Friday, December 21, 2007

Dirty Little Secret #78

Almost 20 years later
, I remember listening to the details come in on Radio 1, while eating salt and vinegar Smith’s crisps.

I had been made to clean my room late that afternoon, and I was sitting on my bed reading a book. It was dark; cabs rushed by the brownstone at street level, three stories below me. News drifted in of a plane that had crashed, a 747 out from Heathrow, bound for Scotland.

That's odd, I thought. Why would a 747 fly from Heathrow to Scotland? The news soon changed: a 747 out of Heathrow, headed for New York, had gone down over Scotland. I remember standing at the top of the stairwell and Daddy asking us if we knew anyone who was flying home that night.

I did.

My friend Sarah was fourteen when she and her parents and her eight-year-old sister Laura died on Pan Am Flight 103. She was a fellow student at the American School in London, and she was terribly homesick her first year away from all that was familiar in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She and her family were headed home for Christmas. She was excited, because at the last minute her father found them spots on an earlier flight to JFK.

I couldn't be certain, I told my father, that she was on that flight. Later, as we ate take-out in front of the TV, I began to dial the 800 numbers that promised a passenger list. Early the next afternoon, another girl in our eighth grade class confirmed the news with the airline that Sarah was amongst the passengers. My mother began the arduous task of calling my classmates' parents to break the news.

A few weeks later, Sarah and Laura's grandparents came to London to pack up their family's small apartment. Both of Sarah's parents had been only children. Mr. and Mrs. Owens - her paternal grandparents - were elderly and kind. They came to the school and asked the counselors to pull together a group of friends for them to meet. They asked us about her life in London, about our memories of her. They asked us if we knew what she had been wearing the day that she died, because they were struggling to find her.

And they had a message for us: we should not be sad. Sarah's death was a glorious event, they told us. She was with Jesus now, and God clearly had a higher purpose for her and her sister and her parents.

I struggled with that.

I went home and told my mother that if God's higher purpose was to blow 259 people out of the sky and crush another 11 on the ground, then I had no purpose for God. She tried to tell me that this was only Mrs. Owens' interpretation, the manner in which she sought comfort. She struggled to convince me that I could see God in a different way, that he'd given the bombers free will to perpetrate this crime and that he mourned Sarah's loss as deeply as I did while gathering her to his bosom.

I still struggle with that.

So I suppose that this is no secret. I struggled with a label for this: my first experience with fear? My first experience with hatred? The loss of my faith at an early age?

When I got to Mt. Holyoke in 1993, I sat in a small language lab listening room, struggling with my French homework. I discovered a small plaque there, commemorating the fact that Martha "Marty" Owens, Sarah’s mother, had attended the college. Clearly, I thought, this experience has some purpose.

I just don't know what that is.

No comments: