Wednesday, December 21, 2011

23 years ago today

I’d finished my classes for the semester and my dad had come to pick me up from college for the holiday break. 1988 had been an emotional roller coaster for our family. We’d lost four family friends in a small plane crash Easter morning, my mom had undergone a radical mastectomy in October and she was just starting her first rounds of chemo before Christmas. I was in the middle of my junior year in college, and I’d finally found a major I was willing to stick with: English. But since I’d waited a full two years to admit to myself I always should have been an English major, I had a lot of catching up to do. And my first-semester courseload had been heavy.

December 21 is the winter solstice—the day of the year with the shortest amount of sunlight—but it was beautiful and sunny in Eastern Iowa that afternoon in 1988. And Dad and I had a nice chat over the 40-minute drive home. My family has always been close, so when we saw Mom standing in the driveway as we pulled up to the house, I figured she was just excited to see me.

But she was sobbing.

I assumed she’d gotten some bad news about her cancer while Dad was gone, so I jumped out of the car before it even came to a stop and I ran up to hug her. 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 just visited her over the Thanksgiving break, and we’d had an awesome time seeing the sights, exploring the museums and taking in all the shows we could afford on our college-student budgets. Among the four we saw were Les Misérables and an extraordinary revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Sondheim was just starting to appear on our collective radar, and we both agreed that seeing Follies together was a mountaintop experience for us to have shared over our magical week together in London.

But by December 21, I’d come home, a whole month had passed and I’d been so caught up in my finals and holiday preparations that I’d had no idea Miriam was flying back to the States that day—much less what flight she was on. Neither had my mom. But our 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 the next few months and weeks, the world came to learn about the bomb, the Libyans, the retribution, the embargoes, the bankruptcies. We cautiously wrapped our brains around the unthinkable efficiencies of global terrorism at the dawn of the Information Age. And the friends and families of the victims of the 103 bombing started experiencing the bizarre dichotomy of watching our personal tragedy play itself out on the world stage.

In the years since Miriam’s murder, I’ve befriended her parents and friends. I’ve gotten in touch with the roommates she lived with in London, none of whom had been on her plane with her that day. I’ve written pieces about my relatively removed perspective on the bombing that were published in newspapers and scholarly journals and read on NPR. And since I had been in London and had hung out with a lot of the Syracuse students a month before the bombing, I’ve actually been interviewed by the FBI.

And as I’ve grieved and matured over the last 23 years, I’ve discovered that I now tend to be efficiently emotionless when I hear about epic tragedies like the 9/11 bombings ... but I’ll still burst into tears over emotional pablum like Kodak commercials.

Twenty-three years ago today, the world learned what a volatile mix misanthropy and religion and blind nationalism can be in a global melting pot.

Twenty-three years ago today, Miriam and her fellow passengers and their families and friends learned violently and unwillingly about harsh brutalities that the rest of the world got the relative luxury of absorbing over time.

Twenty-three years ago today, I learned that the distant tragedies that so often happen to “other people” should never be observed as abstractions. I discovered that news of plane crashes and acts of terrorism that play endlessly in 24-hour newscycles can be both disturbing and strangely 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.

Twenty-three years is enough time for someone to raise a child and send him or her off into the world. Enough time for five presidential elections and four new Sondheim musicals. (Six, if you count Saturday Night and The Frogs.)

It’s enough time for a gangly, unsure college boy to cycle through four cars and five houses and six jobs and three cities and one engagement as he grows into a successful, confident (more or less) man.

It’s enough time for him to realize that the world is not fair. That bad things happen to good people. That the bad people who did them don’t always get punished. That horrible tragedy gets easier to accept over time, though it remains impossible to forget. That the hate that some people burn into your heart never entirely leaves, and that the smug, satisfied self-righteousness you feel when you finally see images of Moammar Gadhafi’s bloodied, abused corpse feels powerfully good.

I often wonder what Miriam would be if she were alive today. Famous actress? Influential journalist? Stay-at-home mom? She was among those people you just knew were going somewhere big with their lives. I’m sure that wherever the fates would have taken her, she’d be someone people knew about.

