Dying is deleting

When we talk about 9/11, we usually think about the images; the way a plane pierces a skyscraper like a toy, causing it to collapse like a tower of blocks. But perhaps because language is the most important thing to me as a writer, the words of 11 September have stayed with me even more than the images. Listening again to the victims’ last phone calls, the shivers down my spine were just as chilling as when I heard them for the very first time. All of these people needed only eight letters to say what they wanted to as their lives came to an end: I love you.

These words seem clichéd because we have heard them too often in corny American movies, making them almost devoid of any meaning. But face to face with death, both people and the words they utter become amazingly authentic. As a writer, I try to make less be more –words constantly appear on paper only to vanish again. But I have learnt from 9/11 that when it comes to doing a great editing job, I can never beat death. I am always looking for other and better phrases to touch my readers, but the telephone calls from the WTC towers and the hijacked planes prove that only these words are irreplaceable in any language: I love you. “I love you”, said a man in the North Tower. “You’re my best friend. I don’t know if I’m going to get out of it. You have to take care of everybody for me.” It is a sentence in which language and life itself are stripped of all frivolities. This is a man revealing himself with utter naked honesty.

When death has a stranglehold on me, I will not hesitate for a moment to call my beloved. I will want to show him that to my dying day, I am still the writer that I have always been and I will tell him how the grass was always half a shade greener when he was walking beside me. I will tell him that only he could make me crazy enough to actually start loving Brussels sprouts, just because he did. I will beg him to tell me one last time what he felt when he kissed me for the very first time, so that I can hear his words echoing in my grave for eternity.

But when life appears before me in the shape of an emptying hourglass, I will have to swallow my stylized sentences and set about the biggest deleting exercise of my life. I will suppress my sobbing and tell him: I love you. And having said that, with the flames already licking at my fingers, I will have written the one and only sentence in my life that ever really mattered.

This column was published on September 7 in the literary section of ‘De Morgen’ newspaper, where I have a weekly column