"You take all this stuff. Everything here," and he would point to the box, his "Dave Archive" thing. He's like, "Look, if you can make anything out of it, I give you free rein. This is sort of your inheritance."
David and I grew up in a house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The upstairs was our domain. There were our bedrooms and a place in between with knotty pine paneling that we called the playroom.
I played piano or listened to stand-up comedy. And David would write.
He would take spiral-bound notebooks and fill them with writing. And he taped in papers, letters and receipts.
He created a growing mountain of material that spilled out from his room and into the playroom.
At some point, a box emerged.
He deposited his notebooks into it whenever he came home from college, or later when he lived in New York.
At the time, he had an old man’s resignation, perhaps because he hadn’t won the approval of certain professors in school. There was a sense that he had tried and failed to be a great writer, and was washed up at 21 or 22.
His posture toward me — half real, half put on — was like we were two soldiers in the war, and he was too badly wounded to go on. “You go on without me, kid. I didn’t make it as a writer, but you can. You’ve got the stuff.”
One day he wrote on the box in big, black marker:
He said: “You take all this stuff. Everything here. If you can make anything out of it, or if you can make sense of it all, I give you free rein. This is your inheritance.”
It was all tongue-in-cheek, but then he would get serious. “No, really. If you see something in it, and want to take it in a different direction or finish it, then please do.”
He always wanted to collaborate and train me for what would be my life as a writer. I felt a lot of pressure. Like, maybe I don’t want to be a great American novelist, or writer of alternative fiction, or whatever it was he was doing. I was interested in basketball and stand-up comedy and didn’t take his invitations very seriously.
The way it worked out was that he went away and never came back. I’m up there in the playroom with this box. The joke of me getting his inheritance became a reality. What was I going to do with it?
I listened to that tape before bed every night. I mean, I know parts of it by heart. I knew them like they were lines of a great play. Like it was an important piece of work.
My family wasn’t that religious, but we celebrated Passover every year. Once, David couldn’t come home from college for the holiday, and that seemed like a big deal. Since he couldn’t come, I surreptitiously taped our family’s Passover Seder for him.
I set up a recorder and dangled the microphone from the balcony above our dining room. I would sneak away from the table to make sure the tape hadn’t run out, and give commentary.
This was the era in which President Reagan had been shot, Nightline had become a fixture and Ted Koppel was doing special reports. “The President has been shot. We’re receiving reports now.”
In a breaking news way, I narrated the Passover Seder. I would say, “The matzah has just been broken. We have reports now that the turkey will be served.”
Apparently, the tape became a big thing with his friends. They would listen to it and say: “David has this little brother who sent this crazy tape. It was really funny.”
In return, he made a tape for me of a Sunday brunch on campus.
It was such a window onto his world, the way he would introduce the scene and seem to know so many people. They all had this great rapport and seemed so smart.
I remember there was a discussion of amniocentesis. I didn’t know what amniocentesis was. I thought, “Wow, I guess you talk about that at college.”
I listened to that tape before bed every night and would imagine the world of college and grown-up conversation. I know parts of it by heart, like lines of a great play.
I think I was realizing some of what he had given to me growing up. I was realizing it around that time that he had gone away and I'd had a few months. And I actually wanted to tell him, "Hey you know I really appreciate all ... all that you’ve given to me."
David was living abroad the last six months of his life and would send letters giving me updates. I was in my sophomore year of college and busy, and he would give me a hard time for not writing him back.
I realized that he was saying, “Hey, big shot at college, you don’t have time to write your brother?”
Tongue-in-cheek, but a hipster version of Jewish guilt — he meant it.
Even though I wasn’t writing as often, around the same time I was beginning to feel his absence. I was recognizing some of what he had given to me growing up.
He was an alternative parent in the family, where my mother had dropped out pretty early.
I actually wanted to tell him, “Hey, you know, I really appreciate all that you’ve given to me.”
The more time that went by that I hadn’t written, the bigger the letter I had to send. So I took photos around my college campus, put them into a notebook and wrote funny things.
It came with a cassette tape that had a “beep, beep” noise prompting him to turn the page. It was pretty elaborate.
The jokes were so inside that no one besides the two of us would understand them. But it was a gesture toward him.
There is no raw information. Every bit of information that we take in is filtered through narrative, in a way. We have some story that’s helping us interpret because otherwise there’s too much information for us to take in.
There were stories of a policeman in Lockerbie who kept a map, showing where every person fell. I walked into the Lockerbie police station and asked to see it.
I said, “I’d like to talk to the people running the Lockerbie investigation.”
This was a random day, eight years after the bombing. I think the officers didn’t quite know what to do with me.
Lockerbie had become a town associated with a tragedy, and they were weary of disaster tourists. They said there was no map.
I told them my brother was on the plane, and they agreed to do one thing for me: They would tell me where David had been found.
An officer disappeared to somewhere downstairs, and when he emerged, his face was stricken.
At the time of the crash there were stories about people falling in lush, green fields. I always imagined that was where David had been found.
But instead it was here: 71 Park Place. Ella Ramasten’s backyard.
