The Comfort of Strangers

Death sucks." Five years ago this was the opening of a eulogy by a minister for a mutual friend who died tragically. Spoken loudly and fiercely, then followed by a hollow silence, it was a slap in the face. Nonetheless, it was a fair assessment of how many of us felt.

Death still sucks. It has not gotten easier as I have gotten older, or more experienced, or on more intimate terms with it. The pain of separation is agonizing.

On July 17, 1996, five days shy of her 16th birthday, Larissa Uzupis died. She was one of the victims of the TWA Flight 800 explosion. She was also the daughter of my best friend, Michele. Larissa was a beautiful girl, on the brink of womanhood, full of promise, life, and the energy of youth- fearless, passionate.

Extremely independent and focused, Larissa was an honor student, an athlete, a musician. Being the only girl in her computer programming class was not enough for Larissa; she was also the top student. A cheerleader, a math whiz, a vegetarian, Larissa was a complex and interesting individual. She had a thoughtful and introspective nature, but she possessed a wonderfully dramatic flair. Larissa self-confidently claimed she would be the first woman president-and maybe she would have been.

Michele Uzupis and I have known each other for 24 years. We went to the same small Catholic high school together in Oil City, Pennsylvania. The weekend before the crash, we were looking forward to attending our 20-year reunion. Instead I joined Michele in a New York hotel, and waited as divers worked to recover bodies from the ocean.

THE HOTEL WAS a sea of grief and pain. As the shock wore off and people tried to cope, it became a roller coaster of emotions. The same face laughing at some sweet or silly memory five minutes earlier would convulse into heartbreaking sobs with no warning. Anger and frustration mounted as we spent hours upon hours waiting to hear nothing new.

Still, in the midst of all the sadness and turmoil, hope flickered. When Michele was at one of her lowest points, a small gift sprang forth in the form of our waitress. An older French woman with hennaed hair and a warm smile, she hugged us both and said, "God loves you. He has good things in store for you." Although it seemed a strangely inappropriate thing to say considering the circumstances, I admired her conviction. When Michele looked at her with tear-filled eyes and said, "Oh, no," she repeated it adamantly, "Yes, yes. He does love you. There are good things ahead-you will see."

I was too upset and angry myself to talk about God's love, about faith and grace and hope. Hearing it from this stranger, so strong and with such intention, melted away some of my resistance.

But where was God in the midst of all this suffering? On the Sunday following the crash, there was an interfaith service inside a hangar at JFK Airport. I wept as the bagpipes played, but the sermons left me cold and unmoved.

On Monday there was a memorial service at Smith Point Park, Long Island. It took more than two hours for the motorcade to get there. With 14 huge motorcoaches carrying the families, and dozens and dozens of police motorcycles and cars and emergency vehicles escorting us, it was an impressive sight. They closed the parkway. Larissa would have loved it.

Then just before we reached the beach we saw more than a hundred men, women, and children standing along the road silently, some holding signs and banners, others just standing in solidarity or waving slowly. "God Bless You," "You are in our prayers," "For the families of TWA Flight 800," read the signs. Tears started streaming down my face. These total strangers stood out there for who knows how long just to let us know they cared.

An image of three small, sad-eyed boys remains frozen in my mind. They were sitting cross-legged atop a station wagon and holding their homemade banner with the words "We Love You."

The compassion of those people, more than anything else, gave me hope and encouragement during that surreal weekend. The way they reached out in the face of disaster and untold grief was truly a salve on those deep wounds. And as my heart began to crack open, I realized that yes, God was still there-on top of a station wagon.

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