Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. The angle of the light and the colors of the fall foliage make the world feel warm and embracing. It is always a period of personal reflection, and I frequently mail pre-holiday gratitude letters.
But to reflect back on 2009—to encapsulate this particular year in a page or two—the task seems monumental and leaves me wondering where I should start. As the wife of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the captain of US Airways flight 1549, my year has ricocheted from one emotion to another. I look back to the simple days of the new year when our family, like so many others, was settling into that familiar post-holiday routine. Our daughters returned to school, Sully and I put away the Christmas decorations, we celebrated our younger daughter’s 14th birthday. Sully left on one of his four-day trips. But then in an instant, my husband and his crew had to emergency-land their plane on the Hudson River, and our lives were suddenly turned upside down.
The events of January 15 and the aftermath brought up emotions that were hard to sort out—our nation and the world were celebrating the good outcome, but my family was in shock. So much had happened, and overnight Sully was catapulted from anonymity to fame. The outpouring of support, the inauguration, the Super Bowl and the media attention were astounding (and surreal), but we were numb from the overwhelming, sudden change.
Starting the first day, the messages began to arrive. The first one was an unsigned, handwritten fax that simply said, “Well done…we needed that.” A few days later, our now long-suffering mailman, Dan, was bringing us the first of an unending river of mail and parcels. Communiqués arrived by mail, FedEx, UPS and every overnight service available.
A few days after Sully came home, we gathered our family together in front of a comforting fire. My two daughters and I took turns reading the mail to him. The letters were eloquent and touching. One woman told my husband, “In the last year I lost my job, my home, my father and frankly my faith. You, sir, gave it back.” Through their letters, our tears could flow.
As we read, we learned that the people of New York and New Jersey, who lived through September 11, feel a special kinship with my husband, his crew and all the first responders. One young mother wrote to say that their neighborhood had lost a lot of wonderful people on 9/11, and they did not think they could take another tragedy like that in their lifetime. On the day I wrote this essay—six months after the landing—we received a letter from another woman who said, “Please accept this very belated thankyou to say how much we admire what you did to land Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. My son ran for his life from the World Trade Center during 9/11 back across the Hudson to Hoboken. The memories of that horror are still fresh with him and all of us in our family. Seeing your plane land successfully on the river with everyone surviving helped to counteract some of those memories.”
These letters were the most wonderful gift of humanity and compassion I could imagine receiving. So, during the few quiet days we’ve had this year, we’ve made it a ritual to gather the four of us together, sit in front of the fireplace and read, letter after letter after letter.
We have received 20,000 e-mails, and tens of thousands of personal cards, letters, packages and faxes. We’ve received letters from every continent except Antarctica and enough flowers to start our own greenhouse. I joke that my husband has achieved Santa Claus status, but instead of “North Pole,” many of the letters are addressed to “Captain Sullenberger” or “Sully.” One of my favorites was from Europe, and was addressed to “Hero Pilot USA.” And written below that, it said, “Dear Postmaster, I don’t know his address but I think you can find him.”
We have received many letters from current and retired servicemen, and what we call the “airline family.” All of us in the industry, regardless of our carrier, share a unique lifestyle and a special bond. One of the most touching letters came from a woman whose father was the first officer on ValuJet Flight 592, which crashed in the Florida Everglades. She said she was compelled to write after watching Sully interviewed on 60 Minutes. She told us she had long agonized over what his final minutes were like. Accident investigators had assured her that he hadn’t died in the grips of fear; that instead he was working hard to keep his airplane in the sky. She hadn’t really believed them until she heard Sully talk about his intense focus on landing the airplane.
Finally, she said, she had peace of mind. I carried this letter in my purse for months.
The messages we receive are funny, sad and profound—but they all convey a life-affirming gratitude. It seems that just when our country and our world needed it most, we had a collective feelgood moment. In all these months since January, I can only recall three days when we had no mail regarding the accident. There are lovely surprises, too: Also in today’s mail was a wedding invitation from a couple who were on Flight 1549. Included was a note that said, “Words cannot express how much we thank you.”
We have read hundreds of letters that say something to the effect, “We know Sully didn’t ask for this and isn’t seeking the limelight, but we need a hero to feel good about.” They urge him to continue serving in this role of hero. What other response can you have to something like that, except to try to rise to that challenge, and gracefully accept that huge responsibility, every day? Sully and I both believe that gratitude is a two-way street, and we do our best to give back the outpouring of support and gratitude we have been so fortunate to receive.
One boy wrote to Sully, saying his family had to cut back on gifts this year. He said his dad was a huge fan and asked if we could surprise him for Valentine’s Day lunch. While lunch with the family wasn’t possible, we thought it would be a nice surprise to call. (We can’t respond to every letter, but this plea somehow touched me in a special way.) Though I was across the room, I could hear the boy’s shrieks of joy when he heard Sully introduce himself. Sully spoke for a time to the boy and then to his father, telling him what a thoughtful son he had. I think everyone on that call was extraordinarily moved by the conversation. I remember crying that night, thinking how such a simple act on our part had made them so happy.
I still have to write my personal gratitude letter this year. Even after writing this essay, I hardly know where to begin. But I want to give my heartfelt thanks to all those who wrote to us. And I must echo the words in so many of the letters we have received: “Thank you” hardly seems enough.
This article originally appeared in Women’s Day Magazine.