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Death and Sunflowers

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On 9/11, my daughter and her family were here in San Diego for the wedding of an old friend. They had their gift nicely wrapped with a frothy bow, her red silk shawl was freshly pressed, and her husband’s tux hung ready in the closet. But when those planes slammed into those towers, wedding guests on route from England and other places were turned back in midair. With everyone mired in shock and grief, the wedding was called off.


It was a time to gather for solace, so the bride and groom drove down from Pasadena, and two more thwarted guests came in from Redlands. We sat solemnly in my family room and watched the relentless TV reports. We wept at the horrific scenes, played and replayed, and we found ourselves moved by the overwhelming displays of international sympathy.


That day, people walked the length of London’s Oxford Street to the US embassy to sign the condolence book, and a man, slowly rode his bike up the street, waving a huge American flag while people cheered him on. At the Embassy, the statue of FDR was festooned with flowers and personal tributes. One note read, “Today, we are all Americans.” Propped against the base of the statue was a photograph someone had taken of himself at the top of the World Trade Center and scattered around it were scribbled references to the British/American alliance in WWII. In the wake of a vicious act of hatred, the world loved America.


The day’s emotional dichotomy reminded me of a story I’d once read about an anti-American demonstration in the Middle East. Amid sign waving and shouting, one protester stopped long enough to chat up a journalist, and when he realized that the reporter was American, his eyes lit up. He so wanted to visit. He dreamed of taking his children to Disneyland! Then, with the conversation over and no apparent sense of irony, he resumed chanting anti-American slogans. America seemed to exist for him as two opposing concepts—on the one hand, a big bad scapegoat for all the ills of the world, and on the other, a shining promise of the good life.


This double-edged sentiment, this human capacity to contain contradictory passions, was similar to the feeling in my family room on 9/11. While we tried to comprehend the scale of that day’s atrocities, the young couple sat close to each other on the sofa, and the bride murmured softly into the groom’s ear. He took her hand and said, “We still want to get married.”


I looked at them, young, earnest and forward-looking, proof that life and death coexist, and that we must, we must, honor that balance and carry on. While the murderers huddled in caves, we would go on living in the sun as a form of vengeance. Blind-sided by terrible loss, it might have been inappropriate to throw a splashy bash in a chic hotel, but it seemed entirely right and fitting to affirm the resilience of the human spirit, and so we had a wedding.


The bride held the sunflowers I’d had in a vase on the kitchen table, and my daughter selected a passage from Kahlil Gibran on friendship. There was eight of us, plus my one-year-old grandson. We stood around the stone Buddha under a palm tree in the garden while the couple recited their vows, and the backdrop of tragedy gave the moment weight and urgency. Even the baby, wide-eyed and sucking his thumb, seemed subdued by our bittersweet mood. Death brings life into sharp relief.


Afterward, back in the house, we all glanced at the TV but no one turned it on again, not yet. Instead, I served celebratory champagne and comforting chocolate cake. I always keep cake and champagne on hand because you just never know when you might need one or the other.

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