It was a kind of a housing project, where a mass of people fell in one, undifferentiated block.
I now knew where David fell, but still, there was no map. So, I decided to recreate one.
I went to the place where the court testimony about the bombing was kept and read through the entire hearing. In it, officers detailed where every body was found, and I copied down the grid reference for each person.
And then I mapped it.
I saw that everyone who had fallen in that lush, green area was from first class. Economy class passengers fell on the houses. Just by accident. A total accident of fate.
I also noticed people who sat next to each other, but were found miles apart.
There is no raw information. Every bit of information we take in is filtered through narrative in some way.
We search for meaningful stories, because otherwise, there’s just too much to take in.
Passengers killed: 243
Crew members killed: 16
Lockerbie residents killed: 11
Oldest passenger: 79 years
Youngest passenger: 2 months
Nationalities represented: 21
Years the flight’s captain, James MacQuarrie, had been a pilot: 32
Number of Syracuse University students returning from a semester abroad: 35
Number of female playwrights: 2
Number of U.S. security officers: 5
Surcharge PanAm had added to ticket price for increased flight security: $5
Flight time before explosion: 38 minutes
Elevation at time of explosion: 31,000 ft.
Temperature at elevation: 60 degrees below zero
Time it took for the fuselage to separate from the remaining structure: 2 to 3 seconds
Approx. time for a body thrown from the airliner to reach the ground: 2.5 minutes
Area upon which victims and debris were spread: 845 square miles
Number of first responders at briefing the day after the bombing: 2,000
Number of items retrieved, bagged, labeled and matched back to victims: 16,000
Days it took to recover, identify and release most bodies to family: 28
And then you're sitting there, and it's like, "OK, it's 20 something years later. No one has ever admitted anything and it’s just over. That's the way it ends." The threat of meaninglessness of the whole thing... I thought I could leave it, but that bothered me.
Only two men were ever charged with involvement in the plot to blow up Pan Am Flight 103. One of them, Abdel Basset al Megrahi, was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
But in 2009, I watched as he was set free on compassionate release. It was unclear if any other suspects were under investigation, and it seemed as though the world had moved on.
I thought I had, too.
A number of years earlier, I finished a book about David, trying my best to use the notebooks he left behind.
I had a career, home, family — my own life after David.
But when the only person ever convicted for playing a role in the bombing was freed from prison, I struggled with the outrageous idea that it happened because we took our eye off of it for a second.
There’s an idea that as a part of the grieving process, people need to have a coherent story about what happened in order to move on.
The story of the bombing irritated me because it was always incomplete. No one even knew the basics of who built the bomb. My life had been forever altered by an act I could not find any meaningful story about.
The threat of meaninglessness — I just couldn’t live with that. Or the idea that it didn’t matter enough to pursue anymore.
I surprised myself that I felt that way, but to me, there was something undone.
I travelled to Libya with a list of names.
They were the names of men suspected to have been involved in the attack, and I was going to try to speak with them.
When I posed for my Libyan travel ID, I thought I should at least try to look tough.
I canvassed some of David’s friends and tried to elicit their view of what I was doing. Almost all to a person, they would say:
“Yeah, David would want to do that. David would want to sit down with those people, and just have a coffee and a cigarette, and talk them to death.”
If David showed up tomorrow and I told him what I was doing, I think it would answer to his sense of a grand gesture. I think he would appreciate it, and in a way, that’s my audience.
Whether I can get anyone else to care about the details, I know he would get it.
“Dear Family, I have walked through the Gates of Heaven”
j. The Letter
The news had come from Pan Am, and the mourners had come to the house, and we'd had a service for him. He was very much dead. But then I go to get the mail, and I open it up, and there's one of his letters.
When someone dies, you inherit their things, and you have to figure out what to do with them. I have spent the years since David’s death making decisions about what to keep and what to let go.
Many of the items I associate with David’s death, I won’t hold on to: The photos of suspects from Libya. The three-ring binders of interview transcripts. The weight of those objects and this investigation will be lifted.
Once I am done with this project, I am done with those, too.
But there are other objects that represent David’s life. Those are the things I will keep. Items like this:
It’s a letter that arrived to our house in Philadelphia, two weeks after David had died. It was from him.
I remember standing at the mailbox holding it for a while, regarding it as a message from the hereafter. It was covered in stamps from the international mail and had come from Israel, where David had been living for the past six months.
Eventually, I opened it.
He wrote the letter from a park that archaeologists once believed was the biblical Garden of Eden. He visited the site with a friend, just a few days before boarding the plane.
She remembers that David insisted on stopping to write this letter to us, sitting underneath what might have been the Tree of Knowledge.
At some point, I researched the horrible forensic details of what happens when a 747 decompresses at 35,000 feet.
I read about what happens to the people inside.
You wonder what split seconds of potential awareness there might have been.
I was the one who sought out the information, but afterward, I had to live with the knowledge of what likely happened.
But then there was this.
And it said: “I went to a beautiful place. That’s where I am. Just writing to let you know I’m fine.”
It’s a sad letter. But there’s also something redeeming about it, and I’ll hold on to that.