Remembrance restores possibility to the past, making what happened incomplete and completing what never was. Remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again.
Years of graduate studies drew me away from Upstate New York, away from family, from longtime friends, and away from the legacy of Pan Am 103. I once vowed never to forget Karen and Pan Am 103, but though I’d honor that vow time dulled pain and memory alike.
She weeps lilies,
pleads in silence.
For a moment, the staccato drone of semis,
the shrill calls of songbirds
meld into a whispered cry
Written on December 21, 1990 in Webster Union Cemetery.
I lived the nomadic life of a graduate student until I settled in the Pittsburgh area in the late 1990s. Though my poetry eventually succumbed to my brutal inner critic, the confidence born on a spring day in 1989 stayed with me with me for years afterward. In spite of the moves, studies, jobs, relationships, and disruptions, Karen and her fellow victims remained near and dear to me, though the visits to Karen’s grave become increasingly sporadic. On January 12, 1995, shortly before returning to my second semester as a doctoral student, I visited Karen Hunt’s grave. The visit was as powerful and moving as ever, and equally frustrating, a sentiment I noted in my journal: “She doesn’t belong here, and her presence in this grave serves as a tormenting reminder of life’s fragility.”
On December 21, 1995, I experienced a different sensation entirely, as reflected in yet another entry: “I feel strangely at peace tonight, as if something has been lifted from my soul.” At long last, I’d come to terms with the tumult Karen’s death had wrought on my life. My role, whatever it had been, finally came to an end. The previous January’s visit would prove to be my last.
I’d accepted that I would never know anything more than what little I had learned about her. That realization once frustrated me, but as Pan Am 103 faded from the headlines in the years following Karen’s death, my ignorance became a shelter of sorts, allowing me to do something her family and friends could never do—walk away.
It took me nearly a decade to find the closure I’d sought during my first visit to Karen’s grave in 1989, though I never completely stripped her from my memory. In spite of the jobs, moves, relationships, and marriage, I’d spare a thought and a moment of silence for those lost on Pan Am 103 every December 21.
The internet began to gain its current form in the 1990s; through it, I followed the investigation and trial, quietly celebrating Abdel Baset al-Megrahi‘s conviction in 2001 and cursing his release 7 years later. However, the medium that allowed me to follow contemporary developments also functioned as a reminder that there was a great, unseen barrier, a digital divide of sorts, between detailed accounts of the past and the instantaneous access to material pertaining to more current events. It was relatively easy to find reports and accounts of the bombing but with few exceptions, it seemed as if the passengers themselves had never appeared on this new electronic stage.
Karen was one of the exceptions, as a memorial website appeared in the late 1990s. I’d visit the site occasionally, but as the years passed, I rarely searched for Karen or Pan Am 103. Perhaps this explained how I missed a story that had some remarkable similarities to my own.
In 1991, Richard Newbegin, an English singer, visited his mother, who had just moved to Lockerbie. He shared my fascination with the history of those in graveyards, graveyards, and perhaps it was for this reason that his mother insisted that he visit the Garden of Remembrance. The visit was distressing, the sheer sense of the disaster reducing him to tears within moments. He read the plaques as emotions overwhelmed him; then he sensed a presence, turned, and was a poem I’d recognize instantly:
Something has happened to keep us apart,
But Always and forever you’re in my heart.
Someday soon from now till forever,
I’ll meet you again and we’ll be together.
I’m not sure how and I’m not sure when,
Together, forever somewhere my friend.
Richard described the experience as follows:
I sat on the wooden seat. And then it happened. The moment that will live with me forever. I was overcome by a feeling of such overwhelming love and warmth. There was a peace, greater than any peace that anyone could experience. An intense feeling that is difficult to convey in words. Not sadness; strangely joyful! Perfect peace! And a feeling of someone very close by. I turned slowly around. I was staring at the words “Karen Lee Hunt”. Why had I missed that plaque on my first viewing? I couldn’t move. I read the poem by Karen. Then I cried.
He thought of Karen often over the next few days. Then, he channeled his emotions into a song. He recorded a copy and, overcoming his fears of reopening fresh wounds, resolved to contact the Hunts.
There’s no internet in 1991, at least not in a form we’d recognize today, but he was anxious to share his song and experience with the Hunts. He gave a copy of the song to his mother, who in turn shared it with Ella Ramsden, the woman whose flat was hit by the portion of the plane containing the majority of the Syracuse University students. Karen’s body was found in a backyard nearby.
By coincidence, David Johnston visited Ella shortly after her listened to the tape. A police officer, Johnston had been investigating the bombing for months, but his role was finally coming to an end. Ella shared the story of the song with him before he left Lockerbie.
In another remarkable coincidence, Johnston happened to be the official contact for the Hunt family.He forwarded Newbegin’s letter and a tape of “Song for Karen” to the Hunts, who received it on Valentine’s day.
Richard and his family flew to Rochester to visit the Hunts later that year. The families remain close to this day.
On the 10th anniversary of the bombing, Bob and Peggy Hunt took the song to Dynamic Recording Studio in Rochester. The studio released an album containing original, remastered, and instrumental versions of “Song for Karen” as well as Bonnie Abrahms’s “Only Americans” shortly afterward.
One verse from Newbegin’s song strikes a chord within me:
The winter’s coldness blows
The warmth of you still glows
I wish that I could know
Who you were.
It echoes the wish I’ve made many times.
I was living hundreds of miles away when the story of “Song for Karen” appeared in the Democrat & Chronicle, and the echoes of Lockerbie had been all but stilled in my memory by 1998—or so I believed at the time.
I can only speculate as to how his story would have affected me had I learned about it in the early 1990s, though I can be sure of one thing: I would have found a degree of comfort in the knowledge that I wasn’t the only stranger to be affected by the death of Karen Lee Hunt.
As it was, I wouldn’t learn of the song or of the story behind it until the spring of 2013.