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September 11, 2006

And At Night, I Dream Of You...

Her name was Lydia.

Lydia Estelle Bravo.

Even the sound delights the senses. There is music in it. Her name rolls off the tongue like a line from the foreign films she loved to watch with her fiancee, Antonio Bengivenga. You would want to speak the words slowly so they could be savored, rich and full-bodied, like the Sangiovese she served Antonio the night before those planes hurtled out of a clear blue sky and tilted the world on its axis.

They were to have been married in January.

lydia.jpg How do you tell the story of a woman you never met? Someone whose life was extinguished as casually as one pinches a candle flame after a memorable evening? Reading what those she left behind had to say about her, I have no doubt that Lydia loved life; that she made the days and nights of everyone around her memorable. One piece said that to Lydia, life was a feast.

This does not surprise me. You see, Lydia was an oncology nurse for eight years. Living in death's shadow for such a long time brings everything into sharper focus. It makes one appreciate how truly precious each and every moment we have on this earth is, how lucky most of us are, even to be able to walk out our front doors each morning and do mundane things like pick up the paper, fight rush hour traffic, or sit in overlong meetings listening to pompous, pontificating nitwits rehash things that could easily be said with far less oxygen. But on the flip side we also get to see sunsets, Italian movies, giggling babies, and the face of the one we love each morning resting on that pillow beside us; looking in sleep - for a moment - as innocent and carefree as a child again.

That sight alone is worth the price of admission.

Lydia knew how to celebrate life. She and Antonio met in a sports bar eleven years ago. They travelled together, most often to Italy or Mexico, and they loved to watch foreign films - so much so that she rarely needed the subtitles. On September 10th, the night before that bolt from the blue that was to change the lives of so many Americans, Lydia and Antonio celebrated their return from yet another trip :

The night before the planes hit, Lydia Bravo cooked a pot of ribollita, the Tuscan stew of beans and greens. She and her fiancé, Anthony Bengivenga -- "she called me Antonio" -- opened a bottle of Sangiovese.

They would have been together 11 years this month, Mr. Bengivenga said. Both had been married before, both had grown children. They had found in each other a passion for all things passionate -- the films of Pedro Almodóvar, flamenco music and food. All kinds of food.

Ms. Bravo, 50, was a devoted cook. She had taken classes at Peter Kumps. She had hundreds of cookbooks -- some picked up at flea markets, others on trips abroad. Whenever they went to Italy she peeked into kitchens and chatted up the cooks. At home in Dunellen, N.J., she cooked elaborate meals.

"That was really her forte," Mr. Bengivenga said. "I would help. I enjoyed being in the kitchen with her." She taught him a few things, but not nearly enough, he said.

This is clearly a woman who knew passion, who wanted the most out of life and knew how to savor even ordinary things in abundance. Antonio describes her infectious enjoyment of life:

"She had a certain laugh. If you mention her laugh, everybody who knew her will know it. She got everybody laughing."

This is the thing that called to me over and over again as I read about Lydia. So often it seems we avert our eyes from what is sad about life. We try so hard to shield our children from difficulties, to protect them from anything that might wound their self esteem, that might discourage or frighten them. But Lydia lived for eight years in what could be viewed as one of the saddest, most disheartening places on earth: an oncology ward.

The irony of this was not lost on me, for I recently lost my nephew to cancer shortly before his seventeenth birthday. Watching children suffer from a terminal illeness is perhaps one of the saddest things on earth. It seems so unfair. But it is, at times, perhaps also one of the most inspiring things one can imagine also, for even in the midst of pain that would daunt the bravest adult, children manage to find joy in the simplest things, and they face almost insurmountable challenges with an equanimity that never ceases to amaze.

Lydia seems to have absorbed this childlike capacity to take life as it is, or perhaps it was a part of her very being; for her response to the setbacks she must have witnessed as an oncology nurse was not to lose hope, to become bitter and withdraw emotionally. It was to embrace the world around her, to celebrate it, to grab onto life with both hands and wring every last drop of enjoyment from each day. And like that bottle of Sangiovese she served on September 10th, she was the perfect accompaniment to a life well lived. She infected others with her delight in living - she couldn't wait to share the good things life has to offer. The simple things: good food, a bottle of wine, great films, travel, laughter, love. As my husband would say with a roguish twinkle in his eye, this woman was abondanzza; a moveable feast in and of herself.

