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Finding Permission to Mourn 22 Years After 9/11
I lost a man I almost dated on Flight 93 and have been seeking closure ever since
On September 11, 2001, I arrived at a staff meeting, after driving across town listening to “Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails at full volume. I’d slept through my alarm and barely managed to microwave a leftover Starbucks latte before dashing out the door, missing what I assumed would be a banal celebrity interview on the Today Show. My co-workers’ faces were grey, and the supervisor, bleary-eyed, recounted the morning’s events for our small group. It was nine a.m. in Seattle, and everything had already fallen apart, while I was sleeping and rushing and driving, listening to Trent Reznor.
But my clearest memory of the day begins on Sunday, September 16th, when NPR began to read the names of the victims. I was pouring my first cup of coffee, and only half-listening when I heard the name of my dear, estranged friend.
I’m not going to lie. Some of my memories are as cloudy as a cataract, filtered through the lens of alcohol and benzodiazepines that I would quit for good a few years later. But in the final months of 1999, my best friend of 30 years finally gave up on me and disappeared from my decimated life on a Delta flight to Vermont.
We spent the bulk of our thirties living in Seattle, with her brother Rich, stationed four hours away in Salem Oregon. On weekends, we would make the four-hour drive down I-5 to visit him, stopping midway at the Chehalis McDonald’s for a Filet-O-Fish, as excited as though we were 10 years old again and getting milkshakes after Sunday Mass. Rich, who was three years younger than my friend, managed a wildlife refuge, a job he was probably assigned at birth. In grade school, he was my best friend’s annoying little brother, fond of frogs and worms and anything dirty that moved in muck and sludge. Theirs was the standard issue antagonistic sibling relationship. But that changed as we all grappled with young adulthood, the scars of our shared childhood experiences and the challenges of growing up in the turbulent 1970s cementing our bond.
Rich, the man, was hilariously cynical, given to rants about the young thugs who partied on the refuge lands at night, leaving empty beer cans and debris behind. He was rough and unshaven, preferring to hunt deer for dinner and grow his own peppers and tomatoes. We harvested pecans from his grove and sat around the giant stone fireplace, picking meaty nut shards from our teeth. Wild haired and bearded, in flannel and torn Levis, he strummed his acoustic guitar, playing Dylan or the Indigo Girls. The juxtaposition was like a mountain of evergreens and a desert full of cactus.
It was inevitable that I would fall for him. I had been alone a long time and he was so lush and full of depth, so familiar and untouchable. When I told my best friend about my feelings, she was horrified, and rejected my plan to pursue a romantic relationship with him. It was a friendship deal breaker, she said. I wasn’t worthy of her brother’s affection. Don’t speak of it again, she said.
It wasn’t the most difficult decision I had to make, although it felt like that at the time. Our friendship weighed more than whatever hormonal tonnage was driving my attraction to her beloved baby brother. We were best friends, in that obliterating, totalizing way that girls are when they fuse together in childhood. My love for her felt euphoric and terrifying simultaneously, with my voracious neediness aggravated by her emotional frigidity. Her implied ultimatum left me anxious, made me worry about the imbalance in our friendship. I knew she idolized Rich and thought everyone was unworthy of him. I just assumed I was exempt since she loved me.
We continued to visit Rich, me pushing all my feelings down while playing my part, her edgy and uncertain, him clueless to the rupture in our delicate little crew. I eventually met someone else and effectively redirected my romantic affection. Ironically, she didn’t like the new guy—said he wasn’t good enough for me. It turned out she was right, although it took me more than a year to accept that his tendency to show up at my apartment with a gallon of vodka and Xanax was not thoughtfulness at all.
By the time I realized in January of 2000 that the brick wall at the end of my fifteen-year collision course was within sight, she was finished with me. My calls went unanswered, her door remained closed, her silence weaponized. Crippling shame prevented me from pushing harder and I let her go. A mutual friend told me she had packed up and moved to Vermont, with no forwarding address. I reached out to Rich, and he was kind and accommodating, without telling me much. As far as I knew, he was still unaware of my past infatuation and if she did tell him, he spared me from knowing.
I quarantined myself one last time in rehab and moved to a new home, changing my life. It was the early days of social media, so I stayed in touch with Rich through letters and occasional phone calls. He had a girlfriend. Things were going well. He issued multiple citations to the beer drinking thugs on the refuge, joyfully seizing every opportunity to whip out his law enforcement badge. He missed our visits, the gourmet meals. He was surprised I quit drinking and didn’t realize I had a problem. In time, the calls and letters became infrequent, and finally ceased; mine being the last bit of unanswered correspondence.
I messaged her once on Facebook, after scouring her timeline for any trace of regret or mention of the friend she left behind. As I recall, she messaged back “leave me alone.”
The NPR reporter announced that Rich was a passenger on United 93, the flight that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, about 240 miles west of Trenton, New Jersey, where we all grew up. On that day, there was still so much unknown about what happened on that plane. From the human remains, this list of passenger names had materialized, and, in Rich’s case, his wallet and badge were all that was left to identify him. I didn’t know that until months later, when I began collecting every article written about United 93, looking for any scrap of information about him and his sister.
A mutual friend told me she was bereft, the family decimated. There were plans for a memorial service, details to come. I sat surrounded by my photo albums, overstuffed and bursting, and created a collage of our little trio on the oak floor of my apartment. We were laughing in the wheat fields, huddled around an aggressive fire, watching, enthralled, as Rich shook a wok and sent veggies into airborne somersaults. I picked through over 70 pictures to find those without me.
I sent an anodyne sympathy card to the family home, addressed to her and her parents and enclosed three photos of the two of them. Possibly, they were pictures she had never seen, and would either comfort or wreck her. In either case, they were of no use to me, since I knew I had no right and was unworthy to grieve him. I had no claim, despite the closeness of our relationship, the potential it might have had, the longevity of our bond. I couldn’t cry for many months. It felt performative and fake, without her approval. Several weeks later, I received a beautiful thank you package, with commemorative items from Rich’s memorial. The card was signed only by her parents.
I learned to grieve by imagining her. In the last 22 years, a great trove of documentation has been written about Flight 93. She is featured in countless documentaries, interviews, and articles. Each anniversary, I usually find her in the crowd of families gathered on TV to commemorate the heroes in Shanksville. In interviews, I hear her speak and my tears flow. They’re mixed up in a viscous soup of empathy, regret, rage, and despair. All these years later, I can’t extricate my love for her from my grief for him.
Every year I attempt to write some paean to Rich, something that will memorialize our friendship and pay homage to the selfless and complex man he was. The passengers on Flight 93 whose names we all learned in the months that followed were lauded for their heroism. We knew their names because they called their loved ones, sharing with them and, unwittingly, with us, their terror and conviction. Rich didn’t make any calls. It’s completely plausible he didn’t have a phone, being a man grounded more in the earth than the air.
But it’s not my place, even after all this time, to claim him. He was once my friend, but he was her brother, our national hero, and for me, finally, always just out of reach.
Trisha Kostis lives in Seattle and her work has appeared in the Independent, Seattle Magazine, The Counter, Points in Case, and others. A born and raised Jersey girl, she has opinions.
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