It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment—that explodes in poetry.
I’d known a number of neighbors who’ve died young. An inexplicable surge of accidents and illnesses claimed the lives of 5 children and youths along Boughton Hill Road in the early 1980s. Our move to Honeoye did little to shelter us from the tragedy, and the hardest blow came in 1985 when Brian, a child my sisters and I had known from infancy, succumbed to cancer at the age of 8. The last vestiges of my faith withered away during his funeral.
Though I had an early understanding of the fleeting nature of life, I’ve never truly confronted death on anything like the stage I’m about to ascend.
April, 21, 1989.
I’ve been here before. A soft, almost ethereal light bathes the aircraft’s interior, yet the dim, soothing illumination does nothing to temper my sense of urgency as I work my way toward the front of the plane. A dark-haired young woman sits near the aisle, isolated somehow from the other passengers. I have to speak to her. The narrow corridor hampers my approach, adding to the dread rising in my chest.
A glance out the window ends my effort. Though a ghostly silence hangs over the cabin, spires of clouds sail by the windows. We’re already aloft.
I’d had this dream a dozen times before. It was always the same: the dim silence of the interior, the futile trek to warn the young woman of the bomb ready to eviscerate the plane’s belly, and finally, the numbing realization that the aircraft was airborne.
I was too late. I was always too late.
I never saw the woman’s face, but I knew it was Karen.
This was the most recurring of the nightmares that had intruded on my life for nearly 4 months after the Lockerbie bombing, and while it wasn’t not the most graphic, the sense of helplessness in the shadow of a predetermined doom made it the grimmest of the almost nightly hauntings.
It was the only time I ever saw her.
That I’d fallen prey to such a nightmare came as no surprise as a sense of powerlessness, first planted in the nights following Pan Am 103, had festered and grown all semester. The small, grainy photograph affixed to my desk with a thumbtack often served as the only evidence that my dreams weren’t piercing the boundaries of consciousness. It was the only glimpse of Karen I’d likely ever have and hardly enough to give me a sense of what she looked liked in the days before she boarded Pan Am 103.
I doubted I’d recognize her if she appeared before me.
If the bombing of Pan Am 103 penetrated my consciousness like no other event in my life, the aftermath of the tragedy remained for me, a complete stranger to those on board and their families, as ethereal—if disturbing—as the incessant stream of nightmares. As so many do when afflicted by the inexplicable, I tried to connect the images to a sense of familiarity. From the crest of a hill a mile to the west of our house, one could view the gently rolling hills and fields north of Honeoye Lake. To the south, Wesley and Canadice Hill loomed over 1,000 feet over the valley. The terrain was strikingly similar to the sloped fields and distant hills visible in the photographs of the airliner’s severed cockpit. It was the closest I could come to picturing the landscape around the tragedy.
The images of December 21 and the ensuing days showed an incongruous pairing of sheer horror juxtaposed with pastoral beauty: bodies lay serenely reposed in pastures and the golf course. The aircraft’s nose, flattened but recognizable, sat yards away from a pristine cemetery and its attendant, ancient stone church. A giant scar marred the earth of a tidy neighborhood in Sherwood Crescent. Flames and screams filled the airways mere hours before the striking, haunting image of a young woman filled the screen.
If the violence was an obscenity, the beauty of the Scottish countryside somehow lent an illusion of dignified peace to the final resting place of the 270 murdered that night. It was an illusion born of ignorance and distance, an illusion that spared me from the wounded earth and the horrors in the tiny backyard gardens in Rosebank Crescent, horrors from which we were, mercifully, sheltered. Four months after the bombing, I continued to see the crash sites in bifurcated terms—passengers either vanished into the crater on Sherwood Crescent, or were cast into the soft earth of the hills and fields surrounding Lockerbie. With the exception of a photo of a young woman suspended from a rooftop, the few glimpses we saw of Rosebank show nothing vaguely resembling an aircraft or its passengers. The video and photographs of victims were distant and oddly serene. The hour of the crash, the quick response by the police, and the limited technology of 1988 spared us from the gruesome spectacle of MH17 almost 26 years later.
The genesis of today’s visit had roots in the same illusion. Though I’d planned the visit for weeks, I had no expectations for the trip—except for a hope that somehow, someway, I could lay the guilt, sorrow, and nightmares to rest, once and for all. I’d come to say farewell to someone I’d never known; I’d come to leave 4 months of tumult behind.
Webster Union Cemetery. 2:03PM.
