Facing mortality on Flight 93; also in the slow mundane ways.
[This is undefended / undefeated, a newsletter about ideas at the heart of material culture, from Sara Hendren. You signed up for it at some point. Unsubscribe as you need; link at the bottom!]
[Flight 93 memorial site via.]
My husband Brian broke his jaw in middle school in 1983, and his friend Todd Beamer broke his jaw a few months later, both of them enduring the dreaded mouth-wired-shut state of recovery for weeks on end: the meals sadly sipped through a straw, the clenched diminution of the speaking voice. Brian’s break was the ignominious kind—on his way to soccer practice but not a bonafide sports injury—he was riding his bike, no helmet, with his cleats stupidly looped and dangling from the handlebars. Naturally, the cleats got tangled up in the spokes and the bike stopped suddenly and Brian went flying, a projectile in a slow-motion arc, clean over the handlebars and onto the pavement, taking the full weight of his 13-year-old body on the chin. On the jaw. In the hospital bed waiting for the doctor, he moved his head to one side and the unhinged mandible hung suspended, loose, failing to follow after it.
Todd got all the way to soccer to break his jaw the way you’d expect—a head butt with another player at exactly the wrong angle. Maybe the other kids took a knee to make sure he was ok? Brian doesn’t remember. He showed Todd the ropes in the aftermath, explaining that milkshakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner only sound good for about three days. You have to get creative to survive it, liquefying nearly everything: tacos, spaghetti. Disgusting in the abstract but a lifesaver in the end. They were young. The bones knit together. Later Brian’s doctor said you could see no evidence of the break.
In those days Brian and Todd had their first jobs together as janitors-in-training at an elementary school. Their boss, Mr. Greiff, taught them useful skills: How to wield a mop (figure-8 pattern, two handed; use your arms, not your back). How to drill without stripping screws (back off the force earlier than you think). How to go stoic and face down other people’s bodily fluids in a giant mess (just tackle it). Brian and Todd were suburban kids and milk-fed on gospel, in an almost pre-cognitive sense—catechized by hymns and prayers and scraps of verse from all over the Bible, learning mnemonic devices for memorizing the fruits of the spirit, the names of the disciples, the books of the Old Testament as permanent earworm. They rode their bikes and worked that job for three years, summers and evenings. Brian called him Toddler. They shared a debilitating crush on Mary Lou Retton.
On September 11, 2001, Brian and I were in London on our first trip together overseas. We were heading back to our rented apartment after a fancy lunch on a Tuesday and noticed the eerie quiet of the street. The only sound coming through was the tinny voice of tv and radio drifting out of open windows, phrases about a plane crash. We had no smart phones. We turned on the tv. It was something like 10:30 in the morning in New York. Brian’s mother called to tell us that Todd had been on Flight 93.
Our flight home was cancelled; we stayed in London another week. We watched the news every day until we couldn’t anymore. We walked the city and checked our email on occasion in an internet cafe. It was 2001, and that was a digital era that came and vanished—in retrospect it seems like five minutes—when the news cycle was speeding up but the distribution of headlines wasn’t yet delivered intravenously through personal devices. It was a semi-public, semi-private exchange to order your coffee and wait for it while queuing up for the portal to check in with some distant place.
In the days after the 11th, we went to those cafes and got emerging news about Todd: that he’d been among a group who attempted to take over the cockpit; that there was a voice recording of him saying prayers and psalms on one of those also-vanished seat-back phones, and then the words as he hung up: You guys ready? Let’s roll. In an internet cafe you could get your breakfast with your online updates, but you might also have to watch, useless, while your husband just craters, stunned, weeping at a desktop computer, the rush and whistle of the milk steamers running in the background.
There are a bunch of industrial hardening processes—breaking down materials to make them stronger—that lend themselves to metaphor: annealing metal wires, tempering glass. You apply a heat process to change the molecular structure and make them more pliable or shatterproof, depending on what’s called for. But the bones, we say, are knit. The set of the jaw as the shape of resolve: Every year we tell our kids a little bit more about September 11th, and every year they can understand it a little better. It’s always a sober recounting until the thunderclap of emotion at the end, which is always somehow a surprise. When Brian tells them about what Todd did—what we know, or what we surmise, anyway—he always looks away and says he’s not at all clear whether he’d have done the same, or whether he’d have been immobilized. I love him for what Keats called this negative capability—the skill to sit with uncertainty, even indefinitely. Brian would never make that day into an object lesson to score points as a father.
Twenty years after September 11th, though, and thirty-five after the jaw thing, Brian is two long years into a mysterious illness: vestibular trouble, chronic insomnia, and nausea, like a hangover on repeat, every day. He took a year off on disability to try to figure it out, doing months of neuro-physical therapy, doing a water-only fast to reset his gut biome, adopting several different strict and onerous diet and exercise protocols. He’s tried everything, has seen a couple dozen doctors. We have a supplement graveyard in a kitchen drawer. Far outside a pandemic, it’s the hardest period of his life.
He’s back to work now, keeping busy in a way that mutes the symptoms, moving forward. Todd’s big confrontation with the end—his and countless others’—was a particular kind of test, with such a concentration of heat and light that the cinematic quality writes itself. Brian understands this quality better than anyone I know: he’s a documentary film editor, spends every day structuring chronologies in pursuit of the most complex truthtelling. So how would he compress his own timeline and tests of the body that are proceeding at an undramatic snail’s pace? Brian and Todd, each facing down the human mess, the jawline annealed or tempered or prepared—or not—for the life cut short. Or the unremarkable challenge of a still-here existence.
Todd’s widow Lisa wrote that neither the Lord’s Prayer nor the 23rd Psalm was in his regular recitation as an adult. He recovered them on Flight 93 from his early days, the pre-cognitive incantatory verse felt as instinct. I wish more people knew that for Christians, those words are not “comfort” in some anodyne promise of the afterlife. The other Lisa, the helpdesk agent he spoke to on the seat-back phone, said that Todd was uncannily methodical in his reportage of the hijacking, his voice rarely breaking in their conversation even as the gravity of the situation was dawning, and even as he spoke the automatic poetry before the end. Psalm 23 is not a victory lap or a fairytale. The words are too strange for our grasp and too ordinary to load up with sentimental freight. Who could account for that day? Each one of those people in a giant mechanical fallen bird, each one knit together, specific and alive.
[Soccer team in 1983: Todd, #23, a couple of months before his jaw break, and Brian, further left in profile and bowl cut, jaw wired shut, running stats in recovery.]
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