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Life Support: When nothing adds up

A grieving New Yorker finds a measure of comfort in counting

Thursday, October 04, 2001

By Caroline Abels

I pressed the coffee grinds to the bottom of my French press, reached for a coffee mug and the Half and Half, then saw the sign propped up above my kitchen sink:

Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette

"1 2 3 [white letters in red circles] Chambers Street World Trade Center"

Stopped. Put my hand over my mouth as if looking at a gruesome sight: this tacky metal subway sign, bought years ago at the New York City Transit Museum as a nice memento for a rider of the 1, 2, and 3 subway lines to take to Pittsburgh. I was stunned that I hadn't noticed it until now, 11 days later.

Eleven days since the 11th. The first object in my home I had to remove because of what happened. Five months since I last visited my parents in New York City. One month until I'd be there again.

Eleven. Five. One.

These days, I count, count insignificant things because they're somehow significant now. The number of everyday objects that remind me of the death and destruction. The number of friends and family members I call more often. The number of times I begin to feel normal again. The number of times I lapse back into unease.

I count the number of degrees separating me from a victim of the tragedies. I count two degrees with one friend, three degrees with another. This does not make me a victim, too - it makes me someone who counts because she doesn't know what else to do.

I now talk to my parents in New York three times a week instead of one. I count the numbers in an e-mail that states the many ways in which "11" crops up in this tragedy. I count the number of bulletins that CNN drags across the bottom of my television screen.

I count the number of flags on a house in Highland Park. I count the number of times I have turned my head when I hear a siren. I count how much time goes by before I decide to put my tacky metal subway sign in a closet: one minute.

I would like to count the number of times I have taken life for granted, but that number is countless.

So I count my blessings instead. The friends I have, the cans of food in my pantry, the number of airplane flights I've taken. The dollars in my paycheck, the times I've recovered from illness, the number of sunsets I've seen over an ocean.

I could probably count on one hand the number of items owned by one of the impoverished people of Afghanistan, or the many other countries in which people simultaneously pine for a life in America and feel injured or insulted by our policies. I could probably count hundreds of times when America, with its billions, had an opportunity to be generous with poor and desperate people around the world, but chose not to be.

I would like to count the number of years it will take for America and all the countries in the world to jointly foster democracy and lift people out of poverty and oppression. But I can't even guess that number right now, although I have my hopes.

So instead I count the number of times that a conversation about something else has turned into a conversation about this. I count the number of times I've heard an airplane fly over me since that day. I count the number of e-mails in my in-box from concerned friends around the world. I count the number of different terms people have used for what happened: "the attacks," "the tragedies," "recent events."

Counting sheep has never worked for me, so I don't count anything as I'm trying to fall asleep, having read the day's newspaper too soon before going to bed. I wake up in the morning and count how many minutes I've laid in bed listening to NPR.

I try to count the number of close family members of people killed in the attacks, who might be counting the number of objects in their home that remind them of what happened - objects more significant than a fake subway sign. Objects like socks, toothbrushes, old happy birthday cards in cardboard boxes. I wonder if these objects are being kept, or thrown away.

I count the number of times that religion and philosophy have reminded me that suffering can be transcended, and cannot overtake the human spirit.

I count the number of people I know who have resolved to move on with their lives, more grateful than ever for the present moment.

And I count the number of times my aunt has been late to family gatherings - the same aunt who always went to work late at the World Trade Center, which is why she wasn't there that morning.

Funny how counting numbers can be a relief during troubled times.

Except when the number is 4,986.

Caroline Abels is the cultural arts writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail: cabels@post-gazette.com.

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