I’ve never found cemeteries to be morbid, melancholy, or terrifying places. I had often spent hours wandering through the ancient, tiny graveyard on Boughton Hill Road before we moved to Honeoye, and my sisters and I once spent a weekend exploring the Richmond Center cemetery just down the road from our new home in Honeoye. Seldom could one see a clearer delineation of time than by viewing the dates, typefaces, and styles of stones in the various sectors of the graveyards. Each name, set of dates, and inscription piqued my curiosity about the people around me who, though long dead, surrounded me like echoes. I often lost myself in a desire to know more about them, their lives, loves, and disappointments. My wanderings fulfilled my deeply ingrained sense of curiosity about those around my while, paradoxically, satisfying the need for solitude born of my taciturn nature.
Webster Union Cemetery was, even on this cold April day, one of the quirkiest and most beautiful cemeteries I’d ever seen. Painted and etched stones, Orthodox crosses, and unique markers communicate a wealth of narratives even before I had a chance to begin my search. It was a struggle not to succumb to the solitude and beauty of the place, but I was determined to find one grave amid the hundreds before me.
It was just before 2 in the afternoon on Friday, April 21, 1989. Four months before, a young woman was minutes from dying over 3,000 miles away. Her death had haunted me ever since.
She was buried here, somewhere in the graveyard before me. My peers back at Nazareth College were preparing for another typical late semester weekend—mixers tonight and tomorrow, drinking, slurred conversation, hooking up, but I was standing here in the cold, searching for someone I’d never met. I’d shake my head at the absurdity of it all if not for the hollow pangs of sadness, the incessant nightmares, and the all-too-horrific nature of the tragedy that precipitated this visit.
Four months ago, a dark-haired woman was on her way home. She never made it. For some reason, her death managed to penetrate my defenses, and today’s visit was as much about finding answers and seeking closure as it was to pay homage to Karen Hunt. It was time to bid farewell to a stranger whose death had affected me more than any other. Increasingly unnerved by the flood of emotions, I began my search.
The emotions were building long before I pulled through the gate on the corner of Route 250 and Woodhull. The drive through Fairport was uneventful, save for the disconcerting washboard effect of the steel bridge over the Barge Canal. Golf courses, developments and fields rolled by as I drove north toward Webster. As was often the case, the developments blurred the distinction between town lines, yet I could feel the sadness and anticipation building with each mile. I was hardly aware of passing into Webster until I approached the village. A sign bore the town’s motto: “Where life is worth living.”
How many times did she pass over these streets? The mundane details of sidewalks, schools and shops suddenly began to radiate a deeply personal sense of history. If Karen’s biography was abstract to me before, the act of driving through Webster began the process of making her life—and death—far more concrete.
North of 104, the development along Route 250 thinned out considerably, though new homes appeared on both sides of the road. The cemetery, bounded by a distinctive stone and chain fence, sat on the left side of the road. The gravel driveway cracked and popped under the Volare’s tires as I drove to the maintenance building near a patch of woods at the rear of the graveyard. This was my current vantage point.
Older stones sat in neatly tended rows before me, but the portion of the cemetery near the entrance looked sparsely populated, making it the most logical place for me to start my search.
The road curved to the left toward the entrance, but I took the more direct path through the heart of the graveyard, passing elaborate stones with painted or etched images of those buried beneath. Some had photos embedded near the names. Many, too many of those buried here were young. The images, the sheer novelty of the stones distracted me from my destination a second time. I’d never been to a place quite like this before. The beauty was intoxicating even on this cold, uninviting day.
I’d never had a series of experiences like those that brought me here, nor had I, for all my love of history, been so influenced by someone I’d never known. Few people outside of my family had anything approaching the effect Karen’s had on my life, though I wasn’t entirely sure what that effect was yet. Would the visit be an act of reverence? Would I find a degree of peace? Or could I leave the graveyard with an amplified sense of hopelessness and despair? These thoughts, and many more, circulated through my mind.
Should I even be here? I didn’t know what I’ll see or how I’d react; already, the thought of finding inner peace seemed but a naïve conceit.
It was just after 2pm now. Four months ago, a tiny hole appeared in a plane hurtling through the stratosphere, a pin prick in the side of a giant, but a fatal wound nonetheless. Pan Am 103’s debris rained down on the countryside for minutes afterward, its crew and passengers’ lives ending violently in a place of remarkable peace and beauty.
I was in such a place now, facing the entrance I drove through about 15 minutes ago. There was no sign of freshly turned earth among the few graves to the right; a bare, moderately sized tree stood to the left, and I headed in that direction to start my search in earnest.
