Read an Excerpt
Friday, July 16, 1999
Three weeks before my husband died a young couple smashed their plane into the Atlantic Ocean, off the Massachusetts shoreline, well after the mid-July sun had set. It was reported in the news as 9:41, but I knew the general time, because I had spoken to the woman less than an hour before. The pilot was my husband's cousin, John Kennedy. His wife, Carolyn Bessette, was my closest friend. She was sitting behind him next to the only other passenger, her sister, Lauren. A still, hot summer day had melted into a warm and sticky night. A quiet night, unremarkable except for the fog, which rolls in and out of New England like a deep sigh.
While we were still making plans, before they took off from Caldwell, New Jersey, she called me from the plane.
"We'll fly to the Vineyard tomorrow, after the wedding. We can be there before dinner."
It was a short conversation, because I was going to see her the next day. I was staying in her house, their house, on Martha's Vineyard, with my husband, and they were taking a simple trip. One they'd made many other weekends, from a small airport in New Jersey to the islands off Massachusetts -- a well-worn ninety-minute path up the coastline.
I hung up the phone and opened the book I was reading and an hour later she was dead. Afterward I tried to find something to explain what had happened -- was it cloudy, were the stars out? But the night was ordinary. It usually is, I think, when your life changes. Most people aren't doing anything special when the carefully placed pieces of their life break apart.
They flew a lot that summer, from the city to the Vineyard, and we called each other every day if we weren't together.
"We're getting a late start. I'll call you in the morning."
It takes seconds to plunge into an irrevocable spin in a small plane -- into what the Federal Aviation Administration calls a graveyard spiral. According to the accident report, the plane broke the surface of the ocean three minutes after the pilot sensed a problem. At 9:38, he made a curious turn. One hundred and eighty seconds later, the last thirty of them aimed directly at the water, their stories ended abruptly.
I wonder if he felt the awkward motions of the plane in those minutes, the changes in speed or direction. It's likely he did not. If you close your eyes in an airplane, you don't feel up or down. You don't feel yourself tilting right or left. You don't feel anything, really, and your senses tell you it doesn't matter. Clouds were hiding the familiar strings of lights that paint the coastline. He might as well have been flying with his eyes closed.
"I need to talk to you," I said.
My husband, Anthony, was dying and we were all trying to pretend that he wasn't, that everything was fine.
"I can't hear you, Lamb. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
The accident report shows the pilot made a turn after passing Point Judith, Rhode Island -- he turned east, away from the coast, away from where he was going. And then another turn, and then another. It was puzzling to everyone, including the investigators, and after months of plotting radar signals, studying twisted pieces of wreckage, constructing maps and charts, and speculating about state of mind, they confirmed what they had suspected -- the pilot was disoriented. He may have turned, some suggested, hoping to spot something familiar. A landmark like the lighthouse at the tip of Gay Head, blinking a steady twenty-mile stream of light, muffled that night by thick, black air. He might have scanned the dark sky for Noman's Land -- the empty island you can see clearly in daylight from the beachfront of their Martha's Vineyard home.
Perhaps he felt a slight tilt of the plane, but it was more likely that the instrument panel caught his attention, his compass shifting slowly. He may have tried to correct it, turning the rudder slightly -- or adding pressure to the controls. But when it doesn't feel like you're turning, it feels wrong to correct it. He wouldn't have corrected it enough. He wouldn't have corrected it at all. He would have followed what his senses were telling him to do -- an overwhelming feeling of what he should do -- and it would be exactly the wrong thing.
It's possible that nothing felt unusual in the plane as his altimeter began to unwind, marking a perplexing descent. Slowly at first, then at a sickening rate. It is likely he was watching this helplessly. His senses, of no use to him, telling him to ignore, even then, irrefutable evidence. The handful of controls all showing deadly readings. She may not have noticed any of this. She wouldn't have seen the airspeed on the control panel, pegged in the red, reflecting the quickening pace of the ocean rushing up to them.
