Twenty-four Canadians were among those killed on Sept. 11, 2001. Arron Dack was one of them. At the time of his death, Arron was 39. His daughter, Olivia, was 6 and his son, Carter, was 2.
Born in England, Arron came to Canada with his family when he was 8. He grew up in Toronto, attended Brown Public School, Deer Park, Jarvis Collegiate and, eventually, the University of Toronto. He then married Abigail Carter in a ceremony at U of T. Arron and Abigail lived in Toronto, Brussels, London and Massachusetts, before settling in Montclair, N.J.
- The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation, by Abigail Carter, McClelland & Stewart, 290 pages, $32.99
At the time of his death, Arron was the vice-president of a global financial software company called Encompys. On Sept. 11, he was attending a trade show at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the North Tower.
Abigail Carter's eloquent and honest memoir, The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation is the story of the voyage she found herself on over the six years following her husband's death. Reading it is like sitting at your own kitchen table listening to Abigail Carter's story, a story that is unnerving, uplifting and occasionally humorous. Although it is customary practice in book reviewing to refer to the author by his or her last name, this book is so personal and painful and friendly - and, yes, funny! - that I find I can only call her Abigail.
Abigail and Arron would have celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary on Sept. 29, 2001. Her own birthday fell in that same week, just 11 days after Arron's death. Her family arranged a surprise birthday dinner, a special celebration featuring all the white roses from the funeral bouquets hung upside down from ribbons strung across the dining room ceiling.
Digging into a huge platter of sushi and watching the excitement in her children's eyes, Abigail says: "I felt light with giddiness for a second, like I might drift away. I was shocked to feel an emotion, to feel anything at all. I had been an automaton for eleven days, and I had just felt a chink in the armour that protected me from sensation. ... I felt guilty for having joyful thoughts, as though they might erase my memories of Arron. As we ate, I looked around the room at each person. I felt grateful for each one who loved me so much."
But the voyage through grief proves not to be that simple in the long run. The loss of Arron and the pain each family member is suffering alter the family dynamics dramatically and put a strain on each and every one of their intertwined relationships. Abigail writes about these fractures and misunderstandings in a heartfelt and courageous way. I've never before read a book about loss that is so honest in dealing with these aspects of a tragic death in the family. In her preface, Abigail says she hoped her story would be "something that could help others to endure their own losses." In its examination of these family fractures alone, she has succeeded in doing exactly that.
Grappling with her anger at her family, sometimes even at her own children, and at Arron for dying, Abigail writes: "I was beginning to understand that grief was like a two-year-old child. Its behaviour was often irrational. Grief demanded instant focus and it was persistent, not giving up until it got the attention it needed. Grief could erupt at the tiniest provocation and could leave a trail of debris a mile long."
Even with her closest friends, she admits to feelings of resentment: "I felt as though everyone wanted a piece of me, and once again I was overwhelmed trying to give everyone what I thought they wanted."
Surely within our own families and friendships we too have found ourselves comforting those who are attempting to comfort us. All of this is further compounded by the very public nature of Arron's death.
Abigail searches for solace in all the usual places, but nothing really helps. Going to church, where she had expected to find refuge and solace, instead she finds a fire-and-brimstone preacher ranting on about terrorists and then moving quickly on to a double baptism, entirely disregarding the presence of Abigail and her family in his congregation.
Going to various memorials for the 9/11 victims, she hopes she will find another widow with young children: "I wanted affirmation that I was following the widow rules, handling the kids correctly. I wanted to find someone with whom I could exchange stories, who would understand the same language of death, who would become an ally." But finally she has to admit that although she had expected the connection with other 9/11 widows would be immediate and clear, in fact, "our loved ones' common fate was not enough to bind us. Or perhaps we were all just too raw to be of any help to one another. Our reactions to our grief were indeed as different as our fingerprints. ... I stood among these women feeling both glad that I had found a community and yet lost and isolated within it."
What she does find is a book called After the Darkest Hour, by Kathleen Brehony, who maintains that such loss as she has suffered can be a form of "spiritual alchemy." The ancient science of alchemy, in which its believers aimed to turn lead into gold, involved three steps. First is the "blackening," in which the lead is broken down to its essential elements and its original form ceases to exist. Next is the "whitening," in which the metal is purified and cleansed. Last is the "reddening," which involves a red powder made from the philosopher's stone, resulting in a perfect form of gold. It is this three-part template into which Abigail pours her story.
Her sharp and bitter humour throughout this difficult voyage is often laugh-out-loud funny. Barely a week after Sept. 11, people are beginning to comment on how thin she looks: "I began to respond with dark humour. 'Yes! It's this great new diet I'm on! The lose-a-husband diet plan! Works like a charm!' Faces fell."
Some time later, in the grocery store, she thinks to pick up a bag of Ruffles for Arron: "I froze, then put it back slowly. Tears sprang to my eyes. Shit. 'Clean up in aisle two,' I thought as I wiped my tears on my sleeve."
I wiped a few tears on my sleeve as I read this remarkable book.
Diane Schoemperlen is the author of Names of the Dead: An Elegy for the Victims of September 11 (2004) and, most recently, At a Loss for Words: A Post-Romantic Novel.