At the end of Jonathan Saffron Foer’s masterpiece, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, you will find, instead of words, a series of pictures. I call them the falling-up pictures. You see a shot of one of the twin towers, and slowly, page after page, the body of a man in a suit falls up, and up, and up. He falls up and disappears from the picture altogether.
The protagonist, my beloved Oskar, who lost his father on 9/11, finally can begin to accept and to heal because if you just look at things backwards, sometimes everything can be okay.
My father, Juan Mendez Lafuente, was murdered at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
I remember the days of not knowing where my dad was, and all of the grand ideas that my family concocted, desperate in an attempt to locate, signify, and identify. Or basically, we just wanted to know something, even if it had to be invented. My beloved Oskar from Foer’s novel spent hours inventing when he could not fall asleep at night.
After 17 days of waiting and wondering, my family finally gave up hope. It took much longer to adjust to the constant emptiness that now colors our daily lives, and on occasion, can lead to grand speculation. Sometimes, I admit, I dream that my dad is just an amnesiac somewhere. Even after 11 years, I have daydreams (and night dreams) in which he comes home. I can’t help it.
For a long time, I wondered: What would it be like to learn that my dad was alive after those first 17 days of fearing that he was dead? I had just begun to accept that I would never see him again. But what if suddenly my wildest dream came true?
Remember the the Copiapó mine collapse? Remember when 33 miners were brought back to the surface of the earth? I will never forget it. To this day, I can’t even read about it without sobbing.
Those questions that I so often wondered about were answered as I watched the miners get rescued, one by one. Specifically, I saw the answer in the face of a small boy whose dad emerged from the mine second. I saw the boy wait, and wait. I saw his dad emerge from the ground in the rescue capsule, and step out with sunglasses covering his eyes. I saw the face of the young boy crumble and cry when he saw his dad, in the flesh, alive. I saw them hug. I saw in that moment that young boy’s future, a beautiful and mundane future of having a dad to tell him what to do, tell him to go ask his mother, to eat his vegetables, to be careful with the car, to get into a good college or get a good job, to take a math class, as my dad used to beg me to do when I was in college.
Imagine it. After 17 days of hell, tap tap, lightning spark, you find out that your dad is alive. Will he stay alive? Is he okay? Then food is sent down. Then even cigarettes. And, how amazing, letters go back and forth. I try to imagine what it would be like to have gotten one last letter. I try and imagine what it must have been like to write it or to receive it. I try to imagine what it is to be the wife and mother of that boy and that man.
Imagine it. Fifty-two days later, your dad comes home with the world watching. He hugs the president. He hugs his family. He smiles, and humbly steps off of the world stage to make way for the rest of the seemingly endless procession of men who will fall up, and up, and up.
Thirty-three dads came home in two days. They fell up. My dad never came home or fell up. But I got to experience what that must be like as I watched the footage of the miners’ rescue. It happened to be on television in the locker room at my gym. When I saw what was happening, I sat down on a bench in sweaty clothes and cried. I let myself feel the strange and intense melancholy of someone else’s hope being realized. And I felt the sting of my own deep-seeded tragedy, which is almost but not quite buried in the back of my head every day.
Welcome home again to all of the 33 miners who went to hell and back two years ago. I watched you fall up for thousands of feet, tick by tick, pathetic tears rolling down. I shared moments with strangers in a locker room with women I do not know because we were all, whether we like it or not, affected, amazed, and privileged to share in this moment.
Please, please, keep falling up so I can return to this footage night after night and cry. In the good way.