Years ago when I was in high school, our class visited Antietam Battlefield which is not that far away in Maryland. I really didn't know much about the Civil War and it WAS called the Civil War in my high school, not the War Between the States and certainly not the War of Northern Aggression. We may have been south of the Mason Dixon line but my nuns were mostly from New England. I did not go to school in Virginia!
I knew about the bloodiness of that battle but was totally unprepared for the overwhelming sense of grief as I walked though the empty fields. I've often wanted to go back and visit Antietam but somehow it's never happened.
About 15 years ago, I was going to a wedding down in Louisiana and while driving down, I spent the night in Vicksburg. That afternoon I drove to the battlefield on my own. It was an autumn day, overcast with the fog drifting in and out. As I drove along the park route, I was struck with that same feeling of grief as well as increasing panic. Even though it was daytime, I was terrified that I would be stuck there, trapped and unable to find my way out. The route was circular but that didn't help me. I had to stop, pull over and say a prayer for all those who must have felt those terrible feeling as the battles raged. Many never did get out and died along those same cliffs. Once again, I was touched by the emotion of those who had died.
Last week I had a wonderful 3 days in New York City. As soon as my bus arrived and I checked into my hotel, I took the subway down to the World Trade Center site. I didn't know if the museum would be crowded or how my knee would hold up so I hadn't bought a ticket in advance. As I approached the site, the still empty space, I felt that old familiar feeling rising up in me. I turned to the wall on my right and saw the poster of the firefighters who had perished. Their presence was tangible.
The emotion of total grief was even stronger than I had ever felt at a battlefield, I'm sure because I lived through that day even tho I was not there. I almost decided that the poster was enough for me but didn't.
I continued on to the empty space and did decide to visit the museum. While it was all a moving and worthwhile experience, it was that poster that allowed me to share in the truly horrific feelings of those people who died on September 11, 2001. The presence of such grief makes this kind of site holy ground.
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