I also wonder if we would still be friends. We’d met that summer when we were singing and dancing in the shows at Darien Lake amusement park just outside Buffalo, New York. Our friendship lasted just seven months until she was murdered. I’m only barely in touch with the other friends I made at the park that summer. Miriam’s family and I aren’t in touch nearly as much as I’d like either (though her mother just published a book of Miriam's writings along with essays from people who knew and loved her, including me).

Would Miriam and I have drifted apart as well?

Since at this point I’m pretty much in control of our story, I choose to believe that by now I’d have sung in her wedding and helped her decorate her baby’s room and given her a prominent link on my blogroll and kept her on my speed dial from the moment I got my first cell phone.

And I’m pretty sure she’d have written the same story for me if our fates had been reversed.

Twenty-three years ago today was the last, devastating act in a year that had shaken my family to its core. It was the day my worldview changed from naive to guarded, from optimistic to cynical, from insular to secular. It was the day my friend Miriam was murdered.

And it was just another day for most people.

And though the world continues to spin forward—as it should—and people’s memories continue to fade—as they do—I will never forget.


Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

What an introduction to your blog for me, Jake. Wow. You've taken a personal tragedy and shown how all tragedies are personal. Beautifully, thoughtfully told.

hrbuffnstuff said...

Wow, Jake...that story touched me deeply. You wove the tale so well and filled it with such feeling and emotion, I felt myself there with you.

I don't know why such horrible things happen to such good people. In that, I speak not only of yourself and your family, but of me and mine as well. What we've all endured during the course of our lives, both the pain and the joy, make us who we are today. The good and the bad will continue to happen as long as we live...we have no control over that. What we can control is how we react to it and how it makes us who we are. It can turn us into strong, amazing, incredible individuals, or it can destroy us.

That is our gift from the experience.

I'm glad you shared that, Jake. What happened to you has now happened to me. Thank you for allowing me to be there with you.

Much love, Sean

Anonymous said...

I think it's very touching that you write about your friend every single year on the anniversary. You are a really great friend, Jake.

Rob Timmins said...

As I read this, it took me back to our flight from Arizona at the end of the Old Gold Singers spring tour. I had a vague understanding of why that flight was so difficult for you. Thanks for sharing this, Jake.

ssadesign said...

I've read versions of this story before, but still find it deeply affecting. The one detail that I have previously overlooked was your mention of Follies. 1988 was the first time I ever went overseas, and while in London I saw that wonderful production with Diana Rigg. My first Sondheim too. Jake - write more, well maybe less but more often. I miss your stories and observations.

ssadesign said...

Oh, I forgot to say that this week I lost a teenage friend - not someone I have kept in contact with, but have heard about over the years. They reached 50, and decided that was enough. So sad. I feel guilty for not keeping in touch. As my 86 year old mother says - the only important things are love and friendship.

Java said...

Thank you, Jake, for reminding us again.

Anonymous said...

I am sure you don't remember me, but at one time you helped work on a ad campaign for my company. For some reason your blog stuck out as a place to go, and it still is. In fact you inspired me to start a blog to I don't know, just write. Thanks,


Anonymous, too said...

Jake, although I saw this entry some time after you posted it, I am glad you did so.

I also wanted to let you know it was NOT just another day for most people.

When my dad retired, he and my stepmom moved to a small farm in the Ozarks. I used to drive down there every year to spend Christmas and New Years with them. I still remember the tears rolling down my stepmom's cheeks, the catch in my dad's voice as we watched the TV news and talked about the events of that day. We didn't know about you or your blog then -- and my dad & stepmom went to their graves without knowing of you -- but you, your family, Miriam's family and friends, all of you were in our thoughts and prayers that day.

Please post a little more often. I miss the tales of Jake, his guy J, J's brother, and Stately Jake & & J manor.

The life and times of me said...

I stumbled across your blog today. The words you share are inspiring. My mum died of cancer last month. I turned 40 a few weeks back. I wish I was half the man you are.