Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.
August 13, 2013. Webster Union Cemetery.
For nearly 25 years, I’d accepted the brutal fact that I would never know who Karen Lee Hunt was. That realization had its roots in my first visit to Webster Union Cemetery in on April 21, 1989, 4 months to the day after Karen lost her life and entered mine. She had been an ethereal presence to that point, haunting my thoughts and dreams like a shadow for months before I knelt next to her grave for the first time.
The visit was to be a sort of farewell. It ended very differently, yet if the sight of her freshly dug grave connected my to the tragedy, it also served as a haunting reminder of the impossibility of learning more about her as a person. I also believed that learning these details might somehow explain my intense and unprecedented reaction to her death. Short of contacting her family, I had no way of filling in the details, and I resigned myself to accept the mystery born of my ignorance about the mysterious young woman from Webster.
Everything changed the previous May, and with the core of a memorial website already online, I left my parent’s house in Honeoye to pay my first visit to Karen Lee Hunt’s grave in 18 years.
My previous visits were emotional, powerful experiences, and though I had never regained my faith, Karen’s grave was the closest thing I could come to hallowed ground. This, and my growing sense of distance from the disaster, explained my lengthy absence.
As I turned north on Route 250, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d react today, almost 25 years after the bombing of Pan Am 103 and over 24 years since my first visit.
That first trip was intended, in part, to weaken the Pan Am 103 tragedy’s hold on my heart. I knew then that the visit would never erase the emotions that inexplicably gripped me on the night after the bombing, but I approached Karen’s grave with the hope that I could lay to rest some of the grief that had plagued me for 4 months after the bombing. Something remarkable, unfathomable, and moving happened to me on that day in April, 1989. I left with the sense that I was more deeply intertwined in a story that defied comprehension. The sadness lingered, but I found a way to channel it, to shape it into a new form of expression. Perhaps it would be safe to say that the encounter shaped me.
Would I have a similar experience now, decades after Karen entered my life? Like my initial trip, this was intended to be an ending of sorts, though I had no intention of distancing myself from the tragedy this time. With the website largely finished, It seemed only fitting that this visit should serve as the conclusion to a story over 2 decades in the making, though I knew It could turn into so much more. That was certainly what happened the first time I visited the grave in 1989.
I could only speculate about the changes that lay in store for me north of Webster. Quite a few took place between my visits in the 6 years of sporadic visits to the cemetery. Grass covered the freshly turned soil of the grave, and in 1990, the wooden cross silvered by 4 seasons of Upstate weather was replaced by a granite headstone bearing the words of Karen’s hauntingly hopeful poem, “Somewhere my Friend.” Asphalt covered the gravel driveway in the cemetery, and new graves soon filled the once sparsely populated area around Karen’s grave.
We often traveled along this portion of 250 on our way to Julie and Jen’s homes before turning onto Plank road. There were relatively few changes south of the village of Webster, but it had been many years since I’d ventured north of Route 104. As I did so, I was surprised to find that little had changed since my first visit in 1989. This was her town, this was where she walked, worked, and shopped. I hadn’t always felt this sense of history on my previous visits, but it was strong today, adding a touch of melancholy to the clouds and sporadic rain we’ve had all day.
North of town, new developments lined Route 250, yet the changes weren’t so great as to distract me from the sense that I’d stepped back in time. The cemetery appeared on the left, and I pulled back to the utility building, back to the spot where I made a simple but monumental choice in the spring of 1989 when I chose to accept a sense of connection with a complete stranger. I was here to honor her, and to learn if that connection was as alive to me as it had been nearly 25 years ago.
The cemetery hadn’t changed much, although the massive trees create a darker atmosphere than I remember. Most of my visits took place in winter or spring, and the trees had grown considerably over the past 24 years.
The familiar, charmingly embellished stones brought back memories of my first visit, though monuments once new and fresh showed enough signs of age to remind me of the passing of decades.
I’d forgotten about the large rose carved into Karen’s headstone. Traci had admonished me to place a rose on her grave, and though I’d brought flowers with me several times, this was the first time I’d brought a rose with me.
The tears began to fall before I had a chance to place the rose on Karen’s grave. The old sense of frustration welled up inside. Though I was weeks away from my 46th birthday, the feelings were as raw as they had been when I was 21. I had deluded myself into believing that the emotions surrounding Pan Am 103 had somehow evaporated in the mid 90s. Encapsulated and dormant for years, they rose freshly poignant within me.
I knew so much more about her now than ever before, more than I ever believed possible. Placing a photo on her gravestone, I tried to envision her in this place, but as before, as was always the case, the image seemed to magnify the gulf between us. I finally knew what she looked like, but I was only a bit closer to understanding who she was, or why she of all people had such an effect on my life.
The sun finally emerged to dry the stones and asphalt. Outside the fence, teens coasted down Route 250 on roller blades and bicycles. A pair of cyclists changed a flat tire near the entrance. Warm winds rustled the leaves around me, and I recalled a summer long past.
Twenty five years ago, Karen and I were preparing for our junior years in college. I’d leave home under gloomy skies on August 28, she’d fly out of Rochester International Airport on September 6th. Only one of us made it home for Christmas.
My visit lasted several hours. I spent most of it quietly reflecting on the life of the young woman buried here, the bombing, and the strange series of circumstances that brought Karen Lee Hunt into my life not once, but twice. As was my custom, I talked to her as if she could hear me. Though I remained a skeptic, I did it as a sign of respect, as a way of saying “I haven’t forgotten you. And I never will.”
“And I never will.” The photos I brought with me seemed to raise more questions. For the first time, I had the tools and resolve to learn more about her. I’d never have the chance to meet her personally, but perhaps I could at least gain a sense of who she was as a person. The answers might be hidden in boxes and folders in the archives at Syracuse University.
For the second time, what was intended to be an ending of sorts became a beginning. If her death inspired me to channel my grief into poetry following my first visit to Karen’s grave, an opportunity to examine her life compelled me to see a new chapter opening before me.
It had happened again. I shook my head, ran my hand along the top of her tombstone, and promised that I wouldn’t let another 18 years pass before my next visit.
At that moment, I already knew what I had to do.
I would go to Syracuse.