There Was Champagne… and Prayers… and Tears


It’s been several days now since Khaddafi was killed and I started this blog.  The memory of those incredibly difficult few days immediately after PanAm 103 was bombed is as cuttingly fresh as if it all happened last week.  Gathering all my thoughts into some semblance of coherent thought has been difficult, but it’s been helpful, easing, to remember and to write.

There will be some of you who know a little of the story behind this blog, who know about the bonds of friendship that Jeff & I shared as a family with George, Joanna & Emma, as well as how much I love Emma – in some ways like my own child – but there will be some who do not, so forgive me for going over old territory to get to the nub, and forgive me if it seems to others that I have left gaps in the tale.

December 21, 1988.

I was in my office listening to Christmas carols & trying to get as much work done as possible before we closed the office for a long Christmas weekend.  George, the lawyer with whom I worked, was taking off the following night with his wife, Joanna, and their six-year old daughter, for a family trip to Mexico, their first holiday together like this since Emma was an infant.  Jeff & I meanwhile had plans to fly home to Buffalo and then drive to Kitchener for a week with our families.

And then I heard the bulletin.  A London to New York jet had disappeared off radar somewhere north of the England-Scotland border.  No further details were available just then, but keep listening.

Joanna was on her way back to New York from London, following a three-month course of study in one of her favourite cities.  She had delayed her trip by a day to get in some Christmas shopping, knowing that the day after she got back was going to be hectic beyond saying.  Because of the switch in flights, George wasn’t sure what airline she was on or what exact time she was due in.

But I think we both somehow knew that the news bulletins were about Joanna’s plane.  At least, I did.

I made George go about the rest of his day exactly as he’d planned it – shopping for his mother’s gift, a visit to the dentist, a run to the dry cleaner – because we didn’t know for sure, and if everything was alright, he needed to get this stuff done to be able to go away.  If everything wasn’t alright, well, getting all this stuff done would make whatever else needed to be done in the days to come a little easier.  Meanwhile I started reaching out to some friends and connections in the aviation industry.

Jeff’s work in the Naval Reserve meant he knew a lot of pilots who worked in the airline industry.  Because of that network of friends and fellow pilots, I was able to by-pass the overloaded Pan Am switchboard and telephoned Martin Shugrue at his office.  Marty had been a highly placed executive for Pan Am before changing jobs, but even in his new office, he was incredibly kind and helpful to me, providing me with a ‘backdoor’ phone number and other information for me to reach someone useful at Pan Am.

Their advice was to go out to Kennedy and check the passenger list at the Pan Am desk there.  The passenger list at the Pan Am office was not considered complete and official; only the people out the terminal would have that right now.  They also suggested a few small other things, as well as providing me with a phone number of the office that was being set up for families to call for other help as it was needed.

George didn’t want to go himself, mostly because he was worried about Emma.  So I went  for seemed like a long, long taxi trip to Kennedy International.  The driver, who had asked me if I had someone on the plane that went down when I told him I wanted Pan Am arrivals, was quiet the entire trip and almost refused to take the fare from me.  But I insisted – it would be good karma I told him and good for Christmas shopping too.

I could see the media floating around, and then surrounding me when I found a Pan Am employee and I said I needed to find out if someone I knew was on 103. They didn’t want to tell me there, in the terminal, but I saw her name, upside down on the clipboard.  They hustled me out and into an elevator, pushing aside the reporters, the photographers, who were pressing me to get a name, a relationship, and they took me to the First Class Lounge which had been set up with a bar as well as food and coffee.

The last thing George said to me as he hugged me good-bye was “Call me.  I’m going to know if you don’t and I’m going to need to talk with you if we’re right, and if we’re wrong I need to know that as soon as possible.”  I called him.

The hardest thing in the world to do is to tell someone you love that someone they love is dead. I believe that it binds you together in ways, both good and bad, that absolutely nothing else can, and more powerfully than few other things can.

I called Jeff from the airport too.  I had called him from the office before I left for the airport to tell what was going on, and he needed to know now that my life was upside down for a few days and our holiday plans were changing even as we were talking.  I told him I was headed back to Manhattan, to see what George needed, and I would call him from there when I knew what was going to happen next.

Over the phone, George asked me about telling Emma now, tonight, before she went to bed.  I told him I thought it was a bad idea, that I had read that children who were given tragic news just before bedtime had really difficult times falling asleep for months and even years afterwards.  Wait until morning, when you’re a little stronger, when she has a whole day to try to process this, I suggested.  When I got to their apartment, Emma was still awake, and so excited about Christmas; her infectious joy made it easy to be calm around her.  She did go to bed and to sleep shortly after I arrived, and then George and I talked.

Well, first, not so much talked as wept. Those bonds, the ones that come from telling about death, grow stronger when sharing the first raw lashings of pain and grief that death brings.  I remember every word we said that night, every breath we took.  I felt as helpless and shaken as I ever had and I knew I was being asked for a lot – not just that night but for the next several days to come.

Anyway, we got through that night and the next couple of days.  New Yorkers are astonishing –  for all their bluffness and pushiness, they can show the greatest kindnesses in the world and act as if they’ve passed the sugar.  While George was taking care of Emma, and talking to a few people on his own, the majority of phone calls and errand running was left to me and to some extent, to George’s other assistant Virginia.  Once people knew why I needed something now, I got it now and no questions or arguments, and with great lashings of sympathy and tough-hearted good wishes for the family.

