Responding to Loss: Notre Dame, 9/11, and My Family’s Cabin

About 13 years ago, Denisa woke me up from a nap. Her face was white. Shocked. “The Cabin burned down,” she told me. I had no way to really process what she was saying. Ever since I could remember, my family had a cabin up in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. It was very much a communal affair. It belonged to my grandparents, and the entire family would head there en masse for holidays and vacations. Growing up, some of my happiest memories are spending a week each summer with my cousins up at that cabin, watching movies, playing games, going fishing, and just having a blast.

When I was in college, I was only about an hour away from the cabin. (Much closer than I’d been when I lived in Pennsylvania.) Denisa and I would go up regularly, but again it was almost always with family. My grandparents. My cousins. My aunts and uncles. Going to the Cabin on your own just felt . . . wrong. Like an amusement park where none of the rides are running. Year after year, the Cabin never really changed. It had always been there, and it always would be.

Until it wasn’t.

We never figured out exactly what happened. The nearest guess is my grandfather had left some rags in a bucket on the front porch. He’d been applying some stain with them, and he left them outside when he drove off. They must have spontaneously combusted in the sunlight. That initial fire caught the stairs on fire, and the cabin, being a cabin, was quickly engulfed. It was all gone. The film collection. The family pictures. The embodiment of all those years of fun.

I still sometimes think about it. Think about what it would have been like if I’d been there when those rags combusted. How big of a window did we have to stop the fire from happening? I think about the different rooms and things inside them that I loved, each of them burning, one after another. It’s incredibly sad to me. Yes, we rebuilt the Cabin, and when we did we said we’d make it “even better than before.” It’s a beautiful new building, but it’ll never be better than the original for me. The original was my childhood. It was Star Wars: A New Hope. The new one is the prequels. (Well, maybe it’s Rogue One. Let’s not get carried away here.)

It’s probably natural that one of my first thoughts when I watched Notre Dame burn on television was of the Cabin and all those nightmares around it. I’d been to Notre Dame twice, once in high school on a marching band trip, and once a few years ago with my family. I’m a bit of a cathedral junkie. Any city I go to in Europe, I have to seek them out, just to appreciate the sort of effort and craft that went into them. Seeing the aftermath is heartbreaking, though I’m so glad the entire building wasn’t lost. Hearing Macron say they’ll rebuild it “better than ever” definitely reminds me of my family’s goals after the fire, along with the inevitable conclusion that it can’t be better than the original, because the original was the original. There’s no need to be “better,” though we say it to try and comfort ourselves. To feel like there wasn’t a loss. That we’ll make things right again.

Even though we can’t.

When a loss happens in our life, whether it’s something physical like a building or emotional like a friendship, that loss leaves marks on us. The bigger the loss, the bigger the marks. It doesn’t mean we’ll never be happy again, or things won’t ever be right, but it does mean they’ll always be different. I think it’s important to recognize that and to give yourself time to process it.

The other thing I was reminded of in those flames was watching the Twin Towers burn on 9/11. The comparison is inevitable for me, since that event had such an impact on me as well. Here I was again, watching footage of a place I knew. A world icon in flames.

I remember in the aftermath of 9/11, so many people didn’t know quite how to respond to it. I was certainly one of those people. It was too big for my mind to really wrap around it. I was in college at the time, and I went to classes the next day. The professor chose to use the event as a lecture topic. I’m sure he was trying to deal with it, just as I was, and perhaps his efforts helped some. All I know is that for me, they were the exact wrong approach. He was discussing the symbolism of the Twin Towers. Picking apart why the terrorists had chosen those buildings. What it all meant.

I went back to my apartment and dropped his class that afternoon. I had no desire right then to use that tragedy as a discussion topic. That was a city I knew and loved. A city I’d grown up with. I had friends who had been around the World Trade Center that day. Family members who were close enough that I was worried if they were okay, and relieved to find out they were. I can talk about the events now, of course. I’ve had the time I needed to process it all. But I still remember the anger I felt sitting in class that day as the professor blithely used all of what had happened as a way to discuss something so trivial (to me that day) as Flaneur literature.

In the aftermath of Notre Dame, I’ve seen some of the same things happening. I saw articles written just hours later talking about how we all could use that loss to understand other things more acutely. How we were supposed to feel or think or cope. I couldn’t bring myself to read those articles, because to me, it would be as if Denisa had woken me from my nap that day thirteen years ago and said, “The Cabin burned down. We need to remember how much it inspired us, and how its loss will bring us to new heights in the future.”

When I encounter loss, I don’t need explanation or justification. I need time to let myself be sad. I don’t need people telling me “Cathedrals have burned down before” or “It was only a building” or “It could have been so much worse” or “There are so many other things in the world to be sad about.” I need people to be quiet. There will be time for all that self-reflection and philosophy later. But it’s okay to be sad for a while. To feel for what’s gone. To recognize that things will never be the same.

A tree grows organically. It encounters trials throughout its life. Wind storms. Ice storms. High winds. They affect what the tree looks like. How it twists and what limbs thrive. At the end of all those storms, it still looks like a tree, but it’s a different tree than it would have been without the storms. It might be stronger. It might be weaker. But it’s inevitably different.

And that’s all I have to say about that today.


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2 thoughts on “Responding to Loss: Notre Dame, 9/11, and My Family’s Cabin”

  1. Great article – it definitely resonates with me. I was in France just a few weeks before the fire and had the opportunity to tour Notre Dame, and I feel so blessed by that opportunity. I felt so sad when I learned of the fire. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    PS: In the first paragrpah, you have a their that should be there in this sentence. “It belonged to my grandparents, and the entire family would head their en masse for holidays and vacations.”

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