Recently, I wrote an article for The Huffington Post called “Pan Am 103’s Lasting Legacy” in which I shared my memories of being a freshman at Syracuse University during the 10th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombings. It was a pivotal moment in my life, because truly, it was the first time I really registered the idea of terrorism — a lesson that unfortunately book-ended my college career as my graduation came in the awful months post-9/11.
December 21, 2013 is the 25th anniversary, and while there’s certainly no reminder needed for the families so deeply touched by the tragedy — the friends and family of the 270 lives that ended on December 21, 1988 — I hoped that by raising attention to it, I might invite some younger people to take a moment and think about the victims.
The reaction was amazing. I received dozens of emails from people who read the articles and wanted to share their stories, including from relatives of some of the people who were on the plan. I also heard from several current and former Remembrance Scholars at Syracuse University, who are selected each year to represent the 35 students who died.
One of them, Lauren D’Angelo, shared with me an essay that she wrote about “Dark Elegy,” a memorial sculpture created by the mother of one of the students killed in the bombings.
She is allowing me to share that essay with you here. Please take a moment to read and reflect and like me, join in not just a day, but a lifetime of remembering the 270 people we lost.
Lauren lives in New York City and is a 2008 graduate of Syracuse University. She was a Remembrance Scholar, during which time she represented Sarah SB Philips, one of the students killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103. Her time as a Remembrance Scholar introduced her to both Suse Lowenstein and Dark Elegy. She currently works for a Charter School in the Bronx, and enjoys dance, reading The New Yorker, and her pit bull rescue, Putty.
In Search of Dark Elegy
I woke with the dawn in search of an elegy. The ride to Montauk, with no traffic, was supposed to take two and a half hours. So at 6:45, I jumped in the car, turned on some music, glanced at my directions, and headed to the outermost tip of Long Island. It was my first, real, on-my-own adventure.
The morning was clear, the air brisk, my head was racing with thoughts of what the day ahead would be like, perpetuated by the fact that there was not an easy-access Starbucks anywhere in Queens, or along the Long Island Expressway. The traffic was minimal, cars sped by, I stayed calm by the NPR station I had landed on.
I was headed to visit Suse Lowenstein, the mother of Alexander Lowenstein, who was 21 years old when he was killed along with 269 other people when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up on the night of December 21, 1988. Suse had created Dark Elegy, a sculpture garden depicting the mothers, grandmothers, sisters and wives who lost a family member in the attack. I had read about Dark Elegy, I had read about Suse, I had read about Pan Am 103 and the students who were killed, one of whom I will forever represent. But I had to see Dark Elegy for myself. I had to talk to Suse, to know the woman responsible for such a magnificent work of art. This work of hope could not be read about. I had to be a part of it, if only for a Sunday afternoon.
Pulling off the Long Island Expressway, I was pleasantly surprised by how calm the new course was. Lush green trees surrounded either side of the highway, and to top it all off, I had gotten some coffee. Driving through the Hamptons was absolutely stunning. I had never been, and memories of childhood vacations to the Cape filled the car as much as the music spilling from the speakers.
Suse had said to give her a call when I reached East Hampton, to let her know I would be arriving soon. So I pulled into a cute little bakery, and dialed her cell phone number. It went straight to voice mail, so I decided to wait a little bit and buy some muffins to take for breakfast. I also reread a speech that Suse had given in 1995 when Dark Elegy came to the Syracuse University campus. I had read it a dozen times, always left with a feeling of wonderment at what a remarkable woman she was. Although I wish there was a word stronger than remarkable.
At around 9:30, I decided it was time to drive the remaining 20 miles or so to Montauk. The ride there was stunning; you could see the ocean expanse over the hills, the air smelled of salt, sand graced the sides of the road instead of grass. I knew driving with the windows down and music lifting my mood that I would one day return to this place.
Pulling up to Tundergarth was surreal. I had read about their home, the home of Dark Elegy, but it was something else to be there. Walking up the driveway (because it was being redone), I was greeted by beautiful flowering trees and a sculpture of a little girl sitting on a rock.
Rounding the corner, I saw Suse sitting on a bench cleaning off her shoes. Dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, she looked exactly like all the pictures I had seen of her in my research. Her stunning beauty in her appearance and character emanated even at a distance.
She greeted me with both hands, and let me know how happy she was that I could make it. Next to speechless, she asked what I brought her, I handed her the muffins, and we went inside to her studio.
I immediately saw the little plaster casts from which Dark Elegy grew. I saw the wall of the pictures of those who had died, which I had read about countless times. I saw the poster of her son that also hung at Syracuse University.
We took a seat at her desk, and began talking. I had questions that Anne and I had come up with prior to my visit, but they didn’t seem to matter in those initial moments.