It took me three tries to write this tribute.

I never write rough drafts, I never revise, and this is nothing like the two which came before, which I threw out. They were too raw, too emotional. Too personal to share. In writing them, it occurred to me over and over again how odd it was that I was even doing this.

I never would have dreamed of doing such a thing, before that brilliant September morning in 2001. You didn't know me then.

I would have thought this a silly, sentimental exercise, too mawkish. I would have had no patience with this sort of thing. To be honest, I have little patience with most of the 9/11 panoply, the remembrances, the tributes to the "victims" (a term I loathe with every fiber in my being, for I think it robs them of their dignity). I almost lost it while watching CNN the other night and hearing some inane announcer say with almost obscene relish, "You can watch the entire attack online - complete! unedited!". It's not that I want it covered up. I understand the need of some people to relive it all. It's just that it bothered me to hear that perky announcer saying, in essence, "Tune in and watch as 3000 people die!". I can't do it. If it brings healing to some, then perhaps that is a good thing. I suppose that is yet another way in which I have changed.

But I still refuse to call Lydia a victim. She lived her life to the fullest. I am angry, and sad - sadder than I can say - that she didn't get to live it out to its glorious end. She should have had grandchildren, tons of them. She should have had a full table at endless Thanksgivings, with scores of people to cook for.

She should have had so many tomorrows. But I will not call her a victim, for that grants her killers too much stature and takes from her too much dignity.

I said a few days ago that a part of me died on 9/11, but oddly enough I didn't realize it at the time. I thought then, privately, that it was as though a part of me - some protective layer - had been forever ripped away and that this had left me weaker, more vulnerable than I had been before. But though I still think this is true, I am no longer sure that this is entirely a bad thing.

Defenses keep things out, but they can also immobilize us. In so many ways, what happened that day represents a fork in my life; a turning point from which there is no going back to the way things were. And however much we may mourn our losses: the loss of loved ones, the loss of our security, of innocence, of peace, we have in other ways gained things we do not fully appreciate. I know that as much as I often regret it, I would not be here writing these words, were it not for the events of September 11th.

And as much as I hate the pain the each day's news brings, as much as I despise the too easy tears that seem all too ready to spring to my eyes these days, I am also thankful for them, for they are a reminder of how much I have to be thankful for. And such reminders often come to us in strange ways. Sitting at my aunt's funeral recently, the minister said something I loved. My aunt, more than anything else on this earth, loved to sing. And the minister said to listen for the music in everyday life; those moments of quiet joy when it is good to be alive.

Or even those moments which are painful, but which have something to teach us also. Because so often in life, it is only by experiencing pain that we fully appreciate joy; and only through loss that what we do have glows ever more brightly in our eyes.

For you see, I am still here, walking the earth. And like Lydia, my husband was inside one of those buildings that was hit by one of those four planes on 9/11/2001. But unlike Antonio, and unlike so many people whose last chance to talk with their loved ones was a hurried message, or even - God forbid - a voice mail recording, a few hours later I received a cell phone call as I sat at my desk, wondering if I would ever see the love of my life again.

Life is always too short, and there is never enough of the things we want from it. But it is always so worth the living, and always worth the celebration. And so, tomorrow night, I will borrow a scene from my favorite novel. When the moonlight hits the balcony on my patio, there will be two glasses of Sangiovese, full to the brim, placed on the edge.

And they will remain there all night. Sweet dreams, bellisima.

Di giorno ti penso...di notte ti sogno.

Update: Whisky honors Lydia

Posted by Cassandra at September 11, 2006 08:59 AM

Comments

Its very beautiful, Cass and captures her life and spirit. Thank you.

Posted by: Jane at September 10, 2006 12:23 PM

Cass, that is wonderful. You have given Lydia a great tribute.

RG

Posted by: RightGirl at September 10, 2006 12:25 PM

Not only that, the great truth is that there is opposition in all things...and that to know joy, we must experience sorrow. To be sheltered from that is to rob oneself of the choice one makes in how they will live.

She chose a good life on her terms.

Well done.

Posted by: Cricket at September 10, 2006 01:17 PM

I think that's what I was trying to say, Cricket.

I had so much trouble with this. There is so much more that I wanted to say, but I didn't want to bloviate, or turn it into something political.

I may write more tomorrow. I think I am just too close to it. I think that I have been feeling that I was robbed of something, that we were all robbed of something, on 9/11. And we were. But I think the farther you get from it, you also start to see that you were given something also.

