Fifty years ago, on this day, my big sister Sue Ann boarded Lansa flight 502 from Cuzco, Peru to Lima, along with 48 other American International Fellowship high school exchange students, on their return from visiting Macchu Picchu. Shortly after takeoff, the plane’s #3 engine failed and caught on fire. According to the official incident report, the crew failed to respond appropriately, and the plane suffered “controlled flight into terrain.” In other words, it crashed into the side of a mountain. Ninety-nine of the 100 passengers and crew were killed as well as 2 people on the ground.
Sue had enjoyed some of her Peruvian exchange experience, but not all of it. She was placed with a devout Catholic family who attended Mass every day, and the mother sometimes twice a day. After a few weeks, my sister politely suggested that she would be happy to attend once a week on Sunday with the family, but every day was a bit much for a proud Jewish girl. Conversation with the parents ceased at that point, never to be restarted. And then, of course, after the crash, no reconciliation was possible.
Some adult in Peru must have both known and cared that Sue was Jewish, as her coffin arrived in Chicago with a clearly hand-cut tin Star of David affixed. As I recall, my father wanted to have the coffin opened so he could have a last look at his adored daughter, but family and friends were able to dissuade him, thankfully.
So, plots were purchased, arrangements made, and we buried my big sister. A year later, we came back together for the unveiling of the gravestone, with the epitaph “She was laughter and learning.”
And life changed.
For me, it meant going back to high school as a sophomore and receiving many words of sympathy and a lot of attention from my sister’s (predominately female) friends. That was something the 5-foot 2-inch, squeaky-voiced, barely adolescent me was not accustomed to. Plus, I no longer had to worry about my sister observing my juvenile misbehavior and that was a relief. But it also meant I no longer had a protector and spent more than a few minutes stuffed into lockers by the bad guys. It also meant I no longer had an intermediary between my parents and me. My sister and I fought like cats and dogs until I reached 13 or so…then we started to be friends. During one of his famous rants about the length of my hair, my older sister asked my father a series of questions. Did I use drugs? Did I steal? Did I destroy property? Did I hurt others? As the answers came back no and no and no and no, my sister then asked my Dad, “is his hair enough to make him hate you?” That was the end of the hair rants. When she died, I lost that protection, that help.
At almost 15, I became the eldest of what was now a group of three siblings. I cannot truthfully say that I grew up, but I did stop being such a clown all the time. I am sure I changed in other ways, but most of that I can only see in hindsight and the impacts probably took years to manifest.
Not so with my parents. They had lost their firstborn. My mother was heartbroken. And, while my father loved all of his children, there was no doubt that my older sister was the apple of his eye. Sue was articulate, funny, and incredibly smart. She had that first-born tendency to want to please. She shared my parents love of learning and loved the intellectual engagement with them. I was the opposite. My academic achievement would have fit in a thimble and left room for a drink of water. I was an attention deficit disaster and a behavioral problem from the word go. I needed supervision and discipline. My memory is that I received it.
Sue’s death changed my parents irrevocably. Sadder, slower, more internal. I remember a long time between laughs for quite some time.
My mother withdrew and my father, who I saw cry for the first and only time in my life, became a changed man. To me and my older sister, but mostly or only to me, he was an authoritarian and used that authoritative voice for discipline. My parents had only one requirement for us: academic performance. Sue was a gifted student while I was considered barely functional and in need of constant correction. Our allowance (such as it was) was based on our grades. A dime for an A, a nickel for a B, and God alone help you if you got a C. No surprise, but my allowance was meager in relation to Sue’s.
Dad was a disciplinarian, but unlike his father to him, never in my memory did he ever hit me. He did not need to. All he needed was that voice and that look and I, frightened, knew I was in big trouble. He had an opinion of how I should do my homework, how to do my chores (very few), how to write, speak, and act. For me, as a pre-teen and teen up to this point, he was a colossal pain in the ass.
Then my sister died, and Dad said out loud, “If I had known this was going to happen, I would never have been as hard as I was.” And he stopped.
My younger siblings came to know a different father. The man who refused to attend my little league games because he detested “little league parents” became the dad who drove my younger siblings to dog shows and went to horse events with my sister. He took my brother hunting with him. I had gone once, complained about the cold, and that was it until I was much older. The tough guy on academics gave that up almost completely. I do not believe that either of my younger siblings ever remotely took the constant commentary and grief about grades that I took, and the pressure on me diminished as well.
My mother withdrew for a fair bit of time, and then reemerged, throwing herself into her writing and her gardens. Three years later, I was in college, so I have no idea what the home life was really like, but when I was home on vacation, I know it was much more relaxed and indulgent than my experience had been.
My parents became different people. How they stayed together is a mystery as well. Over half of marriages in which a child has been lost result in divorce. They certainly, at least to me, continued to love each other with a passion. With regard to me, my father became the optimist and my mother the realist. Role reversal. Mom and I continued as before, mostly. However, I became better “friends” with my father after entering college. In fact, he became my best friend and was the best man at my wedding. I began to value his humor and insights. I would approach him with business issues to help me sort through them. In later years, it was rare that two days passed without our speaking with one another. When I was 14 or 15, that would have been hard to imagine.
To this day, I wonder if I would have achieved the success I have enjoyed had this tragedy not occurred. Would I have become an exchange student myself, which I did? Certainly, if I had not, I would not have so spectacularly failed at it and come home to what I thought was going to be disgrace but turned out to be support. Would I have developed the fear of failure that drove me to become a real student, which resulted in success in college, business school (which almost broke me that first year) and professionally?
The arc of the future is unknowable. I know my arc was changed by a tragedy that happened so long ago, but I cannot separate the impacts into good or bad. All I am sure of is that my life is different than it would have been. And I would willingly trade away any of the positive impacts to have my big sister back. But I cannot, damn it.
So, 50 years. The time has passed in a blink. The memories seem to hang on forever. The tragedy I once thought of every hour, then every day, then every week, then every month, I now think about on occasion. On this occasion, on this the 50th yahrzeit, it reminds me that life, while unfair, is exceedingly precious. And, for all the potential plusses and minuses, it is always good to have a big sister.