September 9, 2011 - September 11, 2015

Perpetual Light
Perpetual Light

Kenneth Waldie, a young father of four and my cousin, is buried in Manhattan. Not in, exactly. More properly, his remains were smeared across the island, were inhaled in a toxic cloud, were trodden on by the city's heedless passersby, were swept from its stoops. Some of what was him might still gather in dark, still places, laid down as another layer of human fallout.

My cousin gained an obscene intimacy with the city. His picture was in its papers. His name is engraved on one of its monuments.

My cousin was aboard the first of the two weaponized airliners deployed on September 11, 2001 and flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46:40 a.m.

It's possible to think that he's still held in Manhattan's generous marine light, but I should not think so.

But there is Whitman also, pressing against the crowd thronging at the ferry slip, pressing himself against the bodies of the city, and if I cannot believe that "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you," I cannot disbelieve it either.

Even if my cousin is not suspended safe as atoms in air above Manhattan, I could still suspend my doubt.

There is no Catholic rite for discharging the "corporal work of mercy" of burying the dead when there is no corpse to bury. A memorial mass is said instead. A photo stands in for the utterly departed.

(I wonder if, in the midst of the Cold War, Catholic theologians picked over the customs of my faith to provide a suitably reverent solution to the problem burying the faithful who had been rendered into atoms by a nuclear bomb.)

Ken was a husband, a father, a coach, an engineer at Raytheon, a Navy veteran, a graduate of Annapolis. We were about the same age. I met him only once, a few days after my mother died and when he was on way to a posting in Australia. My father, my uncle Tom, and I went to the airport to pick him up, to take him into our grieving.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis. Eternal rest grant him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. Timeless sleep in everlasting brightness, though illogical, are joined in prayers for the dead. Light and undreaming sleep - those original guards against the dead's suspected unquiet.

I can't remember a single thing about the 24 hours my cousin spent in my father's house among sullen men.

Story continues below

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page is from a public domain source.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading