A Novel about Friendship, Forgiveness and Healing
by Tom DeLoughry – tdeloughry@BeingYourBest.org – 716-909-9612
© 2019 by Tom DeLoughry – All rights reserved.
This book is dedicated to my wife, Kathy,
who taught me more about love than any book or preacher
Susan – Buffalo, September 12th 2016
My hip hurt and my heart ached as I closed my guitar case, taking care to avoid the microphone and speaker wires that snaked through the grass around my feet.
“Susan,” Alice said, as she placed her guitar on the table, “could you write something about my grandma? Like how you met, and the music you played?”
We were gathering our things from backstage at the edge of a meadow just before it sloped down to the Niagara River. The afternoon sun had pierced the clouds, spotlighting a blaze of early autumn over on the Canadian shore.
I didn’t know what to say. At 24, still flushed from the applause we had received, Alice looked just like Donna, her grandmother, did on the day we met.
It was 1968 on Spring Break in the Bahamas. Donna had been sitting in the back of a dusty jeep on Bay Street waiting for a tour to begin, her blond ponytail bouncing as she laughed with the guides. I was running from the worst mistake of my life, hoping my sunglasses would hide my tears. …Could I tell Alice about that?
This afternoon’s concert had been billed as “The 15th Commemoration of the 9/11 Attacks.” It was the day Donna disappeared. The day fear became an epidemic.
Every autumn since the Eighties, the Lodge, an eclectic spiritual community of peace activists and recovering hippies, had sponsored an outdoor concert on the river. Donna, Ed, Paul and me – known collectively as Friendship – had headlined more than a dozen of them.
In the old days, after all the equipment was packed in our vans, we’d take a couple of boats across the Niagara up to the Black Creek Tavern and enjoy some Canadian beer on their patio. We’d laugh about our mistakes, like playing ‘air guitar’ when we forgot the chords. But with four vocals, three guitars and a bass to distract them, we knew the audience almost never noticed. After another round or two, we’d take a slow cruise back to our vans, drifting with the ducks, savoring the sunset and each other.
If we did that today, we would be stopped, and our boats might be confiscated for crossing the border without permission.
A low drone in the distance had grown into the intrusive growl of twin outboard motors, powering the white and green U.S. Border Patrol boat heading upriver from Niagara Falls to Buffalo. It turned slightly, heading towards a raft of about a hundred canvasbacks ducks and scaups drifting slowly toward the Falls, five miles downstream. They were the first contingent of over a hundred thousand birds that wintered here each year, drawn by the current that kept the river from freezing.
As the boat sped towards them, they flapped furiously and took off. Swarming awkwardly towards the clouds that hung over the border, they looked ugly, like the flying monkeys that protected the Wicked Witch in Oz.
“Please, Susan,” Alice said as she slid our song list under the strings of her guitar. “I adored grandma, but was only nine when she vanished. I know the other clergy expelled her from her ministry the day before September 11th, but never understood why. What happened?”
A few minutes ago when we were onstage, Alice had lifted her chin and smiled at me as she held a high note, just like Donna always did. Her brown eyes sparkled under her blond bangs, her joy contagious. For a moment, I was a young woman again, sharing a microphone with my best friend, my guitar pulsing in time with hers, singing with all my heart to awaken more love in the world… and my life.
But now, staring at the river, I couldn’t speak. The music had ripped the scab off my grief and opened the scars of my guilt. I shook my head no.
“Are you sure?” she asked, smiling. “Even if it was only part of your story, I would really treasure it. And didn’t you find a lot of grandma’s journals when you were cleaning out her apartment?” Her eyes twinkled with hope as she tilted her head and lifted her eyebrows, waiting for my answer.
I remembered Donna giving me that look when she was nudging me to be a little braver than I really am.
So, I’m going to try…
FOR ALICE: May You Create a Better World than We Did
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Donna appeared in my life hours before Martin Luther King was murdered. She disappeared when the Twin Towers were destroyed, the day after she was defrocked.
Years later we found her plea for forgiveness fused to molten metal in a display case at the September 11th Memorial Museum.
But can I ever forgive myself?
I wish we had reported Malik’s hateful letters from Iraq and Al-Qaeda …and that we had understood what the Bahamian woman told us:
‘Too little faith can harm.
Too much can kill.’
