Sunday, September 11, 2011

“Esther,” a true story by Donna Kirk

Passengers and crew of Flight 93

Now that Bin Laden is dead, I wonder what Esther thinks.

I met her in March on the Manasota Beach in Venice, Fla. My daughter Kelley was further along the beach that day, absorbed in her search for shark’s teeth. Even though she’s 39 years old, I couldn’t help looking up constantly, trying to spot her among the other shell seekers. When she’s in my presence, she’s my little girl.

I noticed a woman moving slowly along the waterline, bending over occasionally to sift through the seaweed and broken shells that lay strewn on the sand. We were looking in the same patch and smiled at each other. Even though her grey/blond hair was piled up on her head in a get-it-out-of-the-way fashion, I judged her to be younger than me. She had quite a tan.

Something in her eyes made me speak to her. “Beautiful day for the beach.”

“Yes,” she replied. “Coming to Florida and looking for shells brings me peace.”

“I’m Donna,” I said.

“Esther,” she replied.

Esther told me that she and her husband owned a trailer in a park close by and came down from January until the end of April. She said even though he’s retired he needs to travel back and forth from Baltimore where they live, but she prefers to stay put for the winter.

We started talking about stress and the need for activities that offer relief from daily worries. I’m not usually a spiritual person, but somehow, I felt connected to this woman. Her gaze is direct; there’s a deep sadness about her.

“I’ve lost a child,” she said.

I told her I’ve lost a child too, and marvel at myself for not breaking down and sobbing to this stranger.

“My daughter Elizabeth was killed on September 11, 2001, on Flight 93, the one that crashed in Shanksville, Pa.”

Stunned, I reached out to take her hand. “Our son Matthew died of pneumonia last July after four months in hospital. He was 40 years old.”

“Elizabeth was 27,” she said. “She called me from the plane to say good-bye that day. The person next to her had made a final call to a loved one and handed her the phone. Thank God I was home. ‘Do you know what’s going on, Mom?’” she said.

I couldn’t imagine receiving a phone call like that one. I’d dreaded the calls from the hospital telling us Matthew was worsening and we should get there as soon as possible. I scanned the beach for Kelley while Esther continued talking.

“Even though I knew what was happening, and had a horrible feeling she was on that flight because I knew she was flying out of Newark that day, I told her I didn’t know. I didn’t want to break down and waste this last conversation with my daughter.”

I wondered if I could have done that and not give in to my first reaction of alarm. Watching my son becoming sicker was hard for me. I knew he would eventually die, but at least I could comfort him during that process and take comfort in the luxury of still having him and perhaps coming to terms with the eventuality. And, I couldn’t imagine how anyone would ever be able to hang up the phone knowing they would never hear that voice again.

“She told me she loved me and she’d accepted the fact that she was going to die, and would be reunited with her grandparents. She was such a bright girl, with so much to offer the world.”

Matthew was bright in his own way, I thought, even though he was mentally and physically handicapped. He taught us the value of life and the meaning of dedication, persistence and love.

“She said some of the passengers planned to overpower the terrorists and try to take the plane back.”

Esther and Elizabeth had mere moments to come to terms with looming death. My husband and I had known for months our son would never recover. However, we couldn’t accept it, and Matthew’s death on July 6, 2010 was a shock to us.

“Nearly 3,000 people died that day. If the passengers and crew aboard Flight 93 hadn’t intervened, the terrorists would have crashed the plane into the U.S. Capitol building and more would have died.”

I knew nothing about the details of the fated Flight 93 and wondered how many times Esther had told this story. Perhaps it was her mission - to give meaning to the atrocious death of her daughter - that without the brave actions of the passengers on Flight 93 the tragedy would have been worse. I understood her need. I too wanted the world to understand the importance and worth of people like my son.

I spotted Kelley coming toward us, smiling and holding her hand out. “Got some really big ones, Mom!”

We watched Kelley continue towards her father who was seated under our beach umbrella reading his crime novel.

“Your daughter?” asked Esther.


“She’s lovely.” I told her we had another son, our youngest child, Joseph.

“Do you ever get the feeling that because you have other children people think it somehow makes the loss easier?” asked Esther.

I nodded. It also hurt me to know that some felt the life and death of a handicapped person was not as valuable and important as the people they could more easily identify with. Even though no one had ever spoken the words to me, I knew by their expressions and by the way they articulated their condolences. It was my wish to change those attitudes.

“No child can replace another,” said Esther.

Esther and I stood looking at each other and clasped hands.

Now, a decade after the crash of Flight 93, Bin Laden is finally dead. How does Esther feel? Is she outraged that it took so long for her government to track him down and eliminate him? Or, does she know that he is merely a symbol of terrorism, of hate, of a pervasive cancer that won’t change with his death? Perhaps she feels comforted that, even though it took so long to rout out this figurehead of evil, her country never gave up.

I know one thing. Esther will keep on telling her story. Shocking strangers like me into facing the reality of what horrors like 9/11 impose on one family. Forcing us to wonder how life could be if tolerance, co-operation and compromise were the standard.

Originally published here, in the Daily American, July 14, 2011.
Elsewhere in the world, terror attacks against civilians continue on a daily basis. See here.

Donna Kirk is a non-fiction writer from Oakville.  Her short stories revolve around her family and particularly, her son Matthew, who was born with physical and developmental challenges.  She has just completed Finding Matthew, a literary non-fiction narrative.  Donna is published in Quick Brown Fox, Canadian Voices Volume Two, Ars Medica, and CommuterLit, The Daily American and The Daily Reflector, two U.S. Newspapers.

Donna will be one of the writers reading her work at CJ’s Café in Oakville on Tuesday, September 13 (6:30 – 9:00). Everyone’s invited! More here.

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Barrie, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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