We were staying in their house because Anthony wanted to be on the Vineyard that summer, and I went along with it. In June when we arrived I gave the ambulance drivers a paper with directions to the house, and they taped it to the dashboard. "It's the chance of a lifetime," Anthony had said to me in a restaurant in New York before we left. "I don't know why you can't see that. We have the summer off, we can spend the days on the beach, have margaritas at sunset."
There were sunsets that summer, and when I noticed them I was grateful. But he was dying. It was likely, but unmentionable, that he wouldn't be going back to the city, and for everyone but Anthony it was hard to think of margaritas. It irritated him when I didn't play along.
One hundred and eighty seconds. John might have felt annoyance, perhaps, before panic. Frustration, and then fear. His pulse accelerating as one replaced the other. The water would be as black as the sky -- like concrete, at their rate of descent. It is possible that he thought for the entire three minutes that they were going to crash, probable that he thought it for thirty seconds.
It was a new plane and I wasn't familiar with it. It bothered me that I didn't know where she was sitting. The accident report recorded passengers in the aft-facing seats, but I couldn't picture her there. When I rode along, we settled down on the back seat and read magazines under the small light. If there were other passengers she sat up in the front. One weekend a year before, there were five of us going to the Vineyard. Carolyn was sitting next to John and her door popped open over the ocean. She stretched her arm into the clouds to grab the handle and clicked it shut. It was quick and smooth and insignificant to her.
But in the dark, on this night, did she sense his frustration and impatience? Did she dismiss it? We were all frustrated and impatient that summer. She was sitting directly behind her husband, the backs of their seats touching. He could have, if he had wanted, reached a hand around his seat to her. Her sister was beside her.
I sometimes mark time now in three-minute intervals. When I am talking on the phone, or walking around the city, or sitting on a plane, I glance at my watch and reflexively mark the time. There is so much that can happen in three minutes. It's enough time to think you can fix things.
I'm sure she was reading magazines. She always took a pile of them because she scanned them quickly and she didn't like to run out. She sounded tired when I spoke to her. Her voice was soft. She was trying to distract herself. We were all trying to distract ourselves. It was a bad day, if you had to choose one, to die. There had not been enough time.
"I love you," she said before she hung up. And then again, "I love you." We always said this to each other, but I didn't want to love anyone that night. I was tired, and I didn't say it back. "I know," I said instead.
You never know when something is going to happen to change your life. You expect it to arrive with fanfare, like a wedding or a birth, but instead it comes in the most ordinary of circumstances. The Roman goddess Fortuna snaps her fingers and changes the channel -- click. I was sitting in a chair, reading, preparing for one death, and then click. It was silent. Was there a noise? I always thought tragedy had a sound. I always thought there was something you would hear. We were holding our breath until Anthony died. Believing that everything else would wait.
Carolyn had a theory about relationships.
"You're much happier when you wait," she used to tell me. "The ones that come to you are the only ones worth anything, Lamb. It's like standing on the shore and spotting something in the water. You can splash around to try to get it, or you can wait and see if the tide brings it in."
I was thinking this while I stood on the shore one day, dreading what the tide would bring. Her makeup bag, a luggage tag.
The weekend before, we were all at the house. She came early in the afternoon, and John flew in later. Effie made a big dinner of grilled fish and roasted potatoes, pie for dessert. John had arranged for him to be there that summer. He cooked for us and maintained our routine -- dialysis in the morning, the beach during the day. A table set for dinner at a planned time each night. We welcomed diversions. We'd have dinner, linger at the table, play Bartlett's if we were up for a game.
We had friends staying for the weekend and we were all sitting in the backyard, waiting for John, and suddenly a plane was right above us. He flew low, buzzing over the house before he landed, a fun thing. He broke up tension. He always knew to. A sort of childish but innocent thing to do, flying over us, dipping the left wing. Just like him. We all looked toward the sky.
"Hey!" We waved. Except Anthony, who just shook his head, a reflex after so many years. Anthony's eye roll and John's sideways smile. I got you, Principe.
Carolyn looked up, smiling, squinting, her arm in front of her to block the sun.
