Testament of Mother Courage
WE all remember where we were when we saw the towers being hit, the fireball, the bodies hurtling to the ground, the buildings crumbling.
We were shocked, disbelieving, horrified, but most of us were ultimately untouched in the substance of our lives. We could turn away, get on with other things, gawp a little, as bystanders do; maybe allow ourselves to get caught up in the drama, just a bit.
Where Elizabeth Turner was the day those towers fell, as she stood in the Channel 4 offices in London, about to go into her weekly meeting as senior HR manager, was at the beginning of a terrifying journey, a journey driven by fear, panic, despair, and, finally, hope rekindled into a blaze. It's a journey she has described with huge honesty in The Blue Skies of Autumn, an account not so much of an atrocity as of the kind of wonder that can come even out of immense pain.
Aged 33, seven months pregnant with her first son, Elizabeth had been married just two years. Her beloved husband Simon, who worked for the Risk Waters Group, a financial and technological publishing company, had flown to New York the day before, for a meeting at the very top of the World Trade Centre tower. In the hours that followed that second plane, "the small black mark" that Elizabeth remembers watching on screen, flying straight into New York's most emblematic structure, she travelled the nightmarish distance between "this will not happen to me", and the point of hideous realisation. Along the way were some false hopes, information blackouts, mistaken assurances, scraps of near-comfort, until, finally, acceptance that there would be no miracle. That the worst had happened.
Even now, when I ask what was the blackest moment of all this dark time, Elizabeth doesn't hesitate for a second. "The period before William was born. September 20 was the time I was told Simon was dead. We didn't have a body, we didn't have official confirmation, but by that stage, my family decided that was enough, it was time to face it. The really dark time lasted from then until William was born; it was this no-man's land of just me. That's when the sheer weight of grief crashed down on top of me. That's the place where I thought about suicide. I couldn't breathe, I was being crushed. I thought, 'I'm dying anyway, if I do it, that will end quickly.'''
It was a place of pain and utter bleakness -- a personal tragedy wrapped up in the single most defining moment of the new century, an event so huge it threatened to completely swamp the many private, individual stories that it was composed of. Outside Elizabeth's house, where she had retreated, watched over by her family and friends, to try to absorb the body blow life dealt her, the press were staking out the trajectory of her emotions. "That was really shocking," she recalls now, composed and relaxed, over tea in a hotel in Dublin. "They were asking me 'can you comment on the death of your husband?' before that was even established. I thought, I will be the person to decide when we say he's dead, not you, not anybody else!"
It's a hint of the steel that lies beneath a very warm, gentle exterior; the kind of steel that has shaped Elizabeth's moral reaction to an event that carried the power to completely warp not just her life, but the life of Simon's unborn child, too, had she so permitted. The steel that permitted her to make a choice, between drink, drugs, hatred, suicide -- and love, hope, courage. "There's a point where you have to face it," she says. "It won't go away. I learned that very powerfully. Those emotions are very real, very present, and they will become demons if you don't face them."
The realisation that the historic impact of September 11 threatened to entirely smother the experiences of those who lost most through it, is partly what impelled her to write the book. "It was such a world event, everybody had their own views and ideas about that day. Everyone has political views and opinions. And I thought, there's a big personal impact to this; there were a huge amount of families involved." And so this book is a way of showing those people, and anyone else who has suffered searing grief and loss, that there is life, there is hope, there is a way through it. "If I give one person a bit of hope in that dark place, then that's good enough for me."
The other reasons to write, quite simply, were for William, so that he will have his own account of what happened to his father, the way that story should be told; and for Simon himself. "Some people run marathons in remembrance. I wanted to do this," says Elizabeth.
With great pain sometimes comes the light of great discovery, and in those days, weeks and months after Simon's death, Elizabeth found a degree of kindness, often from strangers unconnected with her life, that still amazes her. "It was sort of six of one, half-a-dozen of the other," she says now. "September 11 brought its problems, 100 per cent, but it also brought incredible help and support." She had planned to have William in the local hospital, but after Simon's death, a friend decided this was unrealistic, and swept into motion, organising a more secluded, supportive alternative. Channel 4 stepped in and offered to pay for the Portland -- "a private hospital, where loads of celebrities go," Elizabeth laughs. A busy obstetrician, Mr Gerrard, immediately made space for Elizabeth among his clients, at almost zero notice, and, as she says, "he gave me the most incredible gift of just having as good a birth as I could possibly have had with William."
It was an example of the great kindness of strangers, reinforced at almost every turn she took. "I didn't get it at that point, but it was the impact that this world event had on other people -- they wanted an opportunity to play their part. It was only later I realised, it was because of September 11 that those things happened. If Simon had died in a car crash, I wouldn't have got that amount of support."
And yet she gently refutes the idea that this may have given her an almost parallel experience of loss, in which the kind of loneliness, isolation and, often, penury, that can accompany it, didn't play a part. "Loss is loss, it doesn't matter what form it comes in. That person still feels pain, still needs help and support, this just happened to be a big public event."
It was Mr Gerrard, the obstetrician, who had the sagacity to point out that Elizabeth, who had no family in London, whose father was busy nursing her terminally ill mother, couldn't be left alone with her new baby. And so Jan arrived. A maternity nurse trained in reiki, massage therapy and aromatherapy, she was to be a guiding force in Elizabeth's journey up from the dark swamp, a journey Elizabeth engaged with actively, refusing to sit back and allow time to be the passive instrument of her healing.
