The Afterlife: Coping With the Loss of a Son Through Giving
No answers were forthcoming. Between the secrecy of the FBI, which didn't want to compromise its investigation, and that of the airline, it was a year and a half before Don and Sally could even find out Peter's seat assignment. A month after the attacks, some of the shattered men and women who'd gathered at Logan met in the Boston suburb of Newton. They called themselves Families of September 11, and Don and Sally were elected to the board. Today, Don, a scholarly, soft-spoken man who resembles a New England Atticus Finch, is the chairman. Sally, however, had to step down from the board. She was still going to work every day and taking care of her father as his Alzheimer's worsened. She was also drinking too much. "I could not feel anything," she recalls. "I would just try to get through a day and then a night and then another day. I remember going home and drinking a bottle of wine at night and then going to work. I had a very tight path. It would be work, church, home, work, church, home. I would tell myself to just breathe, and we divided the days into the light and the dark.
"The one certainty, the one comfort—the only comfort—was that I knew our son loved us without any reservations. And he knew that we loved him in the same fashion.
"And the other certainty was that I wanted to kill myself. There's a part of you that just dies, and it doesn't come back."
In November, her father entered a nursing home, where he died three months later. A month after that, Sally stopped drinking. She's been sober ever since. In August 2002, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and began chemotherapy. A year later, her cancer in remission, she went back to school to do graduate work in language and learning disabilities. She was starting to engage with the world again. But both she and Don still felt lost, like expatriates in a country whose language they will never speak fluently. Everything reminded them of Peter. Simple interactions became ordeals of awkwardness or incomprehension. Sally was afraid to go to the supermarket because she might run into a neighbor who might ask her how she was. "I was afraid that if I answered, I would fall apart. You think, 'If I cry, I will never stop crying, I will not exist. I will try to kill myself.' How can I answer that question, 'How are you?' And that's not what they're really asking. They're really saying, 'I'm sorry. I'm concerned about you.' But just to go into a grocery store feels like an assault."
Don was once introduced to a new colleague who knew nothing about his connection to September 11. Somehow the subject came up, and the stranger told a melodramatic story about having been in New York that day and almost meeting his wife at the World Trade Center. In the telling, it was about a brush with death. Don listened silently, torn between his own pain and his embarrassment for the young man, who would eventually find out whom he had been telling his story to. "As a country, we have been so spoiled in our isolation from suffering and injustice that we have no cultural norms for them," Don says. "Those around us see us as a curiosity. And no one wants to be a curiosity."