This article was originally published in the April 2009 issue of ALIVE.
By now most of you have made the connection. Before January 15, 2009, you knew me as a fitness columnist for ALIVE East Bay, as a health and well-being expert, and (most importantly) as a Danville mother of two wonderful girls. But all of us who read newspapers and watch TV now know me as Mrs. Sullenberger, wife of the pilot who landed a suddenly powerless airplane in New York’s Hudson River. May I beg your indulgence this month as I use my fitness column to send a much needed thank you note?
In early January, my family was just like any family in our nation. We were deeply concerned with the state of the economy, and how it would impact our family, our lives and our children’s futures. When Sully and I need to work over troubling thoughts, we turn to the beautiful hills that our community is so blessed with. On January 11, as Sully was about to depart for a four-day work shift for US Airways, we hiked up to our favorite local spot and looked out over the valley. I clearly remember Sully saying to me, “looking out there makes you feel like anything is possible.”
Little did we know that just four days later how those words would hauntingly prove true.
I don’t need to recount what happened during the flight. And I am certain that most of you by now have seen the media frenzy that swelled up after Sully and his crew landed the plane and got the passengers out safely. It is still difficult for me to sort out the emotions and events that all seem to blur together in the following days and weeks. This experience has been like an onion – it is multi-layered and peeling back the layers has taken much time and will take much more, I am sure. For me, of course, there was the accident itself, the huge media interest and then the amazing, never-ending, beautiful, emotional mail.
It’s interesting how our brains are wired to protect us from trauma. After Sully called to tell me the news, I don’t remember feeling panicked. I had a weird, out of body feeling. I could not really believe that the images I was seeing on the TV were my husband’s airplane. I know intellectually, and believe with all my heart, that commercial aviation is the safest form of travel, so I had never been afraid of Sully’s career. (When we were much younger, I used to tease Sully that I wasn’t afraid of his travels, but I was worried about the fact that he was spending every night in a hotel with four flight attendants!) So how incredible were the odds that my skilled, talented, professional husband was involved in an airline accident? The odds were impossible–and yet they were not.
Shortly after Sully called me, our home became besieged with media from around the world. It is hard to recall exactly when, but I believe the first calls began within two hours of the accident and quickly began to swell. By that evening both phone lines, all our cell phones and the fax were all going off simultaneously in our house. My friends called with offers of assistance, which I declined – I could not foresee that we were headed towards uncharted territory. But soon after I realized that I was dealing with dozens of calls an hour, and that the tsunami wouldn’t end sometime soon, my friends kindly decided to ignore my refusals of help. My beloved friend Margret Combs slipped in the door, sliding past the handsome CNN reporter who was using all his experience and charm to convince me to let him in for an interview. Right on her heels, my childhood friend Tamara Wheeler arrived. Margret and Tamara went into full “women in charge” mode, answering the door and the phones, turning away the media horde, taking messages and feeding my kids. I had no idea how much I needed this assistance – it gave me a chance to sit in a chair, to breathe for a moment, to let the enormity of what had happened wash over me, to start coping with the unbelievable story that had hit my family.
And with the story swelling, the news agencies and networks didn’t just have the producers calling us – but the on air talent started dialing us up, as well. It’s a bit odd to answer the phones and hear, “Hi, Lorrie, this is Diane Sawyer/Katie Couric/Matt Lauer, how are you?” It became clear that this story, transpiring at this difficult time in our nation’s history, had somehow struck a universal chord. Shortly after returning home, Sully told me, “I think this will change our lives forever.” Of course it would, but we had no idea how that would happen, or what it would mean.
Earlier in this article, I mentioned the mail we’ve received. It has been life-affirming, amazing, touching, emotional. The letters and cards we have received, from every corner of the world, have made the biggest impact on my life. We have received literally thousands and thousands of pieces of mail, some with thanks, some with encouragement, but most with personal, heartfelt stories of how this event has touched their lives. The people of our nation and our world have chosen to communicate with my family, speaking simply and with great eloquence. Some days when it all seems too much, but the tears are stuck inside and won’t come out, the letters help. Through the words I read, I can grasp the enormity of what happened that day and how it has touched people.
I have read letters from wives of pilots whose husbands are gone, but the story of Flight 1549 reminds them of their loved ones and their commitment to civil aviation. I have read letters from servicemen reliving great and harrowing moments in their youth; I have read letters from young people who tell Sully that he has inspired them to do their best; I have read letters telling Sully and his crew that they have created the possibility of a long life and of extraordinary accomplishment for not only those on the flight, but their children – and their children’s children. I don’t know how to answer thousands of heartfelt, personal, lovely letters—but we feel a responsibility to somehow respond to all of them, somehow. It may take us some time but I can’t stop thinking of those people, as they have given us an extraordinary gift of love.
We have tried to answer some of the hundreds of calls we’ve received. We’ve written a few thank you notes as well. But to all of those we have not yet gotten to who have called, e-mailed or sent cards, please know that our hearts are overflowing with a huge THANK YOU! Our family is tremendously fortunate to have been so embraced by our neighbors and friends, and please know that we are grateful indeed.
As you face the challenges that confront you and your families every day, I hope that you will keep in mind Sully’s words from January 11, 2009. I hope that what comes from this dramatic, riveting, amazing event is that people remember “that anything is possible.”
Lorrie (and Sully, Kate and Kelly) Sullenberger