"You have to work out how to get through it, how to come out whole the other end, rather than putting a public face on it. Everyone says time is a great healer, life has to go on. Well no, if you haven't worked through that, it doesn't have to go on, and time doesn't heal. It all just sits and waits for you. I took on a huge responsibility -- how can I deal with these emotions? How can I be a whole, functioning, life-affirming parent? That was a big driving force."
Monies donated to the Red Cross in the aftermath of September 11 by the many well-meaning people desperate to help, meant that Jan could stay with Elizabeth and William for an entire year, during which time she encouraged Elizabeth to face the demons of Simon's death. Among these was the fear that Simon had been one of the jumpers, those people who had, in the realisation that death was certain, chosen to leap from the windows of the Twin Towers.
"I couldn't bear to think that he might have been faced with such an obscene choice -- that somehow the decision to jump was better than what would have happened if he'd stayed inside." Jan encouraged her to connect with these fears, with the violence of emotion that surrounded Simon's final hours, and gradually, with the help of reiki, Elizabeth began to move through the first, awful phase of her grief. "The reiki helped me," she says. "It stopped my brain, stopped the panic, the fear, the terror. I still use it, and it's the thing that helps me to centre myself."
She is keen to emphasise the importance of that year with Jan, and the gratitude she feels towards the unknown people who made it possible. "It's important for people to know that what they donated did go to help. William as a baby was really well looked after. He has a lovely life. He doesn't have a dad, and he has a loss in that respect, but on the other hand he has a lot to be grateful for."
Once Jan left, there was yet another period of adjustment for Elizabeth -- life as a single parent. "I had some hard lessons to learn," she recalls wryly. One of these was quite simply, "that you don't have to do it all on your own. It's OK to ask for help. I'm incredibly independent, almost to my detriment at times. One time, I got myself quite ill -- a mixture of exhaustion and bad flu -- and I couldn't really look after William. I phoned my sister, sobbing, and she drove down to London. My neighbour came in, looked after William and I just collapsed for 24 hours. That was quite a defining moment, I learned that you're actually being more capable as a mother by not letting it get to the point where you can't cope."
There were also the birthdays, anniversaries and commemorations to get through, some to take the place of a burial, others to mark the passage of time. At one of these, the one-year anniversary, at Ground Zero, Elizabeth found herself scooping up muck into a plastic water bottle, just as the many grieving relatives around her were doing, though she barely understood why. "I had in my mind that I had to do everything, however odd or funny it seemed to be, so that when I looked back, I didn't think, 'if only I'd done that'. You can erase it later, but if you haven't done it, it just might be one of those things that you wish you had." As it turns out, that bottle of earth later proved to have no significance, and she threw it away, but collecting it is a fine example of the level of openness Elizabeth operated with. Instead of closing down, shutting herself off from experience and emotion as a protection against further hurt, she actively embraced everything around her.
Doing this has been part of the spiritual journey she was required to go on after Simon's savage death. "I don't use the word spiritual in a religious sense," she explains now, "but in the sense of the bigger questions -- what's out there? Who are we? Is there something more? Those questions played a very, very big part in my journey. I realised I couldn't get any sense out of the world from that event, I had to get it from me. I had to find a peace inside myself. And I genuinely believe there's a much bigger picture to our lives, and that everything happens for a reason, even when you don't know what that reason is." And so even though she can't begin to fathom the reason that took Simon from her, took William's father from him, she trusts that there is, somehow, a point to it all.
It's not a point that she searches to understand through blame or bitterness, even towards those who plotted the horror or flew the planes. From that very first awful day, Elizabeth has spent no time dwelling on those responsible. "Its almost like I didn't have the luxury of sitting and thinking about the circumstances. My husband had been killed, I was pregnant, there were so many things I had to deal with, I didn't have the head-space for that. I don't think that was even a conscious thought of mine, it was just a practical reality."
And what about later, when the vicious spiral of tit-for-tat began to unroll? "When the invasion happened, my overwhelming thought was, this is such a horrific experience for me -- all the grief, the emotion; I just don't think anything in that vein is right. At the end of all of that are individual human beings losing husbands, wives, children, families, and that's the bit that I always go straight to. It always boils down to a private grief that is too much for people to bear. People shouldn't have to deal with that. For us as human beings to still be fighting each other is incredibly primitive."
And so she leads her own life by being peaceful and respectful in all the little things that count, the daily interactions, in the belief that we can change the world this way, by small acts of kindness and demonstrations of love. And in her career, as a life coach with the company she set up, U Life, she helps other people come to terms with the overwhelming events of their own journeys. It's a seamless part of the new approach that tragedy has taught her.
Recently, Elizabeth found love again, and is in a new relationship, with someone "who reflects everything I have seen and learned". Simon's spirit is still close, though "a little farther away for a good few years now, because my life is rich and full. But the closeness comes when I'm dealing with stuff with William, I can hear his voice." William, too, is happy to share the mother he has only ever known as all his. "I tell him that there is plenty of love to go round," says Elizabeth seriously.
Might there be more children? "I'm 41. If it happens, I would be delighted, and if it didn't happen, I'd be absolutely fine too." The universe has taught her acceptance, and the precious gift of trust. And so an event that has dominated history and threatened to chew up the stories of the individuals involved, becomes personal, tangible, again.
The Blue Skies of Autumn Simon & Schuster, €13.19