them, clearly, was how hurt they were, and how much they loved their son, and that no one could understand what their pain was—no one besides the other.”

A total of 2,977 people were killed on September 11, 2001. Every loss created countless ripples; everyone they touched has a story. I’m glad someone told this one.

Call for comments: I’d like to know what you’ve learned about grief in your own life. Also, we’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and I haven’t decided how to commemorate it here. What do you think we should do?

Leave a comment


7 other things worth your time

  • Why did so many Afghan soldiers desert or fail to fight immediately after the US left? A few logical reasons might include: very high casualty rates; lack of training for individual soldiers; lack of basic skills among recruits (like literacy, or how to drive a car); corruption among the ranks; and a poorly functioning system to pay soldiers. (NPR, Twitter)


Thanks for reading. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.