SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — My friend Drew called me last Thursday, and we decided we’d look for a vigil to attend because that and donating money seemed to be all we could do from Seattle. I picked her up Saturday morning, and we joined the crowd streaming into the Seattle Center toward the International Fountain. The clear sky and warm temperature made it seem like a summer day. People carried flowers and flags. In the parking lot and at the entrance, groups of Sikhs held signs declaring their sorrow and their love for the United States. They waved flags and passed out flowers to the people coming in.
Seattle’s International Fountain is a gleaming silver dome. It looks like a gigantic sea urchin and sits at the bottom of a shallow concrete basin with gently sloping walls. In the summer, people sit on the basin’s rim or along the walls and watch the fountain shoot water into the sky. On nice days the fountain attracts jugglers and drum circles. People dance and run on the floor of the basin, as the water falls around them.
On Saturday, at the clearing near the fountain, two fire trucks faced each other, an American flag draped across the space formed between their extended ladders. The fire trucks were garlanded, and the flowers and flag transformed them into an impromptu memorial.
The water in the fountain was turned down so that just a thin sheet of falling water covered it. There were people everywhere along the basin’s rim and walls, but they were silent. They weren’t crowded too closely together. There was plenty of room to move around. Near the rim of the fountain’s basin, a young woman sat alone, staring ahead. Further down, a man and woman hugged each other. A woman helped her mother step down the sloping basin wall. A boy whispered to his father that he wanted to put his flower down closer to the fountain. On the floor of the basin, a fence made from the branches of willows encircled the fountain.
Drew and I moved through the crowd, carrying our flowers, making our way down to the willow fence. So many flowers had already been placed there it had become a thick wall interspersed with cards, handwritten notes, photographs, and flags.
We stopped and waited. In front of us, people laid their cut flowers. A young man in a light jacket threw a rose into the air, across the fence line. People in the crowd threw three or four other roses into the air. The roses flew a short distance bloom-first before landing in the space between the fence and the base of the fountain.
When our turn came, Drew and I just set our flowers down. She had brought sunflowers, and I had a blooming stem cut from the rosebush in my backyard. There were crosses made out of rosebuds, postcards of the World Trade Center, and a fire-fighter’s helmet near a toy fire truck. There were unlit votive candles in small round tins and tall vases honoring various saints. There were hand-written notes. “One love, one blood,” one said. Another said, “Josh, you meant so much to our family.” Our reading the personal notes felt like intruding on a private conversation.
I looked up at the thousands of people lining the basin’s walls. They moved slowly. Everything moved slowly. People put their flowers down into open spaces. They tugged at each others’ shirts and pointed to particular mementos and flower arrangements. They held onto one another while they stood.
There was only a moment more to take in the scene: the silent crowd filling the basin, the flag hanging between the fire trucks, the sunlight reflected by the fountain, and then the wall of flowers. Drew and I looked around, not saying anything. I put my hand on her shoulder. Then we began the hike back to the car, through the crowd, into the traffic and the noise of the world.