I got help from Pan Am to get George’s mother and sister to New York.  Clients sent food and drink to sustain them and whoever might stop by to extend their sympathies, and one major studio sent movies for Emma.  The dry cleaner delivered clothes to the apartment when they couldn’t make the delivery to the office, and didn’t charge us for the delivery or the cleaning.  I got help from Joanna’s friends in tracking down her latest dentist, who was in Florida by the way but tracked down his office manager to get us the x-rays we needed.  And when I finally got the x-rays and had to go to the neighbourhood Fed Ex office to send them, along with other information, to Scotland, the kindness there…

I hadn’t cried, not really, since I read Joanna’s name upside down on the clipboard.  Not that night, when I got home and found Jeff waiting up for me with a giant glass of wine, a huge hug and a card from Richard & Dolores, our dearest friends in the city and our upstairs neighbours, offering their love and help in whatever way (having two Assistant District Attorneys offer their help like that absolutely has its usefulness).  Not the next couple of days while I was telling everyone about Joanna’s death.  Not when Emma and I talked about it.  Not even when George and I talked.  I didn’t have time, and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to stop if I started.

But in that Fed Ex office, on the morning of Christmas Eve, as a dozen people are trying to send last-minute gifts, and I ask to speak with the manager, in my softest possible voice, so I don’t disrupt anyone else’s happy holiday mood, explaining that I have a special package to go to Lockerbie, Scotland, and the office is supposed to have the shipping number… everyone stops.  And one guy in the crowd says, “Take her first.  The rest of us can wait while you find her that shipping number.”  And someone reaches around behind the counter and gets a chair for me to sit on.  And a woman in an impossibly bright red coat asked me if I would like some rum balls from one of her bags, “They’re mostly rum and a teaspoon of cocoa. They help me deal with my sister-in-law.”  Which made most of us smile.  And now the manager has found the shipping number and he takes care of me himself, and offers me his hand and says he’ll offer a prayer at Mass for us that evening, and a few other people in the crowd nod their heads and a few mumble “God bless you and Merry Christmas” and tears well up around my smile.  Because there is much goodness in the world, too.

Jeff and I decided that he should go ahead to Buffalo as planned, and I would try to catch up with him if I felt I could get away.  And George made me go.  He said that his mother and sister were there, Joanna’s father was there, he would be fine without me.  For 36 hours.  “Go.  Have Christmas with your family.  And come back to me.”

Christmas Eve afternoon, I got a phone call from friends who said “We’re kidnapping you for dinner.  Jeff says you haven’t had any time to yourself, to talk about all this with anyone so we’re taking you out to dinner and you can talk with us.”  We arranged to meet in Little Italy and having that dinner, that chance to talk with Kevin and Kelly was a wonderfully healing thing for me.  But before I left for dinner, Emma wanted to open her Christmas present from us because we wouldn’t see her Christmas Day.  It was a rather large paint set – a gift from Jeff & I and from Virginia – and she loved it.  And then she said I had to wait a moment while she ran to get mine.  George said he had no idea what it could be – she hadn’t asked him to do any shopping.

Emma came back into the room with a piece of yellow construction paper on which she had drawn a picture of herself, her dog Tom, and the family house in the country.  As I loved Emma and the house, and liked Tom well enough, I was delighted with the picture.  And then she said “Look on the back, Claudia.”  It was inscribed TO MOMMY, LOVE EMMA.  HAPPY BIRTHDAY.  I could not cry.  I could not cry.  I asked Emma if she was sure she wanted me to have this and she said she was, “I drew this for Mommy for her birthday, but she’s not here now, and there isn’t anyone else I want to give this to except you.”

Joanna’s birthday was December 26th.

I pretty much swallowed up this small child in a very large hug, trying so hard not to cry.  Her grandmother and aunt, watching us from the other side of the living room, were of no help, using up Kleenexes like all get out.  Standing by the door however, waiting to walk me out, George was struggling like I was, not to give in at just that moment either.  There was no way I was going to let Emma think that her gift to me was a reason for crying.  I mean, it was, but how do you possibly explain to a 6-year old, even a very bright and perceptive 6-year old, that you have just received the most important gift of a lifetime, with all the love and trust that surrounded that simple crayon picture.

I kissed her good-bye, promised her I would call the next evening from Buffalo to find out all about her presents, and went to the door with George.  I showed him the drawing and wondered  “Should I keep it?  It seems so… big to give away?” but he said Emma was right, there wasn’t anyone else to give it to except me.

I still have the drawing.  Along with a few letters from my parents and various other people I have loved, it is the most important, precious, valued thing in my life.  I told Emma this story, the part about the drawing, for the first time, about 10 years ago.  She didn’t remember specifically giving it to me, although she obviously remembered a lot about that Christmas.  I told her that I would give it back to her if she liked but she shook her head.  “I’d like to see it again, maybe, but there really isn’t anyone else who should have it.”

So when the news broke that Khaddafi was dead, and had died begging for his life, I got out that picture, and the photos I have of Emma, and George, and Joanna, and I looked at them, and I watched the news, and I thought wicked, bitter, angry thoughts for a few minutes and then realized that he really was dead and maybe this year when Christmas rolls around, the remembrance of the Christmas season of 1988 won’t be so much a grey shadow as a warm remembrance of how  lives were inexorably changed by that evil, evil man,  and yet there is still so much good in life.

I was just a peripheral player those few days in December 1988, in the total scope of the tragedy that was Pan Am 103, but this fall, I have drunk champagne to death and to life, and I have offered up silent wishes of strength and joy to follow for all of us who were affected by that bombing, and by all stupid, senseless, acts of terrorism, along with the profound hope that no one else ever has a story like mine to tell.

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2 thoughts on “There Was Champagne… and Prayers… and Tears

  1. I meant to call you that day… life interfered… or maybe you didn’t answer the phone??
    regardless, when I heard the wonderful news I thought about you, and George and Emma and that Christmas that, while it was noisy (hard not to be with 22 people in the apartment for dins) it was also sombre.
    Thanks. For being my sister.
    Mostly because Max would be unsuitable, a couple of drag halloweens aside…

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