11 September 2014

Why read (or write) a biography? Lessons from two lives: Beverly Eckert and Sean Rooney

Every September 11th, I think back to the day -- how it gradually evolved from routine to ominous to shocking and... unbearably sad. Like an earthquake, it shifted the path of my life. Now, here I am, remembering the day, remembering Beverly Eckert, who I met because of 9/11. Here I am, thinking about her beloved, Sean Rooney, who perished in the rubble of the South Tower, who I only got to know about through the fond memories of Beverly and Sean's friends and relatives.

Two lives.

I had met Beverly in 2004 because that earthquake set me on a course to "do something" in connection with 9/11. And so, after sitting through a dramatic meeting of the 9/11 commission in a crowded hearing room on Capitol Hill, I spoke with Beverly for the first time. The next day, I wrote an article about the meeting and about Beverly, whose story I began to learn about. She and Sean had met at a high school dance, fell in love, lived a life of joy and accomplishment.

Until that day.

They were on the phone in those last minutes, he struggling to escape from the floors above the inferno, she frantic to give him any information she could to help him. When it became clear that there were no exits, neither through the doors to the roof, which were locked, nor through the stairs and elevators down, which were blocked and spewing intense heat and choking gases and smoke from the inferno below, they began to say their goodbyes, their final "I love yous." They had lived and cherished a life together with many "I love yous." Through the phone, Beverly heard the roaring avalanche of the massive tower coming down around Sean Rooney, silencing his last "I love you." Beverly softly spoke into the phone. "Sean... Sean... Sean..." She sat helpless on the floor of her home in Stamford, Connecticut, clutching the phone, watching the TV image of the dust cloud rising from Sean's office tower high, high into the Manhattan sky.

Beverly sat. She knew. He was gone.

Then she got up.

Her life before 9/11 was as a busy insurance executive, as loving (and sometimes high-strung) partner and wife to Sean, as dedicated daughter, loving sister, doting aunt, and the most thoughtful and energetic friend you could ever ask for. After 9/11, she made an entirely new path. Organizer, advocate, lobbyist -- all for the causes of 9/11 family members and for the future security of the country.

Which is how we met. When I learned Beverly's story, I asked if she would like to work with me on a book. She deliberated for several weeks, then agreed. The process has had its ups and downs, but my efforts over the years have been constant. Then came the crash of Flight 3407 on a snowy evening in January 2009 and Beverly was gone, too.

My writing continues, and on this September 11th I think about lives -- Beverly's, Sean's, everyone's. Why write about them? Why read them. My first impulse to do Beverly's story was the amazing arc of her love of Sean and her determined efforts after he was gone. That story in itself was worth telling. But the more I've discovered about the lives and personalities of Beverly and Sean, the more I see other reasons to write and read their story. One of the main ones is that they offer lessons for us all. To see the unfolding of a life well-lived offers us an example to emulate. If an average person can do exceptional things, it gives us hope and inspiration and strength in our own struggles, our own quests.

And so, on this 13th commemoration of that terrible day, I express my gratitude for the example of two exceptional people. Beverly Eckert, for her artistic talents, her impish sense of humor, her generosity of spirit -- to friend and family alike, but most of all for her gutsiness, her drive and the shear force of her will once she set her mind on a course. She and a small group of other 9/11 family members took on Washington and won. Sean Rooney, for the way he could make anyone smile, anyone his fast friend; for his skills in the kitchen, in the garden and in the workshop, skills he shared with an open heart; for his courage and expansive spirit.

Two lives.

How so very sad that they were cut short too soon. How so very wonderful that they touched so many while they were alive. And when their stories are told, they will have a chance to touch even more.

