The Afterlife: Coping With the Loss of a Son Through Giving
A small, energetic woman with a dazzling smile and watchful blue-gray eyes, Sally grew up in Bennington. She met Don when she was 18 and fell in love with him because he could do a handstand on the back of a horse and acted as if he wanted nothing to do with her. They married in 1964. After law school, Don went into practice. Peter was the first of two sons (his younger brother, Foster, is now 35, and his adoptive sister, Kim, 40). He was a fragile, dreamy boy who suffered from dyslexia; bigger kids picked on him. As he grew older, though, he discovered talents for chess and math. He began running cross-country. By the time he graduated with high honors in math from Bates College in 1989, he was a strapping 6'1" track star who'd made all-American six times. With his girlfriend, Rachel, whom he married in 1992, he moved to Cambridge and got a job as a programmer.
What struck everyone who knew him was not just his brilliance but his generosity and warmth. His hugs were enveloping. He couldn't pass a homeless person on the street without giving him money. When Peter's bosses told him that he had to cut $200,000 from his departmental budget, he eliminated his own job rather than breaking up his team. A while after that, another company bought out his firm and promptly rehired him. He was still a dreamer, someone who could get lost watching insects or thinking about quantum theory or poring over the sacred books whose pages he marked with those brass darts. Increasingly, he was the person who held his family together. "Peter was the caretaker," Sally says. "He'd tell you he was going to be the rich uncle. I was going to live near him. There was a little house near his. He'd say, 'That's where I'm gonna put you, Ma.' And truthfully, he would have."
He was afraid of flying and even more afraid of terrorists. "He'd been that way for three or four years," Sally remembers. "He just had it in his head. I used to make fun of him." She pauses. "He died the worst death I could imagine for my child. I imagine him as being so anxious and impaired by fear that he couldn't understand what was happening; what was happening had no place in his consciousness. He would've tried to protect the other passengers, but it would've been another instance in which he was helpless before other people's brutality. When he used to get bullied in school, he'd tell me, 'My arms won't work.' It would have been like that all over again."
The last time she saw Peter was on the weekend of September 7, when he helped her and Don move from their old home in Massachusetts back to Vermont so that they could care for her elderly father, who was ill with Alzheimer's. She still remembers the way he hugged her goodbye. On the morning of the 11th, the phone rang as she was leaving the old house. She didn't answer it and for months afterward was tormented by the thought that it might have been Peter trying to call her from the plane. Sometime later she recalls sitting with her father and watching footage of airliners slamming into the Twin Towers. She felt a quick thrill of anger pass through her. Still, it wasn't until the afternoon, when Don showed up along with her brother and their minister, that Sally realized she'd been watching her son's death. The rest of that day and night she passed in a trance. They drove to Peter and Rachel's home in Massachusetts, half expecting him to be there. The next morning, the Goodrich family found themselves at Boston's Logan airport, Peter's point of departure, along with dozens of stunned men and women whose loved ones had gotten onboard a routine flight from Boston to Los Angeles only to disappear in a ball of flame.
Sally says, "Of course, the first question you ask yourself after you absorb the shock is, 'Why? Why did they hate us so much? And why did my good kid have to die such a horrible death.' And just, 'Why?'"