But we never imagined that the name of God would be on the lips of the fanatics who flew two planes into the World Trade Center. Or that religion would kill a career devoted to love.
Vanished – Susan – Buffalo, September 10, 2001
My kitchen was a mess, the drop cloths tripping me as I rushed to answer the phone.
It was Donna, sobbing. “Susan, they convicted me.”
“Oh, Donna, I’m so sorry,” I said, a twist of rage and misery growing in my chest.
“It’s over. No church will hire me now. I’m finished as a minister. Finished.”
I slumped down on a chair, clutching the phone to my ear, feeling my belly tremble with my tears. “You were so brave, so good. How could they?” We cried, harmonizing our pain, me in my kitchen and my best friend in her apartment three hundred miles away.
“I should have been there to support you,” I said, looking at the half-painted green wall. I put my brush down on the edge of the can. “I’m so sorry.”
Her sobs slowed to sniffles.
“The way I see it,” I said, “you’re only guilty of following the Golden Rule instead of church rules. I’m proud of you.”
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, just above a whisper.
“Is there any hope?” I asked.
“You wouldn’t be thinking about hope if you were in my shoes today,” she replied with a bitter laugh.
“Oh, Donna, I can’t imagine how awful that must have been… I really can’t,” I said, “But I think your courage has been so widely publicized, they’ll vote to change the rules next year.”
“My courage or my stupidity?” she said. “Look at the lives I’ve ruined. The people I loved the most!”
She paused. “No more fighting. I’m done.”
The storm had surfaced last April. Her good intentions drowned by months of a sex scandal splashed across the evening news and the Internet. Doubt had worn her down.
Malik’s letters, promoting al Qaeda’s version of Islam, had torn a family apart. And, now, was he really back in the United States, hunting Donna to avenge the honor of his sister and his family?
“Who wouldn’t be exhausted by what you’ve gone through? Can you come to Buffalo and stay with us for a while? A few days, a few months, whatever you need to recover and decide what’s next.”
“Thank you, I was hoping you’d offer. I checked Amtrak, and I can get the 7:46 train out of Yonkers in the morning and get to Buffalo by three.”
The next morning, as I watched the horror of the Twin Towers tumbling on television, I was sure Donna was safe, traveling away from New York, up the Hudson, halfway to Albany. She had no reason to be in Manhattan, thirty miles south of where her fellow ministers had voted to defrock her. But she never got off the train when it pulled into the Buffalo station at 3:01 PM.
Donna, a 55-year-old ex-minister, had vanished.
The Museum – Susan – The World Trade Center, New York City, September 9th, 2016
The September 11th Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center opened twelve years after that horrible day. But I didn’t work up the courage to visit until Friendship, our folk music group, was asked to do a reunion concert to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the terror attack. Ed, Paul and I would be singing with Donna’s granddaughter, Alice.
My hand was slippery with sweat on the museum’s handrail as Ed and I stepped onto the escalator, sliding down beside two girders, battered remnants of the Twin Towers. I leaned on my cane, steadying myself against the movement and the memories as we sank through the Manhattan bedrock to the Memorial Museum, seven stories below where the Towers once soared.
The second escalator descended to the vast cavern of Memorial Hall. A quote from Virgil: No day shall erase you from the memory of time, blazed from an enormous wall with a thousand different shades of blue, recalling the beautiful sky that hung over that awful day.
“No day shall ever erase you,” I murmured as we sank lower.
“How could we ever forget her?” Ed said. He towered over me, still lean and handsome despite wrinkles under a messy shock of silver hair. “Even now I ache… but I still wonder if it was suicide,” rehashing the hole in our hearts for the thousandth time.
I’d have slapped him if I hadn’t heard it so many times before.
“I mean, Susan,” Ed continued, “think about how she loved being a minister.” His brow wrinkled. “How awful to have that ripped away. Plus, there was all the media coverage, the friends who turned on her. If it were me, I’d have at least thought about jumping off a bridge.”
Ed’s strong point was honesty. I’d always wished it was sensitivity. If Donna had killed herself, wasn’t it my fault for not being there?
The guilt started to drain me, but I forced myself to choose something else. “How about when we’re done,” I suggested, “we go someplace nice for lunch and make a toast to all the good times we had?”
Ed smiled. “Then we were four young folk singers who wanted to change the world. Now we’re just two old fogies, and the world ignores us.”
