NEW YORK — It has been 20 years since Susanne kissed me goodbye on her way to work that included a business trip to Paris. 20 years since TWA Flight 800 took off out of JFK, and that red and white Boeing 747 rained back down in pieces.
Last year on July 17th, the press was there camped out in the sand. The ambitious crews were shuffling at the water’s edge—cameras and microphones in hand, pants legs rolled-up above bare feet. I carried a pair of carnations to the ocean’s edge, just like I did the first time 19 years before, at the first memorial service for Susanne and the rest of the 230 victims.
And like before, various media outlets were trying to capture my grief along with the other mourners for the passengers and crew whose lives ended in a fireball offshore Smith Point, Long Island.
I had mixed feelings about the press attendance. Grief is a difficult-enough emotion without a potentially unlimited audience peering at me through up-close camera lenses. But the news crews were also there to do some good.
The memorial site needs additional funding to maintain it, so the exposure would be good for soliciting donations. Also, I feel strongly that the truth behind TWA 800’s demise still needs to be revealed—so I allowed them to capture my raw moment, and accepted the resulting lack of privacy.
Like the evening it happened, the sky was mostly clear and the sun was setting. The cameramen were taking advantage of the magic hour when the daytime glare was gone, and there was still enough ambient illumination so that artificial lighting wasn’t necessary. My polarized Maui Jim sunglasses were hooked on the collar of my T-shirt since they were no longer needed to defend the day’s strong rays.
Those sunglasses are mentionable because they were my late fiancée Susanne’s—or at least the initial replacement for the pair she carried with her to her premature end. She’d bought them shortly before her final-flight demise, and they’d caused quite a discussion between us.
Me: Could I wear them?
Her: No, you break or lose every pair you own.
Me: They’re rather expensive, can we afford them right now?
She looked at me unsure. All of our combined finances were out in the open as we attempted to qualify for the Connecticut house we were trying to buy together.
I worried those sunglasses were an extravagance at the time, but Susanne loved wearing them. They shielded her Danish blue eyes, and the stems disappeared into her long Scandinavian blonde hair. Ultimately those sunglasses came to me, mangled in an all-too-real representation of her final fatal moments, sealed in a clear FBI evidence bag along with the rest of her onboard belongings. Imagine opening the personal effects of your most loved one after they have spent a week in 140 feet of salt water, and then been sealed in a plastic ‘evidence’ bag.
I once tried talking out loud to her post-mortem, during a grief-releasing moment of levity: And you think I don’t take care of my sunglasses? She didn’t answer, even inside my head.
The store that sold those sunglasses to her refused to replace them when I visited. The damage wasn’t a result of their workmanship. When I subsequently discarded them, that simple act unraveled me. It became my unexpected moment of truly letting go of her.
Years later I described that sudden grieving experience, and Maui Jim corporate relations eventually responded with a more favorable outcome than my retail store experience: they replaced her sunglasses along with a sincere note of sympathy. The new pair became a part of Susanne that I could once again hold onto, and then I wore them for her for many years.
Perhaps Susanne didn’t want me to have the last laugh. Perhaps there is still some poetry to her life beyond her living years. Or, perhaps my ability to care for eyewear simply has never improved beyond the days when she accused me of breaking or losing every pair I owned. Those Maui Jim sunglasses were still hooked to the neck of my T-shirt when I waded into the surf with carnations in hand and the press in tow.
The flowers split apart as I threw them into the waves as hard as I could, once again symbolizing the release of my grief as I let go of my offering into the ocean; but I did not yet fully grasp the scope of what was really happening, as much as I thought I did.
As I waded back out of the foam from the breaking waves, a Newsday reporter asked me how I felt. I tried explaining that sending flowers into the surf was like letting go all over again—a symbolic act of honoring a burial at sea, much like shoveling dirt into a grave on land. But only then I realized this was also how I once felt while discarding Susanne’s original mangled Maui Jim sunglasses into a trash can, and I reached for their replacement pair that should have been at my neck.
They were gone. They had flown free into the waves during the exertion of my floral goodbye. Either Susanne, or the sea, had once again reclaimed them.