My daughter was scheduled to leave for London for her junior year abroad on September 21, 2001. On September 11, amidst the chaos, shock and misery of the day in New York, I felt sure there wasn’t a chance in hell I would put her on a plane to England. I’d already lost my husband at a young age to cancer. I wasn’t about to lose my daughter to Al-‐Qaeda.
Her University notified us that the program would go on as scheduled. I emailed the office of the President of the University pleading with them to delay it until our life in New York made some sense again. The simple answer was no. She was flying British Airways and my friends reassured me that the airline was very experienced at dealing with security issues. Being in London had to be safer than New York at that point.
Paralyzed with a fear that pervaded New York, I watched my daughter as she left, walking past the security gate for the plane at JFK. She was terrified, but not about the risk of flying ten days after 9/11. It was the complete unknown of what her year abroad might bring. She always dreaded big changes in her life.
The next morning she met Paul, a Brit, as she moved into the same dorm as his at the University College London. She began to send me emails saying that they were inseparable.
One evening long after midnight, as they left a party and searched for a London cab back to the dorm, my daughter sat down on the step of a brownstone exhausted.
“Don’t move,” Paul said, full of his usual energy, as he headed across the street to an open market.
He returned, put my daughter in a cart and pushed her miles back to the dorm. They laughed hysterically as Londoners still out on the street cheered as they passed by.
When she left London at the end of her year abroad, Paul sent her an email. He described how he had spent hours that day laying on the bare mattress on the floor of her dorm room. The room was now empty of all of her belongings, but he saw her in every cinderblock, every carpeted inch of the tiny room. I cried when I read his emails. I knew what it was like to be loved like that.
Paul repeatedly expressed his love for her but my daughter wasn’t so sure about her feelings. She said she loved him but she cherished her work, her life in New York. Maybe she was too young or too ambitious to make a commitment. Or maybe her father’s death had left her unwilling to risk breaking her heart again.
My daughter described Paul as “a brilliant philosophy major, an idealistic and adventurous man.” Paul often called her with unusual and unexpected plans.
“Paul said he’s driving across Africa for a month in a Jeep and wants to know if I’ll go with him,” she told me a year after she had left London.
“Are you going to do it?”
“I can’t. I can’t leave my job for that long.”
“I’d love to go. You think he’d like to make the trip with your mother?”
She rolled her eyes.
Paul flew into New York and into our apartment for a visit. His enormous smile and exuberance replenished our tired days during the oppressive heat of New York in August. We went for a run around the Reservoir in Central Park and as my daughter and I very slowly made our way on the path, Paul raced around several more times.
I barely saw the two of them during his time in New York. But what I did catch was my daughter’s ambivalence. Paul had large, engaging eyes, a charming personality. She said she wasn’t sure of the chemistry. I wasn’t certain she would allow herself to be loved the way Paul loved her. After all, her father had done that once. She had never really mourned her father and had a way of shutting down, moving on with her friends, school, and growing up. Although I admired her resolve, her strength and her accomplishments, I just didn’t know if it came at a cost. And she wouldn’t talk about the past, ever.
My daughter went to London a number of times and the pictures she sent of her and Paul show her leaning into his chest and content. I couldn’t figure out if she looked in love but she appeared as willing to meld into Paul as any man I’d seen her with.
Several years later Paul joined the British army. That war, that post-‐9/11 war, inspired so many good men and women to join the military.
And then one Sunday morning at 6am, the phone rang and my body turned rigid. Good news never seemed to arrive at that time of the day. My daughter was crying uncontrollably.
“What’s the matter?” I screamed. If only I could be that calm mother. Like my mother.
“Paul is dead. He was killed by an IED.”
We both cried on the phone till there was nothing left. She was inconsolable. Paul’s brother had called her from London with the news. I should have been stronger, more of the shoulder to lean on. But hearing my daughter’s pain reaching out to me was unbearable. My daughter flew to London for his funeral and I knew her heart had been crushed again. Her father had died of cancer when she was seven and now this.
She sent an email after the funeral.
“It was the worst day of my life.”
I searched online for news of Paul’s death.
An officer was killed trying to protect his platoon from a roadside bomb in Helmand, southern Afghanistan. The Lieutenant, 27, who died on Friday, was on foot patrol in the northern part of Helmand, where the Taliban have a strong presence.
His family said: “He was passionately committed to his men, far beyond mere duty. He had read widely about Afghanistan and went with a genuine desire to help bring enough stability there to enable reconstruction to follow.”
“I should have just gone with the relationship. We would have married and maybe he wouldn’t have gone to Afghanistan. He’d be alive,” she cried when she got home.
“But you didn’t know this would happen.”
“He emailed me from Afghanistan the day before he died. I didn’t get a chance to respond, I was so busy at work.”
“But you didn’t know,” I repeated.
“He loved me – everything about me – just the way I am. All the good and all the bad.”
I remembered being loved by her father that way. A gift that doesn’t always appear in a relationship.
Paul didn’t deserve to die. But who did? Stupid war. There were more articles about Paul with countless comments from the British military of how protective he was of his men, just as he had cared for my daughter. But ultimately, Paul couldn’t shield himself or his men from the Taliban. And he couldn’t protect my daughter from the excruciating pain and sadness of his death. Nobody can really protect us but ourselves.
I worried that my daughter would never open her heart to any man. And I watched as she buried herself in her career. At her young age, she’d spent almost as much time experiencing loss as I had. Somehow, I had to show her that she had to move on. That the person you are when you get your heart broken is the person you’ll be when the pain subsides. No matter how many times the heart is broken.
It meant I had to try to love again, even if it wasn’t exactly the way I had loved her father. And maybe my daughter would follow my example. She had witnessed my failures. Always dating the wrong men in order to avoid love and the possibility of having my heart torn apart again. She had watched from the sidelines with disbelief.
Now it was time to set a precedent as I had tried to do in so many other ways. She had grown up inspired by both my career and my mother’s and had already surpassed both of us. But this was different. Instilling a love of travel or of reading had been the easy part of being a parent.
My sweet daughter would never be bitter or angry after losing both her father and Paul. But she was scared. And there were no false promises I could make that her heart would never be harmed again. As a child, she had felt protected merely by my presence when she was afraid. That wouldn’t cut it now.
And I was just as frightened as my daughter. Yet she needed to see that love is always worth taking the chance. I would do anything for my daughter. Anything. Even risk loving the right man again.