You just need to be able to adjust the focus a bit, to look at things another way. That is what is so bittersweet about life; the knowledge that for every bad thing that happens, some small good will probably flow from it too, and also that even the most joyful things in life can have hidden costs. But in the end, it is all good.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 10, 2006 01:27 PM

Rest in Peace Lydia, we will never forget or any of the 2996 that died that day, for they mean everything to us.

I am honoring George Lopez:
http://thunderrun.blogspot.com/2006/09/george-lopez-one-of-2996.html

Posted by: David M at September 10, 2006 02:24 PM

It is all good, but the best is yet to be. I firmly believe in a loving God and that He has not left us without hope. For me, the hope that burns brightest is to see our departed loved ones again. And there will be much to share and talk about in this reunion; what they have experienced beyond the veil of death and what we did in this life.

Posted by: Cricket at September 10, 2006 02:53 PM

Cassandra, oh how I wish you would write books. Tons and tons of them and I would buy every one.

This Tribute to Lydia is so special. Thank you for sharing your gift for writing with the world.

Posted by: Wild Thing at September 10, 2006 03:33 PM

What a wonderful tribute you wrote, Cassandra.

Posted by: Tammy at September 10, 2006 04:39 PM

Girl, you are blessed!

(wiping tears)

Posted by: Unkawill at September 10, 2006 04:54 PM

Wild thing, ditto.

Posted by: Unkawill at September 10, 2006 04:55 PM

Damn you, Cassie! I had already written my post and now I don't want publish it. It couldn't possibly stand next to what you have written here.

Posted by: FbL at September 10, 2006 06:06 PM

Publish anyway, Fuzzy. This isn't a contest about who can write the best, but what is best remembered
about them. We don't want to forget not only what happened that day, but the people that were taken before their time.

Cass does have a way with words. So do you.

Posted by: Cricket at September 10, 2006 06:46 PM

Of course you're right, Cricket. But I swear... sometimes reading what Cassandra writes makes me embarrassed to take up space in the blogosphere.

Posted by: FbL at September 10, 2006 07:19 PM

You are very kind, Fbl. I had an easy one to write, though.
And still, it took me three tries to come up with anything I could post.

And at the end of the day, when I read Chrissie's tribute, I felt inadequate as hell Fbl.

That is the neat thing about the blogosphere. No matter what you do, someone always comes up with something to inspire you to try harder the next time.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 10, 2006 07:38 PM

Well done - an outstanding tribute...
-SJS

Posted by: Steeljaw Scribe at September 11, 2006 12:01 AM

"How do you tell the story of a woman you never met? Someone whose life was extinguished as casually as one pinches a candle flame after a memorable evening?"

It would appear that you have done so, and so much better than I could ever hope to do.

You are, in a word, eloquent. Thank you...

Posted by: camojack at September 11, 2006 03:48 AM

Thanks for a wonderful tribute.

And for making the rest of us feel like third-string walk-ons.

Posted by: KJ at September 11, 2006 07:34 AM

I love you too, KJ :)

Men...

Posted by: Cassandra at September 11, 2006 07:49 AM

sigh...
that's just the most beautiful tribute.

Posted by: Carrie at September 11, 2006 10:24 AM

As far as "making the rest of us feel like third-string walk-ons," you have company: Lex's tribute is extraordinary.

Posted by: FbL at September 11, 2006 10:25 AM

I wanted to visit your site and read your dedication to Lydia, as I too was "given" her name via the 2996 site.

Your words touched my heart, and I'm sure Lydia would be proud.

Hugs

Whisky

xxx

Posted by: Whisky-minx at September 11, 2006 10:41 AM

Lovely Cassandra, very touching and I'm sure very difficult to write.

Posted by: Stacy at September 11, 2006 07:52 PM

That was very beautiful Cassandra, thank you!

Posted by: LindaSoG at September 11, 2006 08:37 PM

A truly fine job, Cassandra, and, having done one of my own, I know it was not easy. It would have been so much easier to rail and politicize the entire affair but that was not the purpose. I re-wrote mine three times and was still not happy with it, as I just couldn't tell the story of the person who lost his life on that day and that of those that survived him, as I did not know him.

To sum it up, you made this person known to me and that is what this was all about.

Posted by: Beerme at September 12, 2006 07:00 PM

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