“Pardon me?” I said, “I’m certainly not ready to be ignored, and I know you’re not either. Unless you’ve decided to cancel the publication of your book next month.”
“Well, even if it doesn’t sell, writing is a cheap hobby that keeps me out of trouble,” he smiled.
“I don’t know, Ed. What about the chapter where you question our priorities by saying terrorism has caused nearly 4000 American deaths over the past 12 years, compared to 33,000 deaths from opioid addiction just last year. Don’t you think that’s going to get you into trouble?”
“I think all of us are already in trouble because people make decisions based on our fears rather than the facts,” Ed said quoting from his preface, “and our national policies place profits over people.”
He took my elbow to steady me as the escalator reached the bottom. A jolt shot down my leg as I stepped off, but my physical therapist says I’m doing well for a sixty-nine-year-old lady with a recent hip replacement.
For the next twenty minutes we barely spoke as we relived the nightmare, the twisted steel, the videos and the crushed fire truck, a relic of the 343 firefighters who died.
“And, here, ladies and gentlemen, is what has come to be called the ‘9/11 Bible,” the tour guide said. “It was found fused to a steel girder when the rubble of the Twin Towers was being removed.
“What is most remarkable,” he continued, “is that a page from the New Testament is clearly legible. You can see Jesus’ words printed in red: ‘…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek.’ …His message of forgiveness.”
As soon as I saw it, I knew. The bubble of grief started in my stomach, grew in my chest and exploded behind my eyes with tears.
“It’s Donna’s,” I sobbed, barely above a whisper.
Ed faced me, his eyes widening as he touched my shoulder. “What?” he asked.
My chin trembled. I grabbed his arm to steady myself as another bubble of pain rose and burst. “It’s Donna’s.” I pointed. “It’s her Bible!”
Ed turned to the display. “Oh, my God,” he murmured. “Is it possible?” His chest heaved, and his eyes glistened.
I looked at the charred margins of the book and the message embedded in the molten metal. “Ed, do you remember? She liked this Bible because all of Christ’s words are printed in red. And ‘turn the other cheek’ was one of her favorite sayings.”
“God knows, that there were always plenty of people for her to forgive,” he said, frowning.
He put his arm around me, and we both stared at it.
“It looks like the Bible Donna used,“ Ed said. He bent to get a closer look.
“It’s the one she used to carry around in her tote,” I said. “Remember? We gave it to her at the party on the day she was ordained.”
“Yes,” he said, his nose inches from the glass case. “But, Susan, there must be tens of thousands of this exact same edition. What are the odds that this one is hers?” He paused, straightening up. “And how did it get here?”
In my heart, I knew it was hers.
But what would she have been doing at the World Trade Center? I thought she was on her way to Buffalo to see me.
I thought she was safe.
Perfectly Safe – Susan: Nassau, The Bahamas, April 3, 1968
“Don’t worry, Susan, it’s perfectly safe!” Anne yelled to be heard over the steel drums and the noise from the bar we had just left. “We just say ‘no thanks’ to any car with two or more guys.”
Her blond hair flowed around her face as she half twirled to embrace the street party. “We’re in Nassau, girl. Time to let loose and live!”
The souvenir shops had been shuttered for hours, but the action on the sidewalks had been growing since dark.
“No, Anne,” I insisted, “It’s too dangerous to hitchhike.” ‘No’ was never easy for me to say, but being with Anne was giving me plenty of practice.
Two celebrations were merging in the streets and in the bars. Hordes of college kids on spring break mingled with the local Negroes, many who were leaving a political rally near the Straw Market. The locals greeted each other with shouts of “Hey, man, PLP all the way!” their slogan for the success of the Progressive Liberal Party in next week’s election.
“There are dozens of lonely guys who would love to give us a ride,” Anne said. “If either of us is uncomfortable with whoever stops, we won’t get into the car. OK?”
“Or, if you want to walk” she offered, “I’ll meet you back at the hotel.”
I sighed. “OK. Let’s stick together.”
Anne tucked her tee shirt tighter into her pants, emphasizing a chest that was already hard to ignore. Then she stepped into traffic and stuck out her thumb
You’re such a show-off!” I said, loosening my ponytail. I knew that my green eyes were more striking when my dark hair framed my face and curled over my breasts. When we were out drinking with our housemates, I usually attracted the most guys, but Anne was the girl who took one home.