"He's crazy," someone said, laughing. He brought people to life. He could relax a room, and we counted on him for it. He flew over the house and dropped a dash of exhilaration on the weekend.
I would come to think of it as my summer of tragedy. I was reading love stories, the classics, one after another. You could lose yourself in someone else's heartbreak while you held your breath for your own. I brought a stack of books and piled them in the bedroom next to Lady Chatterley's Lover, which John picked up one day. "Do you see what your wife is reading?" he said to Anthony, shaking his head. "It's worse than I thought." Carolyn was reading Light in August. We had no time for a badly told story.
I wonder if in those last three minutes he called out to her. I have learned that engines sound different at that rate of descent -- a whining noise and much louder as the plane starts into a corkscrew. There was a hard shift to their flight in the last thirty seconds. Did he call out to her, panicked, his voice strained?
Three minutes, one hundred and eighty seconds, is enough time to think through whether he should tell her, and then to struggle with his decision. It is plenty of time to consider who would be waiting for a phone call on the shore. It is the length of an average story on the evening news.
It was a fairly ordinary accident, all in all. The plane dropped neatly into the water after its pilot lost his course. For all the experts, the theories, the newspaper ink, it was a simple crash. A small plane dropping out of an unlit sky.
I was reading Anna Karenina by a light in the living room. The window near me looked out onto a pond, and then farther, to the water where they lay for four days. Their crash didn't disturb a soul, until later. I was sitting comfortably in a room where I had seen them days earlier. In the house where we'd agreed to meet the next evening, before she hung up the phone.
Thirty seconds is what it would have taken me to read a few paragraphs in my book. Thirty seconds and I am completely absorbed in a scene in someone else's story. Thirty seconds, after Anna Karenina's final and fatal decision leaves her kneeling awkwardly on the railroad tracks -- the train a split second away from her inelegant end. It is enough time to become anxious, then calm and then anxious again -- as you might do reading an account of the end of a life. I may have paused once, put a marker in the book, and taken a sip from a glass on the table. This is very likely what I am doing as my best friend rushes to the end of her life, in water visible from the window of the room where I am sitting. Enjoying an unusual moment of quiet calm in an otherwise restless summer.
We dressed for dinner that summer. We'd come in from the beach, take long, cool showers, and slip into floor-length skirts. Long gowns and bare feet. We dressed for dinner every night, and our husbands liked it -- it lifted us up for a moment. We could pretend it was all the way we had once imagined a summer like this -- suntanned shoulders and salty kisses.
Anthony looked thin and small in his bathing suit, his legs knobby like a boy's. His face was strong and handsome.
I was surprised when Carolyn called from the airport. I didn't think she'd be coming. She had mentioned that she might not come. There was a wedding, and we were all doing our best. We were holding our breath, trying to pass time while we waited for Anthony to die. When you're waiting for someone to die, passing time is the cruelest thing to have to do.
She had started a tradition the Christmas before. Christmas dinner, just the four of us. "Every year we'll do it. Don't you think we need a tradition?" she had asked. "Marta will come and cook a big Christmas dinner."
"It sounds great," I replied, caught up in her enthusiasm.
I don't have many things left. What I kept is mostly in boxes now, stored away. You go through what remains and there isn't a lot that is meaningful, except your memories.
There is another scene months before this night. I am with John on this same route. I am his only passenger, and we are flying in the old plane, the one with his father's initials and birthdate on the tail wing -- 529JK. The trip takes one hour and forty-three minutes from the time we park his white convertible in the corner of the lot in Caldwell to the time we touch down on the runway of Martha's Vineyard.
"You slept the whole way!" he says, laughing, when we land.
"Oh, I know," I say. "I'm sorry."
He climbs out and reaches for my hand.
"Don't be," he says. "It's a compliment."
But I am reading a book by the window on a different night, and as his cousins fly up the foggy coastline, my husband sits next to me watching a movie he doesn't care about, then goes to bed. When he wakes up they will be missing.
Once it was the four of us, with all of our dreams and plans, and then suddenly there was nothing.
Copyright © 2005 by Carole Radziwill