Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Pennies From Heaven

Steven Vincent. A man who belongs irretrievably to the past now, but whose memory shines bright for those who loved him, and for those of us who admired him.

Earlier this month Lisa Ramaci, his widow, happened upon an old post about her husband at Gates of Vienna and was moved to write in response. She willingly gave permission for us to share her thoughts with you:

Hello -

I was recently made aware of a wonderful post you wrote about my husband Steven Vincent, the journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in August 2005 in Basra, Iraq, and I wanted to write and thank you for it.

Since I do not expect you to remember it, here’s the link.

I remember Steven Vincent’s tragic end very well. His summary execution and the attempted murder of his translator by terrorists in Iraq is an unforgettable story. It was only luck that Nour, the translator, survived and managed to elude those who wanted her dead.

I cannot tell you what your words mean to me, even after all this time; I am touched and honored by the regard in which you obviously held Steven, and how you so clearly understood what he was trying to accomplish with his writings. (Funnily enough, my favorite character in Romeo and Juliet was always Mercutio, the most complex, intelligent and interesting of the protagonists, so I was struck by your comparison of him to Steven.)

I was pleased that Ms. Ramaci noticed the comparison. Mercutio is also one of my favorite dramatic characters. It continues to be a source of fascination to me that Shakespeare could manage to flesh out a real human being in so few lines. Thus, my title of the post on Steven Vincent, ‘Tis Not So Deep as a Well, Nor So Wide as a Church Door…, is the line Mercutio (Romeo’s best friend) says on receiving a mortal wound whilst fighting for his friend. Romeo claims that Mercutio can’t be that seriously hurt, to which Mercutio responds:

No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but ‘tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for
me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.

In such a manner does Shakespeare capture the face of courage at the moment of death. It is indeed an Italian answer that Shakespeare has fashioned for his character. Does it not remind you of Fabrizio Quattrocchi, the Italian security guard also executed in Iraq?

Ms. Ramaci has information about Nour al-Kahl, the interpreter who was kidnapped along with Mr. Vincent.
- - - - - - - - -
They were both shot, but she survived and went into hiding after leaving the hospital. Thus began his widow’s arduous mission to retrieve her husband’s translator and bring her to safety:

An update regarding Nour — not long after I found out what happened I began working to get her to New York, where I live.

After she was released from the Green Zone some 3 months after being shot, she was able to get to Amman , where her former USAID boss and I supported her so she would not have to risk trying to find a job and possibly get sent back to Iraq as an illegal refugee.

It took 18 months of working fruitlessly with the Baghdad Embassy, the State Department and immigration lawyers here, and I actually wound up testifying in front of Senator Ted Kennedy’s Iraq Refugee Crisis committee, but I finally managed to get her into the US. She arrived in June 2007, lived with me for 6 months while she found her footing, as it were, and then moved out to live with a roommate.

However, we stay in frequent contact — I took her out to California at Thanksgiving so we could spend it with Steven’s family (she’d met them before, but it was her first chance to see a whole new part of the US and see where Steven had grown up), she spends Christmas with my mom and me, and we celebrate her birthday at the end of each January.

She is now semi-happily ensconced in Queens (she prefers Manhattan), living with a truncated Iraqi family (the boy had to come to the US for heart surgery with his dad, leaving the rest of the family behind for the moment), working as a translator, and in general in a much better position than she was. She’s taken off the headscarf, and is quite the cosmopolitan woman now, she even has a shrink. She misses her family of course, but not the life she had to lead in Iraq , and she does, indeed love New York.

Ms. Ramaci gave me several links to more stories about Nour’s life in this country when she was living with her benefactor. One of them is particularly moving. It demonstrates the bond that can develop between two people who deeply cherish a third person who is no longer with them, who is separated from them eternally.

She says of herself:

As for me, I press onward, visiting Steven out in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn on a regular basis, thankful I was able to fulfill what I know his last wish would have been by bringing his translator to the new world he had promised her. I miss him sorely still — not a day goes by that I do not think of him and wish he were here — but you have no idea how it does my heart good, even after all these years, to find a tribute to him as beautifully written as yours was.

So again, thank you beyond measure for your eloquent and profoundly touching defense of my beloved husband, it is beyond appreciated.

Before signing off Ms. Ramaci took the trouble to read my profile and she touched on the things that we share:

And I thought you might find this interesting; when I checked out your online profile, I saw you had listed, among many others, Gymnopaedies and Wallace Stevens as favorites — Steven loved Erik Satie’s Gymnopaedies, and we often drifted off to sleep listening to them, while Wallace Stevens was long one of his favorite poets.

Of course it goes without saying that I wrote back to Mr. Vincent’s widow. I couldn’t do so immediately. Her letter affected me deeply; I had to travel back in time to re-read my own post and to recall those old memories of the Iraq stories. Then there was a ‘settling’ process, always necessary when one is deeply moved and yet the subject is so irretrievably gone. Hard to believe it’s been five years already. Life moves on, as though we were on a train and the person we knew then and cared about is left at the station marked 2005. It becomes hard to see them waving. Or have they, too, turned away?

At any rate, I had to ask permission to publish her email, and I wanted to share some of my own feeling about that time. I told her how relieved I was to hear that Nour had made it to the US, and related my own experience with the death of my daughter.

