On this day, the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I’m thinking about silence.
Only once in my life have I ever experienced something approaching profound silence. It was in 1975, during the spring I think. I went to a cottage in rural East Anglia, England with my friend Caroline’s family. We’d had a lively drive, lots of fast, witty repartee—one of my favorite things about Britain and the British, and arguably the factor that led me to spend ten years of my life there—and the typical family joking and teasing. We’d left London early evening and arrived late at night.
I was completely unprepared for what happened when we arrived, when the car engine turned off. I stepped out of the car and doubled over and covered my ears to protect them from the intense roar of the silence.
Because that’s what it was. I spoke, just to break into it, just to make some noise that would cut through the negative aural space that manifested itself as a painful wash of white noise, heavy on the high frequencies. There was no wind, no wildlife sounds, we were too far from the coast to hear waves. The night was moonless, so inky black that I had to walk with my hands out in front of me and felt as though my next step would tumble me into the abyss. It seemed an eternity until someone finally turned on the light in the cottage, and I could see where I was going. And not until we were inside, and our footsteps and voices and nighttime preparations reverberated off the walls, floors, and ceilings of the house did the oppressive silence fade.
It was a frightening, unexpected experience. Even when I’d been out in the country up in Northern Vermont watching the Perseid meteor shower under a moonless blanket of stars, or miles from civilization in the American west on a family camping vacation, I had never understood what the complete absence of sound might be like.
I have never had such an experience again. I don’t understand it, I don’t see how somewhere not really all that far from London could have been so profoundly silent. Perhaps it was a phenomenon created by my own ears. I will never know.
What I do know is that when we say we value silence, that’s not the kind of silence we mean. We mean the absence of certain sounds: people talking, a radio or television, music, machinery. We don’t mean the absence of wind, or bodies shifting in chairs, or pets squeaking in their sleep, or birds chirping, or insects buzzing. We don’t mean the complete absence of any audible evidence of life.
I guess what this has to do with 9/11, or any tragic, sudden death of one or thousands of people, is that it makes me wonder at what point do the dying enter a realm of total silence? Is there a split second where they recognize that place before there is nothing? And is there fear in that moment, or peace?
Unfathomable, unanswerable questions, just as unfathomable and unanswerable to me as the question of how any human being could intentionally cause the death or even suffering of another.
And yet, people do. Every day. Which is why I suppose that that one day when so many souls crossed over from life to the unknown beyond—and knew it was happening, could foresee their fate—haunts me.
It always will.