Hero's Wife Makes His Words Resound
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 2, 2002; Page C01
Perhaps she offers people faith, this small woman beside the bowl of red, white and blue jelly beans at this McLean bookstore, signing books for hundreds of people. She seems so sure of her place in the world, sad but at peace with what's been taken from her. People step up with four and five and 10 copies of her book, just out -- this is for me and this is for my church, they say -- and tell her, God bless you, we're praying for you. One woman maintains her composure for just as long as it takes Lisa Beamer to scrawl her name, then she turns toward the cashier, eyes filling.
"I feel like an idiot," says Becky Kesner, dabbing at her eyes. She works at CIA headquarters and feels that Beamer's husband may have saved her life on Sept. 11, and now, just being so close to Beamer -- the emotions of that day surge back.
"It's like you're drawn to her," says her niece Mary Hardy.
"An inner strength," says Kesner.
Lisa Beamer has been called a war widow; in the months after Sept. 11, two servicemen sent her their Purple Hearts. Hers is a story people want to believe in, attached as it is to the one plane whose passengers apparently thwarted the hijackers' intentions, causing the jet to crash in western Pennsylvania. People are grateful for heroes, and they are grateful for Todd Beamer. His last known words sparked a presidential utterance, a marketing frenzy and a Neil Young song. In the popular culture that now enshrines 9/11, "Let's Roll!" is as ubiquitous as FDNY caps.
But the phenomenon of Lisa Beamer -- the most well known of the relatives of Sept. 11 victims, a frequent guest on cable news shows and now co-author of the top nonfiction book on the New York Times bestseller list -- is about more than her connection to United Airlines Flight 93. Through photogenic good looks, eloquence, attitude and accessibility, she has come to represent not only fighting back but moving on. A devout evangelical Christian, she has set for many an example of how to live after loss without losing one's spiritual mooring.
As a nation, "we are sort of -- as muddled as it may be -- rebuilding," she says Thursday morning, sitting in a hotel room at the Jefferson Hotel, where she is staying while in Washington for a book-signing. Viewing the cleanup of Ground Zero, Beamer says, she watched the workers separating what was garbage from what was valuable. And "I sort of got this image in some ways of life" -- the way that people carry on after tragedy, when life is stripped to its barest essentials. They sift through the everyday muck in search of what's truly precious.
Beamer is more engaging in person than on the written page -- or, at least, in the version produced largely by her co-author, Ken Abraham, in "Let's Roll!" The memoir is written simply, with an abundance of adverbs and exclamation points. It chronicles Todd's life and Lisa's, from their wholesome, faith-based upbringings in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and Shrub Oak, N.Y., respectively, to their meeting in a senior seminar at Wheaton College, a Christian school, after which Todd declared to a friend: "Today I met the woman I'm going to marry!"
"Although I had no knowledge of it at the time," the book reads, "the woman Todd was raving about was . . . me!"
Beamer's book tour is a collection of signings in 15 cities between now and December. Promoting "Let's Roll!" has meant traversing a tightrope: This is a memoir, yet Beamer is reserved. "There are some things that are private," she says. This is a promotional tour, yet Beamer says she is wary of being seen as benefiting from what happened to her husband. (The Todd M. Beamer Foundation, which Lisa Beamer and family friends set up to mentor traumatized children and has thus far collected more than $3 million in charitable contributions, is "benefiting significantly" from the sale of the book, Beamer says, adding that the terms of the contract are private. There is also a Christian-themed collection of music inspired by the 9/11 tragedy that will come to stores Sept. 10 and from which all proceeds will go to the foundation.)
"This isn't about and has never been about drawing attention to me and to Todd and glamorizing," Beamer says. "This is not a glamorous thing; this is an ugly thing."
She wrote the book, she says, to give a context to her husband's heroism. "I wanted to be able to say this is why he was able to do what he did," she says. Why? "His faith."
Faith is by far the greatest theme in Beamer's book, and -- while she does not tend to invoke it unless asked -- she waxes thoughtfully on the topic. She keeps five Bibles around her house -- in her office, her bedroom, her bag -- and will occasionally quote meaningful passages from memory. In her book, Beamer writes of how her father's death when she was 15 shook her faith but ultimately made it stronger. She writes of the contrast between Todd's memorial service at their church and a service at Flight 93's crash site, near Shanksville, Pa., where she says there was "little if any direct reference to the power of God to sustain us. . . . [I]t struck me how hopeless the world is when God is factored out of the equation."
It is faith that enables Beamer to believe there was a reason Todd was on that flight, and faith that enables her to have an attitude of forgiveness about what happened that day -- although she won't say straight-out that she forgives the hijackers. It is faith that allows her to recognize how American culture has packaged and sold nearly everything relating to Sept. 11, but to focus, instead, on the motivations of those buying T-shirts and bumper stickers to "bring some healing" to their lives.
It is, in short, faith that gets a young widow through what may be the hardest year of her life. And it is a desire for what Beamer has -- her poise, her calm, her strength, her certitude -- that draws an audience of about 175 people to the Books-A-Million in McLean for her book-signing.
Before her arrival, the line goes out the door. A first-grade teacher carries a sign that says "Todd Thank You!" Lisa Beamer stands for family, people say, for the values of middle America. Someone compares her to Jacqueline Kennedy -- the grieving widow, holding herself together, back straight as steel.
At last Beamer arrives. There is clapping. She has decided not to read from her book during the tour, partly because the experience would be too raw. "It was relatively easy to be vulnerable in a written form," she says, but reading aloud is another matter. So instead she makes small talk with the customers.
"You look so much smaller in person than you do on TV," says Bill Odom as Beamer smiles, squinting her blue eyes and scrunching her nose. He and his wife, Cathy, make their way toward the exit, Bill hefting a tall pile of 10 hardcovers. Many of them will be gifts.
"We think this is a message that needs to be shared," says Cathy. It is the message of Lisa Beamer.
"She brings to me a wholesomeness," says Bill. "The profession of her faith and the history of her Christianity."
"She's handled it with grace and courage," says Cathy. "She gives Christians a good name."
"And I'm in love with her," says Bill. Cathy smiles.
A woman with dark frizzy hair pulled to the back of her head approaches Beamer.
"The bracelet is beautiful," she says. "I just read about the bracelet."
It glitters from one of Beamer's wrists, diamonds set in stylized flowers made of white gold. Todd bought it for Lisa during the trip they took to Rome the week before he died. She wears it everywhere, although she worries about losing it. The thing is, the purchase was so unlike Todd. There they were in a foreign country, with no way to know if the jeweler was honest, no way to know if the appraisal was accurate. They hadn't planned on this expense, and both were fairly conservative with money, yet Todd bought the bracelet anyway. It was the same rare impulsiveness he showed when he decided -- after meeting Lisa once -- that he would marry her.
Todd and Lisa Beamer were a couple who planned ahead. In her book, Lisa writes that the two made lists of their goals and predicted their lives in 2010, 2030. They mapped out their futures together -- a future that would have included sons David and Drew, and daughter Morgan, born four months after Todd's death. Beamer's faith has anchored her during her mourning, but the belief that she will see Todd again in Heaven does not lessen the pain.
"Life used to be fun to plan," she says earlier that day at the hotel. "There used to be so many great things to look forward to."