Several fresh graves lay before me. Some had stones already in place, while others had small, bronze-colored placards bearing the names of the dead. The trees whispered and arched in the wind, their bare branches forming vaults over the rows of stones stretching irregularly for hundreds of feet. It was a lovely scene.
Something stood out in the corner of my eye. A cross of pressure-treated wood sat anachronistically amid the sea of granite stones. Freshly turned soil announced the presence of one of the most recently dug graves—no grass had encroached on the tawny, sandy plot of earth near my feet. Moving to the end of the grave, I turned toward the cross, scanning the soil as I traced the scene before me with my eyes. A small Easter Bouquet of flowers sat at the head of the grave near the cross’s base. Some of the flowers, having wilted slightly in the cold, parted to reveal a small plastic rabbit holding a sign that read, “Hug a bunny.”
It felt like my heart was burrowing toward my abdomen. Intuitively, I knew what I was going to see, so I braced myself and tried to delay the inevitable by noting the details of the cross. The wood would turn silver in a matter of months, but today it still had a slight greenish tint. The boards interlocked in the center. A set of foil letters, the kind used on newer homes, spelled out a name:
Karen Lee Hunt.
I’d found her.
There was something indescribably touching about the simplicity and warmth of the cross, but that did nothing to mitigate the anguish as I dissolve into tears.
The burning of my eyes reminded me that I shouldn’t have worn my contacts today, though I could see well enough to circle the grave. The delicate smile and gentle eyes were etched in my memory. Her remains were here, separated from me by a few feet of earth, concrete, and wood—and the impenetrable shroud of death. The images, the tributes, and the glowing praise heaped on her by my friends seemed incongruous when juxtaposed against the freshly disturbed soil and the stillness of the scene—as did the violence of her death.
My distance from the latter spared me from the horrors in Ella Ramsden’s backyard—it would be another 8 months before I learn that they found her in front of the red door of a flat on Park Place in Rosebank Crescent, but on that cold April day, I still harbored the image of her peacefully reposed in a pasture. That image no longer provided a glimmer of comfort. The same distance kept Karen partially alive to me through a single image and the narratives of friends and family. There, then, in this beautiful place, the façade crumbled. I tried not to think of what lay beneath my feet, but that was the reality of it, the inhumanity of the bombing. A few feet away lay the body of a young woman who was very different from me, yet she and I had so much in common. Her parents and sister loved her dearly. She had a sweetheart, a multitude of friends, and a remarkable degree of talent. People thought she was truly special.
In a moment, all of that was torn away from her. I was standing over the body of a woman who was murdered, a woman who fell 6 miles to earth, a woman who was shipped to the wrong city. A woman who somehow, in losing her life, inexplicably changed mine.
Karen’s death was very real to me now. Though a cold wind swept around me, the chill I felt came from within.
Frustration swelled inside me. More than anything else I wanted to talk to her, to ask her who she was, to tell her that she meant something to people who never knew her.
I wanted to hear her speak. With clenched fists and tightly closed eyes, I tried to summon her to this spot through sheer willpower and wishful thinking, as if she could suddenly appear before me to explain what I was doing there—and why it hurt so much.
The graveyard was silent and vast in its stillness, save for the occasional rattle of a breeze passing through the bare branches.
Was this it, the reward for my curiosity, the dénouement of a story 4 months in the making? Was her narrative stilled? It all seemed so distant. I’d never know her, never know what moved me on those nights in December, never know why my life was bifurcated into two periods with December 21 as the fault line.
I’d lost young friends, classmates, and neighbors to car accidents, gunfire, suicide, and cancer. What I felt now eclipsed any previous sadness or grief. For the first time in my life, I’d encountered death in its finality. Nothing had prepared me for this. My rationalism failed me, and for an instant I gave in to despair. Karen would forever remain a mystery to me. This would be the closest I would ever come to having answers.
Eleven miles away, my peers were hours away from escaping reality for a weekend. Suddenly I wanted to join them. I was 21, alone, and grappling with issues of mortality near a chilly grave—I’d often wished that Pan Am 103 hadn’t crashed, that security had detected the bomb, or that the plane, though wounded, had been able to safely return to Heathrow. Confronted with the folly of my belief that this visit would bring peace to my mind, I now wished that I had never come to this spot in Webster. Far from giving me comfort, the sight of Karen’s grave and the thought of knowing that this would be the closest I’d ever be to her, filled me with a sorrow that quickly turned to rage.
