Let Us Be United
September 10, 2001, was our eighth wedding anniversary. My husband, Alan, was leaving the next day for a week back in California to try his last Clean Water Act case. He'd decided to give up a thriving environmental law practice for a year's sabbatical spending more time with family and offering volunteer work in India. We spent the day celebrating our love for each other, planning our future and counting the blessings in our lives. We were so grateful for our life together. Alan always said, "When we wake up each morning, we should feel gratitude for being alive." And we did.
Alan woke up at 4:30 on Tuesday for his morning flight to San Francisco. As he kissed our five-year-old daughter Sonali and me good-bye, I pulled him toward me, knocking him over. He laughed heartily and said, "I'll return with the pot of gold."
"You are my pot of gold, Alan," I said. "Come home safe and sound."
He assured me he would, and at 7:00 A.M., he called to say he had checked in, he loved us, and he'd be back by the weekend.
And then it all began.... The CNN announcer confirmed that Flight 93 bound for San Francisco had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. In that instant, I felt a crushing blow. Devastated, with the wind knocked out of me, I could barely get a sound out as shock and disbelief poured through my veins. My heart literally stopped beating and I had to will myself to live. How could my husband, my best friend who I'd kissed good-bye hours earlier, be dead?
When Sonali came home from school, I let her play for an hour before I told her the news. I wanted to savor the innocence of her not knowing Daddy was dead. When she heard Alan's plane had crashed and he was not coming home, she wailed a cry so deep and heartbreaking, a cry I pray I will never hear again from any living being. She sobbed for an hour straight, and then she looked me in the eyes and said, "I am so sad. But I'm not the saddest girl in the world. Some children have lost their mommy and their daddy, and I still have you."
A few days after the crash, Sonali's brother Chris, concerned that Sonali might not understand what was really happening, asked her, "Do you know where Daddy is?"
"Yes, he's at work!"
Chris was wondering how to handle this, when she continued. "Silly, he's in court. Defending the angels."
Sonali's courage in the following weeks continue to amaze me and remind me of her dad. One of Alan's final contemplations was a sentence he'd heard in a recent workshop, Fear-Who Cares? I know these words helped guide him on September 11.
Sonali and I attended a memorial service at the crash site in Pennsylvania with her older brothers Chris and John. Standing at the fence, staring out at the field and the scorched trees, I couldn't help but notice what a beautiful place it was for him to die. Such an expansive countryside with golden red trees-this is where it all ended for Alan.
Sonali picked up some dirt in her hands, folded her hands in prayer and began singing a beautiful hymn she learned in India the previous winter. Everyone stopped to listen to her. Then she held the dirt to her heart and threw it toward the plane.
As the sun peeked momentarily through the thick cloud cover, Sonali looked up and said, "There's Daddy!" She drew a heart in the gravel and asked for some flowers, which she arranged beautifully around the heart with one flower in the center for her daddy.
News of Sonali's courageous, sweet voice reached California, and we received a call from the governor's office. Would Sonali like to sing at California's Day of Remembrance?
"No, I don't think so. She just turned five a few weeks ago, and there will be too many people."
Sonali heard me and asked, "What am I too young to do?"
She listened to my reasons why not and simply said, "I want to do it." I agreed. And in the next few days, Sonali's repertoire of mostly Disney tunes expanded to include a beautiful prayer from the Rig Veda that we heard at the Siddha Yoga Meditation Ashram in New York where we were staying. Clearly, "Let Us Be United" was the perfect song for Sonali to sing:
Let us be united;
Let us speak in harmony;
Let our minds apprehend alike;
Common be our prayer;
Common be our resolution;
Alike be our feeling;
Unified be our hearts;
Perfect be our unity.
On the flight back to California, our flight attendant heard about where we were going and asked if Sonali wanted to sing her song for everyone on the plane.
A bit concerned, my mother asked Sonali "Do you know how many people are on this plane?"
Sonali had no idea. So she took the flight attendant's hand, walked up and down the aisle, and then came back with her guess. "About a thousand," she said. "I can do that. I'll be fine."
In a clear, strong voice, Sonali sang to her fellow passengers. She then walked up and down the aisle with one of the crewmembers, receiving the smiles, thanks and love of all the United passengers. At the end of the flight, who stood on top of a box at the door with the flight attendant, thanking everyone and saying good-bye? Our Sonali!
When Sonali sang on the steps of the state capitol, her voice was unbelievably strong. It was as though she wanted to fill the whole universe with this impassioned prayer so it would reach her daddy. As she sang, I felt it also become a pure prayer to everyone gathered-a prayer that painted a vision. I was delighted when she asked me if she could sing again, this time for Alan's memorial service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
That wasn't Sonali's last singing prayer. When the Golden State Warriors awarded a check to the Beaven family at a fundraiser in their honor, guess who sang to thousands of people in their stadium? When asked how she was able to sing in front of so many people, Sonali said, "I wasn't afraid because Daddy was singing with me."
October 15th would have been Alan's forty-ninth birthday, and Sonali wanted to have a birthday party for him. "Daddy's favorite place is the ocean, so let's go to the beach and have a big fire. Everybody can write a prayer on a piece of wood and when we put the wood in the fire, the prayers will rise to Daddy in heaven."
And so we did. As sweetly as Sonali's voice reached the heavens and so many hearts, so, too, our love rose into the moonlit sky. Alan's courage and spirituality are so strongly reflected in Sonali's ability to rise above her own heartbreak and loss and uplift people. Just as Alan didn't sit back in his seat with shaking knees but rose fearlessly to help save thousands of people's lives, so, too, Sonali chose not to bury herself in grief, but to sing her dad's vision of love and courage. I am grateful for them both!