13 February 2009

Beverly Eckert, 1951-2009

Dear Beverly,

Let me write you one last letter, after the many we have exchanged over the years. My fingers falter and tremble, so this may take a while, and my vision is blurring now and then. (Kleenex helps, and so will the comfort of loved ones, and time. It really is true what they say about time and broken hearts. But you know all that so well. Sadly, the relief that comes with the years is only partial.)

What does it mean that the first thing I saw when I turned on the television this morning was your face? You sometimes talked to me about omens, about signs, strange coincidences that made you struggle for an explanation. During one of our interviews for the book, you told me that years before 9-11, as you were walking in the shadow of the Twin Towers, you craned your neck and looked up at them and asked Sean if they would ever fall.

For a split second, when I saw the photograph of your face on TV this morning, I thought they were doing a story about Guantanamo. You had excitedly described to me on the phone last week that your meeting with President Obama had gone well, that you and the other family members got to voice your views, and that the president showed care and concern for your opinions and feelings. I could tell that you were exhilarated by the day's events, not just meeting the new president, but working together once again with the other members of the FSC. In a way, you told me, it was like old times. I was eager to get details about the meeting from you so I could write an article with the theme "the work goes on...."

But the TV report was not about Guantanamo. The reporter said you were one of those who died in that terrible plane crash outside of Buffalo. 

It felt like a brick had fallen on my heart. With hardly any air in my lungs I choked out a whisper to Michelle, in the next room, "Oh my God, Beverly's been killed..."

My mind raced to catch up with what I was hearing -- bad weather, no survivors, the last radio contact. The newscaster's words washed over me as I watched in a daze the footage of the burning wreckage.  Beverly, I know you're gone, but I'm not yet ready to say goodbye. We have a lot of work still to do.

We sat together for many hours of interviews, Beverly, during which I not only learned about your deep enduring love for Sean, and your tireless work to keep his memory alive after he perished. I also heard the voice of an intelligent, thoughtful, accomplished woman. You had an eye for detail, an open and active mind, and a generous heart. I knew from our earliest conversations that this would be an extraordinary book because you were an extraordinary person.

So we will be together again in the coming months, as I continue to transcribe your words onto the page. So many, many words. I know my heart will break a little over and over as I hear your living voice telling your story. And I will read your many emails and letters and articles, the long, long paper trail of your prodigious 9-11 reform efforts. And there will be the interviews with your FSC partners, people on the Hill, friends, family. So much more work to do. 

But be assured, even though all I have now are the words you left behind, No Truer Hearts will tell your story some day. You were always a careful and cautious person, even more so after 9/11. And I remember that you gave it a lot of thought when I asked if you would like to work with me in the writing of this book. One reason you agreed to go forward was that you wanted a "full and balanced" account of the FSC and the 9-11 Commission, and you felt I could do that. I have been ever humbled by your trust. I know how much this story means to you. 

Another reason was Sean. 

I know he was always in your heart. Who could imagine two lives so lovingly intertwined as yours and Sean's? Sometimes, you had told me, you could imagine him standing in a doorway in your house, arms crossed, smiling contentedly at you, and that image gave you comfort. You had told people how brave Sean had been during that final conversation, as he faced his death, giving you strength, professing his love, urging you to continue living a full, happy life. And then, after that terrible day, you continued to say goodbye to him, in large ways and small, planting some trees here, creating a scholarship there, commissioning a mural at the train station where he stood in Stamford every workday morning. 

Your life has been a testament to Sean. The love you shared carried you forward, strengthened you, inspired you. People sometimes wonder about love, but it is simple: love is the good things you do. And your love was great.

Dear Beverly, your life, your good works, your kind soul have sent out ripples far and wide. Thank you for the great honor of working with you, knowing you, becoming your friend. I will do my best to make this book a worthy memorial to Sean, as I know you wanted. And now, after this heartbreaking day, it will be as well a testament to you. 

Your tragic and inspirational  life, your enduring example of love and devotion, and the expansive richness of your soul will live on.

With tears of loss, love and admiration,

[Photo by Derek Gee, Buffalo News.]

Some coverage of Beverly Eckert online: 

An early account of the crash appears in this Buffalo News article. And here's a very nice summary of Beverly's life by Sewell Chan of the New York Times. And this Associated Press article by Devlin Barrett contains some wonderful quotes about Beverly. The Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau assembled some evocative photos of Beverly, including one of the pastoral mural at the Stamford train station to honor Sean. A summary from the Daily News, with a couple new details.

Some of the news accounts mention that Beverly was "fragile" and that she would on occasion cry during her public appearances, especially when talking about Sean. It's true, when deep emotions arose from Beverly's heart, they clearly appeared -- in the tears in her eyes, the furrow in her brow, the break in her voice. This happened a number of times when we spoke about Sean and her reform activities. Sometimes I joined her in shedding a tear, in silence. So trust me: her shows of emotion came from deep within her, unbidden. She had, after all, a big heart. Only those who did not know Beverly, or who are cynical beyond redemption, say that she used her tears for effect. 

And another thing was clear to those who knew Beverly, or stood on the other side of an issue: there was nothing fragile about her. Yes, she was kind and sensitive, but at the center of her being was a solid steel core of conviction. I love this quote from her friend and fellow 9-11 family member, Bill Harvey: "She would never shy from the good fight or negotiate what she knew to be right." It appears at the end of a short Daily News piece.

The comments of Lee Ielpi in this Bloomberg Press article by Alex Nussbaum and David M. Levitt cut to the core of Beverly's success in her many post-9-11 endeavors. "She was an inspiration to me and so many others," said Ielpi. "She wasn't one where you were going to see her name splashed all over, but she was the type of person who was able to talk and guide people, steer them in the right direction, and stay out of the limelight." Ielpi lost his son, firefighter Jonathan Ielpi, on 9-11.

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