The road swept to the right; the bend would take me back to the car, and this time, I stuck to the path, muttering and ranting as I go. I looked like a madman—I certainly sounded like one as I cursed the people, politics, and ideologies that put Karen in the ground behind me.
The vinyl seats were cold to the touch. A turn of the key would take me away from this suddenly stark and inhospitable place. Though I wasn’t not much of a drinker, I felt like getting trashed when I got back to campus. For a moment, I envied my classmates who seemed to glide through life without a care or thought in the world, shielded by the apathy I’d so often condemned.
Perhaps that was why they did it. Where had my curiosity and empathy gotten me but here, engulfed by something vast and tragic.
If I left, I’d never come back, but the distance of a few miles would do nothing to shelter me from the onslaught of nightmares or newly kindled memories of Karen’s freshly dug grave. Fleeing would not provide answers to the many questions raised since December. Karen’s death would be nothing more than a painful episode in my young life. I already knew that the guilt of walking away from her then, of being a hypocrite, of trying to “move on” would haunt me for years to come. For months, I’d asked “what gives me the right to grieve for her?” At that moment, 4 months after Lockerbie burned, another question entered my mind—”what gives me the right to walk away?” If I couldn’t envision an afterlife, then perhaps I could keep a part of her alive in my thoughts. It was the least I could.
My leather-bound journal lay on the passenger seat next to a few sketching pencils. Gathering everything up, I retraced my steps toward the grave, singing softly along the way.
Slowly, gently, I sank to the damp earth next to the grave, and for the first time in years, I prayed. I prayed for Karen and wished her an eternity of peace and joy.
My old Kodak 110 vanished long ago, but the sketching pencils allowed me to connect with the scene on a far more personal level as the tips scratched across the cream-colored paper in the journal. As I sketched, I quietly spoke about the love of family and friends, about my hope that she wouldn’t be forgotten by those not directly affected by the bombing, and about the injustice of her death. More than anything else at the moment, I wished she had lived, and that the 2 of us had a chance to meet for coffee and a conversation, even if only once.
The silence seemed less sinister now. I swore that something, or perhaps someone, was listening to me, but the graveyard was empty. Unnerving at first, the sense I wasn’t alone became oddly comforting.
The details that amplified my grief likewise took on a different light as I surveyed the grave. The Hunt’s love for their fallen daughter was abundantly evident in the simple warmth of the cross and the sentimentality of the Easter basket; it prompted me to write, “there is as much love as pain in this place.” My grief slowly bled away. I was so taken with the scene that I almost failed to notice that the wind had picked up considerably, yet I didn’t feel uncomfortable. The final line in my entry reflected this: “despite the cold of the day and the wind, something is warming me.” It was a strange but tangible feeling
11:23p.m. O’Connor was as raucous as ever on a Friday night, yet I sat alone in my room in something approaching a trance as I reflected on the day’s events: “I have never had an experience quite like this before. In my 21 years, I have never cried at the side of a grave, and I have not whispered a prayer in six years, but . . . somehow, I felt as if she could sense my presence there.” Until that moment, I’d felt grief, confusion, and loss. My experience that afternoon changed that. The sadness lingered, but at last, I started to understand where this connection came from. I added one more line to the entry: “It is the profound joy of her words and her life that make her such a special person.” It was a deliberate use of the present tense, and an odd statement considering that, to date, I hadn’t read a thing she’d written. This struck me as I reviewed the passage, and I spent a few minutes pondering its meaning.
I’d soon view that afternoon’s events as the first, and perhaps only, religious experience of my life.
Something came back with me from Karen’s grave: a flicker of creativity that smoldered and caught. I’d tried for months to explain my feelings to my friends, my family, and myself. I’d failed every time. Now I felt somehow empowered to express those feelings in a new way.
April 27, 1989. Nazareth College.
“I feel that sometime, somewhere/Our lives were meant to cross.”
I recalled Karen’s father saying that Karen loved to read and write poetry. Poetry was quickly becoming my favorite genre, but I had yet to write an original work. That changed today. It was rough, mawkish, and swaddled in baby-fat. The rhymes were forced, the language cliched. Nevertheless, “the verse, addressed directly to Karen, was my first poem, and the emotions are heartfelt and sincere. It was my way of creatively expressing and understanding what happened to me on that awful night 4 months ago. It was almost therapeutic.
I still felt as though I didn’t have the right to feel this way for a stranger, but at least I could channel my emotions in a more positive direction. The sadness lingered, but there was a growing sense of purpose as well.