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The Alchemy of Loss

A Young Widow's Transformation

by Abigail Carter

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personal memoirs, death, grief, bereavement
list price: $19.99
also available: Hardcover
published: 2009
imprint: Emblem Editions
View Excerpt

Like A Year of Magical Thinking, this powerful and touching book is both an inspirational read and a comfort to those who are looking for help in overcoming loss.

The phone rang. It was my husband Arron telling me that he was at Windows of the World in the World Trade Center. “There’s been a bomb!” he said. I had been preparing my six-year-old daughter for her second day of first grade, balancing my two-year-old son on my hip, and I was distracted. “OK . . .” I managed to say back. It was 8:49 a.m. on September 11, 2001. He never came home.

Abigail Carter is smart, funny, perceptive, and bereft. In the eyes of most, herself included, she had it all — a full life with a loving successful husband and two beautiful children. But in a horrifying instant watched by the world, it was gone, and her life and her children’s were changed irreparably. How does one learn to live again after tragedy?

The Alchemy of Loss is Abby’s moving story of answering that unimaginable question. Veering away from the trite and pat grief books, which offer one-size-fits-all solutions to this most deeply personal and unique experience, she realizes that each person must forge her own path through grief, and that there are no right answers.

Abby’s journey took her six years, in which she turned everything she knew about herself upside down in order to learn to live again. She charts this journey in the year’s most remarkable memoir. The Alchemy of Loss is her gift to us all — reminding us that life throws up roadblocks we can’t anticipate, and that we cannot live well if we live with regrets.

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During the next two days, the phone rang incessantly, and I cringed at every jarring ring. Instead of answering it, I placed a green notebook half full of kids’ drawings by the phone, in which messages and important numbers were being written in the various handwriting styles of my guests. “Missing Persons, 1st Precinct, Detective Smith, Lifenet Support Line.” “Uncle Ted called. 3 min silence in uk. Work stopped in Adrian’s mine.” “Stopped by 5:30ish. Sorry to have been absent (been sick). Need extra bedrooms, call me.” “Jeff phoned from New Zealand.” “Beverley sends her thoughts and prayers (London).”

The days were full of “air pocket” talk. A neighbour told me the story of a man who had jumped from one of the upper floors of the World Trade Center, gotten caught in an updraft, and drifted peacefully down to the ground, breaking only a leg in his fall. I knew it was a myth, but I wanted to believe it. When a 110- storey building falls on you, the chances of survival are zero percent. “Pancake” was the word I dared not utter to others. Arron was like the character in a Looney Tunes Road Runner cartoon, flattened. But maybe he could pop up whole again in an instant. It was horrible to think of my husband that way, yet I found myself making light of things in supposedly inappropriate ways.

My worries became more real when the Canadian consulate put us in touch with Jim Young, a coroner from Toronto who had come to New York to help Canadian families with collecting DNA and “remains recovery.” Selena and I took turns speaking to him on the phone. He was honest and straightforward when we peppered him with questions about what the conditions might have been like that day. “Arron most likely passed out from smoke inhalation. He wouldn’t have known that the buildings had fallen,” Jim told us. He died before they fell is what he omitted from his sentence, but it was what we wanted to hear.

It was Thursday, two days after the towers fell, before I finally remembered that I could leave the house. An entourage followed me to the park and helped me push the stroller and walk the dog. I felt like an invalid. When Harley, in her own form of dog-grief, sat down at the corner of the park and refused to continue, a sprightly Marie, used to hauling Brent’s wheelchair around, simply bent down and hoisted the sixty-five-pound dog up into her arms and walked her into the park. I think my first smile in three days was the sight of this slim, tiny woman carrying a humiliated ball of yellow fur.

That night, the house was still full of people. I was giving Carter his bath, alone for what seemed the first time since that horrible Tuesday morning. As I sat on the toilet watching Carter play in the bathwater, I realized that Arron had already missed three whole days of his son’s life. The thought of this wonderful little boy growing up without knowing Arron brought my first sobs. Arron would miss Carter’s first tooth falling out. His first soccer game. He wouldn’t see Carter get married, wouldn’t have a grandchild. Carter wasn’t going to learn to laugh out loud at his father’s silly jokes, wasn’t going to learn to swing a bat with him, wasn’t going to get a goodnight kiss from him tonight. The tears
poured down my cheeks as wave after wave of sadness hit me. After a while I noticed that Carter had stopped splashing and was standing in the bath looking at me. I peeked at him through my wet hands, worried that my display might be upsetting to him.

“Mama sad?” Carter asked.

“Yes, Mama very sad,” I said.

Carter came closer to the edge of the tub with his arms outstretched. A hiccup sob escaped from me as I knelt down onto the floor to receive his dripping wet hug. It was strong and purposeful. As he held me I had the sensation that Arron was holding me, as if Arron had entered Carter’s little naked body so he could hug me one last time. My tears dripped into the tub. And then he let me go.

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Contributor notes

Abigail Carter was an expat Canadian living in New York with her husband and two children, when her husband was lost in the attack on the twin towers on 9/11. Following the catastrophe, Abby moved to Seattle with her children and began keeping a journal to try to come to terms with what had happened to her family. That act opened another world to her and Abby now works as a full-time writer.

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Editorial Review

"What an eloquent, brave and (even) occasionally comic account Abigail Carter has given us of her zigzagging odyssey through the country of mourning. No mourner has it easy, but Carter's tasks were daunting – to mother two suddenly fatherless children, to find her own way through the strife that bereavement brings to her parents and mother-in-law, and to disentangle her personal grief from the national mourning. Through it all, she is a generous, nuanced and admirably honest guide."
– Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die

“Beautifully written . . . Anyone who has faced enormous loss is sure to find some of their experience articulated in Carter’s intimate and candid memoir. It is a book full of tenderness, anger and – ultimately – hope, and one I imagine one friend will give another in times of hardship and loss.”
– Theo Pauline Nestor, author of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed

“One of the most beautiful, engaging, exquisitely crafted books I have ever read. Abigail Carter warmly and courageously invites us into the heart of her intensely private grief – a grief we all shared, but, perhaps, never tasted so fully until now.”
-- John E. Welshons, author of When Prayers Aren’t Answered and Awakening from Grief

“A beautiful example of what is possible when we allow suffering to reshape our idea of happiness.”
-- Maria Housden, author of Hannah’s Gift

“Eloquent and honest. . . . 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. . . . remarkable.” – Globe and Mail
“She delves deeply into herself and gives us the unvarnished truth about what she felt . . . It’s a book that will be helpful to people suffering sudden and terrible loss.” – Niagara This Week
“Ms. Carter is scrupulously honest, not sparing herself or others when it comes to descriptions of reactions, of situations handled well, or not so well.” – Peterborough Examiner

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