It’s the winter solstice—the day with the least scheduled sunlight all year (though it’s pretty bright and sunny today in Chicago). From this point forward, the sun will start sticking around a little bit more each afternoon, the days will seem longer and longer (in a good way), and eventually spring will save us from all this brutal coldness and dry skin and evening commutes through the inky blackness.
It was just as bright and sunny 17 years ago today in Iowa when my dad came to pick me up from college for the holiday break. I had finished all my tests, bought myself a fancy new Madras plaid watchband as a reward for surviving another semester (hey—it was the ’80s) and enjoyed a nice catch-up in the car on the way home.
And then my world came crashing down.
Mom met us in the driveway when we got home. She was sobbing. Hysterical. Without her coat. She had just undergone a radical mastectomy, and our first instinct was that she’d gotten some bad news from her oncologist.
But the bad news was something entirely different: Miriam’s plane had gone down.
Miriam was a friend of mine who had spent the semester in London studying under the auspices of Syracuse University. I’d been to visit her over the Thanksgiving break, and we’d had a great time seeing the sights, exploring the museums and taking in all the shows we could afford on our college-student budgets.
I’d been so caught up in my own finals and holiday preparations that I’d had no idea Miriam was flying home that day—much less what flight she was on. Neither had my mom. But my friend Jody in Ohio did. And when the initial reports that Pan Am flight 103 had disappeared out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, started washing over the newswires, Jody had called everyone she could think of.
Mom and Dad and I raced to the family room and crowded around the TV that crisp, sunny Iowa afternoon to see what we could find out about Miriam’s plane. It was the early days of CNN and 24-hour news, so we were able to get (spotty) information right away about the mysterious crash, along with grainy images of the wreckage shining dimly in the emergency lights that were working so hard to pierce the solstice blackness six time zones away.
Over time, of course, the world came to learn about the bomb, the Libyans, the embargoes, the bankruptcies. We cautiously wrapped our brains around the unthinkable efficiencies of global terrorism at the dawn of the Information Age. We started budgeting time for intrusive security searches at airports. We stopped packing forbidden objects in our carry-ons.
Seventeen years ago today, the world learned what a volatile mix misanthropy and religion and blind nationalism can become in a global melting pot.
Seventeen years ago today, Miriam and her fellow passengers and their families and friends learned violently and unwillingly about harsh brutalalities that the rest of the world got the relative luxury of absorbing over time.
Seventeen years ago today, I realized that the distant tragedies that so often happen to “other people” should never be observed as abstractions. I discovered that unspeakable horrors played out on the world stage can be both vulgar and comforting. I learned that life is precious, that there are no guarantees, that people who waste your time are just robbing you, that small gestures can make heroic impressions, that your pain and suffering and anguish and heartbreak do not make you special, that no matter how bad it gets you should find solace in the fact that it will probably get better, or at least easier.
Seventeen years ago today, I became a man.