We talked for two hours, a conversation with connections and understanding that, at least on my part, cannot be accurately represented in writing, but that can only be felt with the deepest of emotions. We discussed her work; we talked about her sons, about her husband, her grandchildren, how she loved Montauk. After about two hours and a cup of coffee, she asked if I wanted to see Dark Elegy. To be quite honest, and I didn’t say this at the time, I had the same apprehension that I have when going to look into a coffin at a wake. It is a feeling of love, of loss, and of complete terror.
Making our way to a gate on the side of her home, Suse stopped to show me several of her other sculptures. One was of her son Lucas, after the death of Alexander. It depicted him being held down by a rock, which, as Suse explained, symbolized the immense hopes and dreams that both she and her husband once held for two sons, that were now put squarely onto one. She showed me a bronze couple sitting on a bench, the woman whispering into the man’s ear. It was her son, Lucas, and his wife.
A few steps ahead of us lay the piece that has been the focus of my research for the past several months. Nothing could have prepared me for actually experiencing it myself, though. All I could do was cry. Suse put her arm around me, and said she never knew what to say at this part. Neither did I.
So for the next few minutes, while Suse took a seat on the bench, I slowly walked around the women, taking in the magnitude of their emotion. For the first couple minutes I walked along the perimeter, not sure if I could walk among them. But something invited me in; there was a point where I knew I had to walk within, to bend down and touch them, to bring myself to be closer to them.
As I walked, Suse also walked. She cleared weeds that had poked their heads out of the ground. She gently swept away small cobwebs that had formed in the folds of stone. She brushed the woodchips that had come to rest on the feet of the women. There was so much love in her movements, so much care in her touch, I could not help but feel in myself more love for what she had created. And a deep connection with this incredible woman whom I had just met.
Slowly, we rejoined in our wanderings around the sculptures. There was nothing more I could do but to hug her; there were no words for that moment. She showed me the mother of the girl whose name I will carry with me forever, she showed me herself, she showed me Aphrodite Tsaris, the first woman, other than herself, that she sculpted. Stories emerged about the women, about their lives, about their dignity in grief and their strength in life and love for their children.
We made our way down to the beach, where two chairs sat facing the sky that would soon become a magnificent sunset. We sat on a bench and took in the beauty of our surroundings, small waves lapping just before us. There is so much bad in this world, so much hate; yet Peter and I find and experience beauty when we can. Wherever we can. This I will never, ever forget.
For the next couple of minutes, we walked the rest of their estate. She showed me more of her sculptures, the hammock where she takes her naps, the benches she sits on to watch her berry garden grow. I sit here now, tears streaming down my face, and I can’t really explain why. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to explain it. Perhaps it is that this extraordinary human being, with so much love in her soul and her work, has shared a bit of that with me, and I will forever be changed. I will forever see my world differently; I will appreciate my life that much more. My heart, it feels, is breaking, only to heal with a greater capacity to love.
For the rest of the afternoon, Suse and I talked about things over lunch and cappuccino. She took me to see ‘Lowenstein Court,’ where Alexander’s friends dedicated a piece of land where he will forever be remembered climbing on a rock to judge the quality of the surf. She drove me to see the beautiful lighthouse that their town is fighting to save from falling into the sea surrounding it. In everything she said and explained to me, there was such a sense of gratitude. Gratitude for life, gratitude for love, gratitude for a beautiful day and the company of a 22 year old drawn to her most magnificent work and story.
When we returned to Tundergarth, I took out my camera to document the day, although pictures will never encompass what I experienced during my Sunday in Montauk. Suse and I sat on the bench where I first met her, to take a picture that I will always look to as a reminder of a day I will never forget.
Leaving, I again hugged Suse, thanked her for welcoming me into her home, for sharing a small part of her remarkable life with me. I said goodbye to Peter, and told them both I hoped I would see them again soon. And I truly do hope I see them again soon. I hope I can be a small part in helping Dark Elegy in its journey to bring more love and understanding into this world. I want to help others see the world the way Suse sees it; I want others to be changed, like I have, by this incredible woman and her hope for the future of our world.
The drive back to Queens was filled with traffic, with thoughts, with another good NPR program, with leftover cappuccino hoping to keep me alert in the rain and clouds that followed me as I departed from the light and beauty of an elegy of a mother’s love.
The day after, I am still grappling with what I experienced. I don’t think that this feeling will go away anytime soon. It is as if I am in mourning for a world that has not met Suse Lowenstein, has not seen Dark Elegy, has not felt for themselves the grief, strength and love pouring from the stone figures gracing the lawn of Tundergarth. A mourning for those who have not gotten a glimpse of a world with no hate, no terrorism, no misunderstanding, no disregard for human life and human love. It is a mourning that began on a Sunday afternoon, but that will forever allow me to fight for something greater than myself.
The world is a better place because of Suse Lowenstein and Dark Elegy. I am indebted to her for showing me hope for our future, and giving me something to fight for. She really does allow others to love a little more. And she welcomes others into that love without a second thought. She is what this world needs, absolutely, in its fight to save humanity.