An Audience of Grief and Love

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At dinner the other night, the topic of 9/11 came up. Here’s my story:

I’d headed to San Francisco prior to the next L&L Publishing video shoot. Louis had paid Johnny Thompson, magic mentor to Penn and Teller and Lance Burton, to shoot a video at Louis’ house, which doubled as L&L Publishing’s studio.  L&L made instructional DVDs for lay magicians, where famous magicians performed in front of an audience and then revealed the secrets of those tricks.

The day of the attacks, I was in my apartment in San Francisco. Louis was in his Lake Tahoe home. We watched TV together over the phone as the second plane flew into the building. We watched as people flew in the air to their deaths. We watched as the buildings came down and terror-stricken New Yorkers ran past the TV camera.

Wolf Blitzer announced all planes had been grounded.

I turned to face the blue sky out the window, trying to grasp reality. “I can’t believe this is real.”

“Come home, “Louis said. “Get back here where it’s safe.”

I wished I were already there, with him and his beagle, Petie, where I wouldn’t feel so alone and helpless. We’d been together for nine months. I had moved into Louis’ house a few months earlier, but had kept the city apartment.

Louis loved the remoteness of Lake Tahoe and the safety of his anonymous house on the side of the hill in Meeks Bay.

“What if the Golden Gate Bridge is blown up while I’m on it?”

I decided to stay in San Francisco until we knew what was happening across the country.

Back in Tahoe, we had tickets to see James Taylor in concert at the Reno Hilton the night of September 22. Eleven days after the 9/11 attack. We were numb after watching the images on TV for too many days. Life across the country was starting to resume, but nothing was back to normal.

Louis was lying on the bed watching TV. I was in the bathroom putting on makeup. “I don’t know how to behave tonight,” I said. “It’s a concert, but I don’t feel like singing or clapping.”

Louis agreed.

“All those people on TV are showing flyers of their loved ones. They haven’t accepted that they perished. How are we supposed to act happy when such a horrible thing has happened?” Louis turned off the TV, walked over to me and said, “It’s James Taylor. We listen to his music and try to forget for a few hours.”

We sat in row 11 of the concert area, outside the Hilton. When James Taylor stepped on stage, the audience clapped politely.  After a few songs James Taylor sat on a tall stool, his guitar on his knee, about to start another song, when a jet flew overhead.  He placed his right arm across the side of his guitar, looked into the sky and said nothing. No one spoke. Was everyone else wondering if it was a military jet from nearby Fallon NAS and if there was another attack happening, like I did?  Or was it was a regular flight from Reno-Tahoe airport just across the highway? Regular? I wondered. Would there be a regular flight ever again?

James Taylor continued playing his gentle songs. I had grown up with them. I knew them by heart; so had everyone in my generation, but tonight the songs had different meaning.

Fire and Rain – “thought I’d see you one more time again”…Is that what the loved ones of those who died in the attacks thought?

“I’m going to Carolina in my mind”… Because we needed to mentally retreat to a happy place? I didn’t want to go into my mind. It thought only of the dark grief of the past eleven days.

Something in the Way She Moves…”She’s been with me now quite a long, long time and I feel fine”… Who is ‘she’ and can she make us feel fine again?

After another song or so, James Taylor spoke of his daughter, Sally, a musician who had been traveling in Arizona with her band when the attacks happened. She had driven to Reno and was with him that night. He brought her on stage and there was something so right about father and daughter being together during this time, that I sighed, releasing some of the fear I had held in my stomach since 9/11.  They sang together and looked into each other’s eyes. Even from row 11, I could see love between them – the real, human emotion that kept us a part of the living.

A few verses into the next song and Sally started sobbing. She tried to keep singing, but we heard sobs of grief through the microphone. Her dad kept playing and with fatherly love, he held her gaze until the song was over. She cried throughout the rest of the song. When it ended, he enveloped her in a protective hug.  We could see her shaking shoulders from her heavy sobbing into her dad’s chest. Tears rolled down my face. Louis wiped his eyes. Everyone around us was crying.

Sally had allowed us to feel again. She was with us and gave us permission to break from the numbness that had settled over us for weeks after 9/11. She showed us her humanness and relieved us from trying to keep it together. We had been through an unspeakable tragedy as a country. Human lives were lost, fear had been instilled in us and we were afraid of living again.  Sally had cried her way into our hearts and she and her father had shown us how to find our soul.

No video shoot of a famous magician could have happened at that time, even if Johnny Thompson had arrived in Tahoe. No one was in a state to be amazed by distraction and deception. No magic could have made us feel better. We needed love, not illusion.










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