18 December 2012

A lesson from Beverly Eckert: cherish those you love every day, "Because life can change in an instant"

Once again, hell has visited earth.

This time, it was at a grade school in Newtown, Connecticut. The pain it brought, the gaping, black-draped sadness, reminds us of times past when a day of horror left us weeping for the loss of those we loved. For so many, including me, the slaying of those 26 innocents brought back the shock and vertigo of 9/11.

Now, just as then, the first question is "Why?" Then, a gathering sense that something must be done. "We can't tolerate this anymore," President Obama told the people of Newtown. "These tragedies must end." In the same way, Beverly Eckert, other family members, politicians and others worked tirelessly to make the country safer after the hell of that clear September day in 2001.

At times such as these, there are other lessons as well. The most important being: show your love in words and deeds each and every passing day. Because you just never know. This thought was in my head on Friday, December 14, the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Just two days before I had been transcribing an interview with Beverly's sister, Karen Eckert. I had asked her to tell me about the days before and after 9/11 because this was the one subject I did not cover with Beverly. She had talked to me at length about her early years in Buffalo, her life with her husband, Sean Rooney, and her work after 9/11. But I knew that even though she had spoken about the day itself many, many times -- to friends and relatives, to journalists, and at official hearings -- it would still be the most difficult part of our collaboration. So I had left that topic as the last one, because it would not be easy, and because I thought we would have time. Turns out, we didn't.

Karen told me that Beverly's memory of the times with Sean just before 9/11 were peaceful, warm and filled with a deep, mellow love. On the evening of September 10th, Sean had his arm around Beverly as they sat at the end of the day in their den, a soft rain outside, the soothing strains of "Theme from a Summer Place" playing on the stereo. Both of them had a sense that life was good, and the reason for that was that they had each other. The next morning, as he was leaving on his commute to the World Trade Center, Sean walked up behind his beloved, softly kissed the back of her neck, and said, "You make me so very happy."

It was the last time she would be kissed by her best friend, her partner, her one love. The magic of that moment stuck with her, treasured until the end. And the lesson, too. Karen said that after Sean's death, Beverly "always used to say to us: 'If you love someone, don't leave the house without telling them something nice -- 'I love you' or 'This is great' -- because life can change in an instant.'"

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