After a three-month travel adventure with the purpose of seeking beauty wherever I went, many thoughts raced through my mind. I had quit my job, gone on the road, run out of money, and had no clue what came next. I couldn’t have predicted that a philosophical discussion on the meaning of life with a perfect stranger would change my life. But it did.
A tall man stood behind me in line at passport control in the Sydney airport. He started to chat with me, wondering where I was going. Grinning, I explained I was returning home after wandering around Australia and New Zealand solo. He was heading to Wales.
Grant was part of an elite Australian special-forces team. Somehow we got into a serious conversation, keeping busy until our flights by walking together around the airport. It was August 2004.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Grant said with confidence.
“How can you be so sure?” I replied.
“I know it. I have seen it every day of my life. It’s just how the world works.”
“Do you really believe that?” I wondered. “How do you know that things happen for a reason? Maybe things happen and we give them reason, and not the other way around.”
I recalled every detail of how I spent Sept. 11, 2001. I was working for CNN as a field producer on Lou Dobb’s show, Moneyline. My job had started a few weeks prior and I was thrilled: the low drama of financial news was perfect for me. I distinctly remember a conversation with my father about this feature of my new job at the end of August 2001.
“I can do this,” I said. “The markets go up and down; there’s no blood and guts in these news stories.”
A short time later, I was a witness to Sept. 11, and I can’t think, let alone write, about it without having tears in my eyes.
In a state of shock, I watched smoke pour out of the enormous gash in one of the World Trade buildings. Soon after, the tower started to collapse as I watched, and my brain screamed, “There are people in that building and you are watching them die and there is nothing you can do!” I have never felt such anguish and helplessness. With these thoughts now racing through my mind as we wandered the airport, I asked Grant, “Where were you on Sept. 11?”
He spoke solemnly, “I’ll never forget Sept 11. My mother died in my arms at the hospital, and then my brother and I heard the news.”
I was surprised. As I was watching my city fall apart, his world was also breaking into pieces thousands of miles away. Soon after that difficult day, Grant was one of the Australian servicemen who went to fight the war in Afghanistan.
I ended up covering terrorism and the Sept. 11 story for two years. It got to me. My usual happy-go-lucky cheerful disposition disappeared. Covering funerals and sad stories daily left a deep imprint on me. I needed a change. I wanted to see the beauty in the world, the happy moments, the positive. I read books by every optimistic self-help guru I could lay my hands on, including books by the Dalai Lama. However, the book that made the most impact on me was an Australia and New Zealand guidebook. So, I put my math skills to good use, reached into my savings account and soon after found myself – and my backpack – at a Victorian-style hostel in Auckland, New Zealand.
Down Under was the perfect place to embrace a new worldview; to fill my head with beautiful images to counter the horrible ones. I hitched rides from perfectly lovely strangers, drank pure water from ancient glaciers that I hiked, and dared myself to do anything and everything interesting, including scaring myself to death skydiving with my new travel friend, Dave Ellis.
I admit, the night before I was scheduled to jump, I tossed and turned, praying for it to rain. I wished I could back out of my commitment without appearing to be terrified. I was afraid of heights and scared out of my mind. But, my sense of adventure got the best of me, as it usually does, and I went ahead with the leap.
Dave and I became the best of friends after jumping out of a perfectly good airplane 12,000 feet above Queenstown, New Zealand. Later in the trip, he invited me to come explore Perth, Australia, after I had toured that country’s east coast. Traveling without a plan but with cash in hand left me open to seeing where the world would take me.
It was a great suggestion. That said, a less-than-desirable five-hour-plus cross-country flight from Brisbane squished in between two larger-than-life rugby pIayers brought me to my destination.
One night while in Perth, I was invited to Dave’s parents’ house for dinner. His British grandmother, Bette Ellis, told me about her life and how she had met her husband in Jerusalem in 1946. Leonard was in the British military. They traveled the world together. She was an adventurous lady filled with energy and, as a youngster, an avid dancer.
Her world was forever changed on Feb. 28, 1967, when she was nearly killed in a terrorist bombing in Aden, Yemen, where she was living at the time. The bomb exploded at a cocktail party she was attending. The two women right next to Bette and with whom she had just been speaking, were killed. She survived but was left a paraplegic, paralyzed from the waist down.
The Ellis family was torn apart. Her youngest son, David, was sent to England to be looked after by Bette’s sister. Her husband Leonard suffered from extreme guilt because he had left Bette at the party as he was called away to work. They eventually divorced, and she became a single parent to three children. Leonard went on to have years of health difficulties and passed away at age 62 from cancer.
In the most unlikely place on the planet I would have imagined, I had come face to face with terrorism again, and the effects it had, even 40 years later, on a family. Once again, my heart was ripped to shreds over how one act, one moment in time, can shatter and splinter a person and a family forever.
The story stuck with me, and I emailed Dave’s father, Alex, to interview him. He wrote, “Thanks for the interest in Mum’s story. Yes, the impacts may go on for years and in many cases are difficult to cope with whereas the public interest tends to be more about the event and the immediate impacts. In many ways, there are almost forgotten victims of such attacks. Mum was a very strong person and led a very active life considering the extent of her injuries. Her story is certainly one of strength and hope but there is no doubt that many other victims have not fared as well.”
He continued, “Coincidentally, Mum passed away, and the date is very easy for us to remember as it was 11 Sept.”
Shocked and teary-eyed, I couldn’t help but wonder about the timing. While more than 13 years have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, for many, it is as if it happened yesterday; for some, the scars of this terrorist act will remain and be felt for generations. Even though Bette had passed away years after the 2001 attacks, this sad date still had resonance, personally, nationally, globally. She was a woman with a staunch will to live, and her family, a role model of love, made the best of a tragic situation.
I don’t know if I believe that things happen for a reason, but I do know that giving them purpose is all most people can accomplish. So, the next time you travel, be open to the world and its wisdom. Even in learning of others’ heartaches and tragedies, there is some hope to be found. On your journeys, if you are truly lucky, you might make lifelong friends like I have in the Ellis family, friends who will restore your vision of the world, and show that good can triumph over evil.
Masada Siegel is an award-winning journalist and photographer. Follow her at @masadasiegel and visit her website, masadasiegel.com.