the net of people deeply affected by political violence
Four families, four stories of loss, love, and resilience
Friday 9 September 2011
The 9/11 attacks claimed thousands, and the list only starts with the dead. Left behind were those for whom the years have meant building the unthinkable into every new day.
- Andrea LeBlanc
After it happened - almost right away - Andrea LeBlanc started feeling out of step. Watching the country’s reaction, the appetite for revenge, she began to wonder why she wasn’t angry. She realized she felt despair instead.
The morning she lost Bob, she was in their brand-new kitchen. It was big and airy, 20 by 30 feet, flooded with sun from a half-dozen skylights. They had just finished building it, in March 2001, and Bob LeBlanc was still getting used to all that space. For decades - since 1973, when they moved into their house in Lee, N.H., the day after they were married - Bob had cooked in a cramped galley kitchen, tripping over kids and dogs and milling dinner guests.
That September day, their handyman was outside, listening to the radio as he built a new deck on the kitchen. When the news broke, he came inside. It took some time to be certain it was Bob’s plane, United Airlines Flight 175, but when she knew for sure, she remembers what it felt like.
“It was like shutters slamming shut,’’ she says, sitting in the same sunlit kitchen 10 years later.
They met when he was 40 and she was 27. Both had young children; both their marriages had just ended. Bob was a cultural geographer at the University of New Hampshire. To Andrea, a veterinarian with a 5-month-old baby and a 2-year-old, he seemed impossibly worldly and well-traveled. His personality was instantly engaging, happy, enthusiastic, insatiably curious. At 12, he left his mother a note: “Gone to see the ocean.’’ And he had, pedaling the 50 miles from Nashua on his bicycle.
His father had died before he was 1, and so he became self-sufficient. He delivered milk, flowers, and telegrams to bolster the household income; he learned to cook. Later, he cooked for Andrea and their children, clipping recipes, recreating dishes he had eaten on his travels. In their new kitchen, the wide island was supposed to keep visitors out of his way, but it didn’t quite work as planned. Instead of staying on their stools at the counter, the guests kept creeping forward, closer to Bob and his easy way, closer to Bob and his warmth.
He was the one who knew why cities grew up where they did, the long-forgotten history behind the lines on the map. After Sept. 11, Andrea longed for his knowledge. “People asked, ‘Why do they hate us so much?’ ’’ she says. “It’s a good question, and it’s a question we would have asked Bob.’’
At first, she withdrew. She didn’t want to talk about it, or take drugs, or see a therapist. She stopped going to her local grocery store, to avoid the tearful questions, the burden of reassuring others that she was OK.
Then, at the end of 2002, she heard about a group called September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, started by a handful of relatives of 9/11 victims to advocate for nonviolence. As soon as she met them, Andrea felt relief; with them, she didn’t have to explain her feelings.
In February 2003, just before the war began in Iraq, she attended her first protest march, in Washington, D.C. Since then, she has traveled the world as a peace activist. In 2005, she helped organize a 385-mile peace walk in Japan, where people in their 70s and 80s, survivors of the atomic bombs that fell in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wept and shared their stories after 60 years of silence. In 2006, she took part in an international conference on nonviolence in New York where participants included a priest who lost both hands to a letter bomb while fighting apartheid and a woman who befriended the IRA bomber who killed her father. The woman, Jo Berry, has become a friend.
“I started to feel like I had a place in a global community,’’ Andrea says. “When you know about all the other 9/11s, it’s harder to get lost in your own grief.’’
Adamantly, she rejects the role of grieving widow. It’s not her grief that is important or unique, she said. “The story is 9/11, and what’s happened since … the erosion of civil liberties, the military spending, the fact that our security has come at the price of our humanity.’’
She testified for the defense at the 2006 sentencing of Zacarias Moussaoui, the convicted 9/11 co-conspirator who received a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
Her goal, she says, is to show her grandchildren they have choices.
“The reason I do this is to make it plain there are options,’’ she says. “It’s a false choice, to think you can only respond to violence with violence or by doing nothing… . We’re as capable of empathy as retaliation. It’s what you decide to nurture, what society wants to be.’’
Her activism has given her another family, and a new purpose - she sold her veterinary practice in 2005 to give herself more time pursue it - but it can’t replace what she lost 10 years ago. The house is still too quiet; Bob always played classical music, loudly, and banged his pots and pans. It has been even quieter lately, since her beloved border terrier died in mid-August. She and Bob picked out the dog together in August 2001, when she was two days old, and Andrea took her home in October, after he was killed.
Nettle slept beside her every night. It helped, she says, “because that’s part of the loss, having no living presence you can lean against.’’
She finds solace in her garden, which has grown steadily over the years. Sitting by the fish pond, counting frogs or watching a bee drink from a lily pad, “I’m not fretting, I’m somewhere else,’’ she says. “It’s like meditation, when you’re absorbed in something you’re drawn to. A butterfly was laying eggs on my wrist, and I sat here forever… . A hummingbird hovers in front of my face, and I think, that’s a gift.’’
She still loves traveling - she is headed to South Africa later this month to honor Nelson Mandela - but trips with Bob were fueled by a geographer’s passion. “To travel with him was to feel electricity,’’ she says. “Even in the airport terminal, he couldn’t sit. He had to go and see the people, where the planes were going.’’
The day before he died, driving home from a visit to one of their children, Bob told Andrea he had a 10-year plan for travel to developing countries, the places he wanted to see before he was too old to get there. He was saving the United States for later, he said, when he would need easier journeys.
Globe correspondent Alexander C. Kaufman contributed to this report. Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.