I already know what you will think.
When I tell you I was not afraid, you will think I am lying.
But I wasn’t.
And I’m not.
I was actually thinking to myself: “When I later tell the story about the day we – my family and I – willingly climbed into a car that was driven by an unknown, armed man, everyone will assume I have lost my marbles.”
See? That’s how you know I wasn’t afraid. In that moment, I was already thinking about telling the story afterward. I knew we’d make it.
I just wasn’t sure if you’d believe me.
While I am thinking about how I will later tell this story, we are on the side of a road in a small town halfway between Punta Cana and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. We have pulled over as far as we can on this narrow stretch to let a drug enforcement truck pull ahead of us on the winding dirt road. At least half a dozen men with machine guns at the ready, sit perched on the side of the truck as it swerves past us. I try not to make eye contact with any of them; I stare instead at the facades of the small homes not far from our car. Not far from the machine guns.
My three drowsy kids – ages 5 and under – have been sleeping most of the way but now they stare bleary-eyed at the pastel-colored buildings whose porches are decorated with rows of hanging meats. My three-year-old son mumbles “pretty” and I nod my head in agreement as I rub his head. “Shhh, I whisper. It’s ok.”
And I feel it is, somehow.
Because back home in New York, things have not been ok.
Most recently, my well-intentioned efforts to juggle being a full-time mother and full-time lawyer have left me gasping for breath. Ostensibly, we are here to spend our first week of my year-long sabbatical from corporate law on a well-needed family vacation.
But that’s not why we’re here. RIGHT HERE. It is so much more specific than that.
And if my husband has connected the dots, he does not say so, although in my own mind, it all seems so obvious.
He doesn’t ask why I have brought us here. Not when I make the reservations. Not when we get into the rented car at the airport. Not when the driver claims he is off-duty “policia” as he unassumingly stows his firearm in the glove box. Not when we pull over on our way to the Punta Cana resort to let a heavily armed drug enforcement truck pass us on this small, foreign road.
I take in all of the sights and sounds and I feel at peace, armed driver, machine guns, and all. I look around at the countryside – equal parts beautiful and hard. I close my eyes, and I think to myself:
I did not survive a plane crash eight years ago to die here or now.
I was at home in Belle Harbor, New York, on November 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed on the corner where I lived.
That morning, after my husband left for work, I woke to the sound of a low-flying plane. After a few moments of listening to the too-close jet engine, I got out of bed and headed to the window. I don’t know what I was looking for, but here’s what I saw: a dark cylindrical object plummeting from the sky a few blocks away – the falling engine of a plane that was gradually breaking apart only moments after lifting off from New York City’s Kennedy Airport.
After a few moments of screeching and darkness (the plane cast an enormous shadow as it passed directly over my head), Flight 587 crashed across the street from where I was standing. At the moment of impact, I remember instinctively ducking – hands thrown over my head – as if I could somehow avoid being crushed by the plane in this position.
It worked. The plane missed me.
After all was said and done that morning, on the corner of 131st and Newport Avenues, our house was the only one of the four corner houses left standing – completely unscathed – while the crash had killed everyone on board Flight 587, and five of my neighbors on the ground.
Our house became the command center for the recovery operation for Flight 587. It always surprises me that, all these years later, I still feel grateful, proud and guilty relating that fact. November 12, 2001 became the median point of my life — everything else was either before or after this central day.
And I was haunted by the tragedy.
Every morning, I would read over the makeshift memorials the passengers’ families created at the site. Photos and candles and letters and cards dedicated to the victims. I mourned them. I thought about them. I prayed for them. Every day, I carried around the memories of these people I had never known. Would never know. These people travelling to a place I had never been – a place that was home to many of the passengers on board.
Flight 587 had been headed to the Dominican Republic.
When we moved from the crash site nearly a year later, I was still trying to give meaning to my own survival – I focused on my law career but wanted more. I poured myself into motherhood as my children began arriving two years after the crash. Yet, even the needful voices of my three children did little to drown out the ghostly echoes.
Survivors’ guilt prevented me from slowing down for even a moment, as I struggled to deserve my children, my career, and my life. In 2009, exhausted, I took a sabbatical from corporate law, and only then did I realize what must be done.
I booked a flight to the Dominican Republic with my family – to see and honor the homeland of many of the victims of the horrific crash that had been haunting me for eight long years. I hired a driver to navigate through the countryside from Santo Domingo to the resort town of Punta Cana. I wanted to see more than the scrubbed down walls of the tourist resort.
A full circle moment if ever there was one, it would have been impossible and highly ungrateful to be fearful that day. Which is why I knowingly climbed into the car with the armed driver, believing him when he said he was off-duty “policia.”
And why I refused to allow the machine guns and large black garbage bags full of recovered Cartel-related drugs to distract me from the beauty that was all around.
Sitting there on the side of the road, instead of being afraid, I suddenly felt silly for believing myself a “survivor” – and worse, feeling guilty – simply because I had not died when a plane crashed on my street corner eight years earlier.
After the machine guns were finally out of view, our driver resumed his course along the pretty but rough countryside, and my children awakened noisily.
Are we almost there? I’m hungry. Did you remember my blanket? My brother is touching me. I have to pee.
And in the noisy din of that car, I realized with a smile that the ghosts were quiet.
And the silence was beautiful.