16 May 2014

Another Milestone of 9/11 Memory: The Museum at Ground Zero

With the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, another important step in the process of remembering has taken place. Family members, including Beverly Eckert, argued passionately that the footprint of the Twin Towers was sacred ground that must be preserved for eternity -- down to the bedrock. There was much debate after 9/11 about how the area around Ground Zero should be used. The developers wanted to minimize the space for the memorial and museum. The family members and their supporters would not tolerate the commercializing of this hallowed space, and in the end their view prevailed. The story of this struggle will be told in No Truer Hearts.

A good account of the museum experience appears in the New York Times. But every person will have a unique encounter with this thoughtful and moving exhibition of that clear-skied September day.

08 June 2013

Writing a biography means tracking changes, from the ground up

Anyone who's ever done serious research will tell you that the digging part is mostly tedious. But the feeling you get when you find a shining nugget makes it all worthwhile. I've got a passel of nuggets after years of work on No Truer Hearts, many of them placed in my hand by Beverly and her friends and relatives. Here's one I stumbled upon while trying to find maps and photos of the area around Wickham Drive, the setting for the book's first chapter. It's an aerial photo taken in 1951, the year Beverly was born. It shows mostly open fields and golf courses in Amherst, northeast of downtown Buffalo. The photo gives me a wonderful window on how this area changed during the course of Beverly's life, from a bucolic space of fields, streams and woods, to an orderly grid of suburban streets and homes.

A current satellite image of the same area illustrates the dramatic changes that development have brought. The story of Wickham Drive is the story of the rise of suburbia, repeated thousands of times around the country. It is the story of the baby boomers growing up with backyard cookouts, go-cart races in the streets, block parties, and sock hops in garages. Beverly's summers on Wickham Drive tell that story through the eyes of a creative and optimistic girl.

29 May 2013

On Beverly's birthday, some new readers of her story

Beverly Eckert comments on documents and articles at her 
dining room table in Stamford, Connecticut while I take notes 
as part of our work on No Truer Hearts. [Photo: Anthony Toth]
Everyone knows how solitary an act writing can be. Three years ago, when my marriage fell apart, solitary turned to aching loneliness. I looked around and realized that I had not a lot of friends around who were writers, members of my tribe. Not a lot of friends period, in fact, since my closest chums were scattered about, far from Arlington, Virginia.

Then, in conversations, meetup.com kept coming up. "It's a great way to meet new people!" I was told. "They have groups for every interest." So I was happy to find a group called the Arlington Writers Meetup Group, and I started to attend its Wednesday evening meetings. At first, I felt anxious and out of place. I'd never been much of a "joiner," plus this group was made up mainly of people writing fiction -- young and old, greenhorns and old hands. I had dabbled in fiction and poetry, but my writing life has centered on journalism and scholarship. But they were all writers, and that was the important thing. They devoted most of their meetings to offering critiques of members' works. And whether the discussion was about an offbeat sci-fi short story or the chapter from a young adult novel, I felt at home. Writers are writers, after all. We believe in the magic of words strung together in just the right way. It felt good to be around people who lived the life and spoke the language and cared about the power of story. I looked forward to the day when I could present my own work, this biography I've been working on, and see whether my attempt at this daunting genre would strike any chords with these discerning readers.

Well, today I find out.

Just over a month ago, I asked if I could submit to the group at the end of May. I was eager to become more of a participant, after many meetings where I just offered the odd word of advice. It helped, too, to have a deadline, so that I would feel an extra push to finish the first draft of the first chapter of this book. As the time for submitting approached, it dawned on me that the day of the critique would be Beverly's birthday: May 29th.

Some people would call this a sort of sign; others, a mere coincidence. I count myself in the second group, but I understand what drives the hearts of the first. We are all hungry beings. Hungry for love, which is epitomized by Beverly's story. And hungry for meaning. When a strange, unlikely concurrence of events pops into our view, it can serve to sate this hunger. It can seem utterly meaningful, fateful, just right. In a world of chaos and confusion and pain, it is the most natural thing for this fragile human heart to seek order, logic, a comforting master plan.

Whatever you may believe, one thing is true: life is a journey, and each of us does our best to make it enjoyable, meaningful, filled with the things we love. A biography is one person's travelogue of that journey. Back in 2004, I asked Beverly if she would allow me to chronicle her journey. When she agreed, it was my first step on a daunting and rewarding undertaking. Putting the first chapter in the hands of the members of my writers group is another important step.

I think it's the perfect way to celebrate the birthday of a woman who was never afraid to take that first step. And the one after.

28 January 2013

The Newtown Family Members Can Take Note of the Successful Activism of 9/11 Family Members

"Speed, urgency and focus" are three tactics the new activists can adopt from the ones employed by Beverly Eckert and the other 9/11 family members, according to a recent article in National Journal online. "Persistence and nerve," are two more. Carie Lemack said, "The most important lesson is never give up." She had lost her mother on 9/11, worked tirelessly on the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 Commission, and has continued to advocate for a safer America by working as director of the Homeland Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Another article on the same site focused on the reflections of Lemack, as well as two other Family Steering Committee members: Mary Fetchet and Kristen Breitweiser. Fetchet, who co-founded, with Beverly, the advocacy and support group Voices of September 11th, went to Newtown in the wake of the shootings to assist family members in dealing with the process of coping and moving forward.

30 December 2012

9/11 to Newtown: Tragedies link family members in the difficult quest to cope with unbearable loss

In her most recent Washington Post column, Lisa Miller notes that the families of Newtown are going through the difficult process of surviving their great losses. Each family must find ways to cope in their own ways, as have the families of other tragedies: 9/11, Columbine and Virginia Tech.

For example, Adele Welty, whose firefighter son, Timmy, was killed on 9/11, was not one who believed in "moving on." For her, the memory of her son was something to keep close, every day. Jay Winuk lost his brother Glenn in the South Tower on 9/11. "It's hard to imagine that you'll ever heal," he said, "But to provide a happy life to your children or other people, you have to heal. It doesn't mean that the pain ever goes away. The questions remain. How could people go so wrong as to cause so much pain in so many innocent lives?" Monika Iken's husband Michael was killed on 9/11, and though she has remarried, she still feels "like we're still connected spiritually. He sends me signs. I'm always aware of his presence. Rainbows come out of nowhere. Butterflies."

Beverly Eckert's story of horror, loss, pain and healing is very much the same. After Sean's death, she had to answer the monumental question: How do you go on when you lose the person who was at the center of your life, of your heart, your soul? Every day after 9/11 was Beverly's answer to this question. You live a life with meaning. You never forget. You survive. You fashion yourself a new life. You make the world a better place.

21 December 2012

Family members of the Sandy Hook School shooting victims will be powerful forces in the debate on gun violence

I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show on NPR and heard one of the guests make an important connection between 9/11 and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Susan Davis of USA Today was discussing the looming national discussion about the ways to reduce gun violence, and she said that one potentially crucial factor will be the family members of the victims. She noted that after 9/11 it was the family members who were a powerful force in making the country safer. Beverly Eckert and other family members organized demonstrations, vigils, lobbying campaigns, press conferences -- anything that would keep their concerns from being shunted aside or defeated. Many of those who had firsthand knowledge of the workings of Washington have said that if it weren't for the 9/11 family members, the efforts at reform would not have happened. The political opposition -- from the Bush White House, its allies in Congress, the Pentagon, FBI and CIA -- would have just been too great. Beverly and the other family members did not know at first they were up against such formidable forces. They only knew that for the sake of their loved ones they had to do something, and that they would not give up. So that small group of inexperienced, low-budget but passionate, savvy and determined citizen activists took on Washington and won.

The family members of Sandy Hook are still reeling, still healing. But soon they will be asking themselves, "Why did this happen? How can we make sure it doesn't happen again?" Then they will join hands, united in the love of those they lost, and take on the powerful forces arrayed against them. For once, the biggest political bully in Washington, the NRA, may finally meet its match.