I also asked if she believed that life continued in some fashion after death. As I explained, this ‘belief’ isn’t really voluntary; one finds the idea acceptable or one dismisses it, but it’s not really a choice to think this way. It’s a fundamental part of who we are.

Her response:

…I would be happy to have people find out that Nour is safe in the West and making a new life for herself. If you would let me know when it runs I’d appreciate it.

Please accept my condolences on the untimely death of your daughter; I think that is even harder than losing a husband, since I did not carry him inside of me for 9 months, birth, raise and love him from tiny baby to adulthood. And while I truly feel half of me was irrevocably ripped away when Steven was killed, I cannot even begin to imagine the grief of his mother; I literally weep every time I think of it.

Not long ago, while going through my storage space, I came upon some of Steven’s papers, in which was something she had done when he was 2 — she’d inked his foot and hand, pressed them on a piece of paper and written “Steven Charles Vincent December 31, 1957 — two years old”. And I sat there and thought of how proud she must have been of her sweet, cherished firstborn, her only son, and cried until my eyes were swollen and I could not breathe. I have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat just thinking of it now.

And I do believe in the eternal spirit, and can only hope God will grant me the chance to be with Steven again someday, somewhere.

She’s partially right that the death of a child — of any age — is exquisitely difficult. It is a death out of order; parents should always go first. On the other hand, the death of a beloved spouse has a much more immediate and daily impact on our lives. Even though I believe the Baron will outlast me, I still prepare myself for the possibility that he may not. “Accidents and incidents” abound in all our lives. The extent to which I depend on him would be hard to measure. The comparison between the two types of pain is hard to construct, at least for me.

Ms. Ramaci has had the common experiences many of us do after the death of someone very close:

He visits me in dreams sometimes, and they are so vivid I find it hard to believe he is not there; friends who are far more psychic than me (given that I possess the extra-sensory perception of a brick) have assured me they have not only felt but seen him in our apartment, and even Nour confessed to me, more than a year after she moved out, that she saw him there on a regular basis, which is one reason she wanted to live elsewhere. She wasn’t afraid, but she felt he was always watching and judging her. I pointed out that he had not done that in life so why would he in death, but she can be rather set in her beliefs, so…

Others have ‘seen’ my daughter, too, in the house where she died.

Like Ms. Ramaci, I have the ESP of a brick, though sometimes my thoughts are intruded upon by an inner ‘voice’ sounding much like my daughter. She is usually making a comment about whatever is going on and she’s often very witty, just as she was in real life.

Here’s another experience from her husband:

But he sends me pennies — I find them everywhere, in the oddest of places, always a single one. And I firmly believe it’s his way of saying, “Hi, I’m here!” May sound silly, but it gives me comfort, and what else matters?

My response was to say that his message was a joke, that he’d keep showing up “like a bad penny” — an unexpected, fond presence. But then, in telling someone else the story, she had a different response: “but of course. Pennies from heaven”.

Since I know that Steven Vincent was buried with a CD of Frank Sinatra songs to accompany him to eternity, I found this video for Lisa:

She sent along a few photos of his “mansion” in Greenwood Cemetery, saying that she cannot use the “g” word. I know what she means. It sticks in the throat.
Steven Vincent’s headstone

She says:

So he would know that we will be together again someday, I put my name on the headstone. Some people find it creepy, but I am perfectly content, knowing his name is not alone on that black stone.

I don’t find her behavior “creepy” at all. It is a way to transcend the hardest part of death’s aftermath, thinking of a beloved person being alone. In truth, it is we who are so awfully alone. They have comforts we do not know.

Dymphna, thank you so much for writing back to me and again, for wanting to publish my email to you. By reminding your readers about Steven and his untimely death, you help to preserve his memory. God bless you for that.

For Steven Vincent’s widow he is present still, in her waking moments, in his visits to her dreams and in his laughing gift of pennies, lots of pennies.

“A penny for your thoughts, Lisa...”
“Pennies from heaven, Lisa...Be sure that your umbrella is upside down...”

Gabriel Marcel defined devotion this way: “love means that, for me, you will never die.” I’ve yet to see a better definition.


Mary said...

I think this may be the most beautiful post I have ever read....anywhere....

Thank you both for sharing,

Just heartbreaking gorgeousness.


Zenster said...

What a wonderful and touching article ... even if the text did get a little blurry towards the end. My belated condolences to Mrs. Vincent along with another round of deep thanks to Gates of Vienna for keeping a human face on what, all too often, has become an inhuman struggle against pure evil.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a tribute. I had known nothing about the man except his name before I read this post. I can imagine him only through the pain and yet love and admiration of his widow, and I imagine that he must have been a very great, heroic man.

Please accept my condolensces for your loss, Mrs. Vincent. And may your husband find rest in the house of our Lord.

costin said...

This post is one of the reason I've been reading Gates of Vienna everyday for the last 3 years or more.
Lisa, Dymphna, Baron, my heart goes to you..

Professor L said...

That was a lovely post.

It is hard to think of death. I'm lucky - of my family, I was two young to remember much of the three grandparents that have passed away (my grandmother is still alive, but all things must end). It's hard to think about, because I'm very close to her. I couldn't listen to Delta Goodram's Lost without you because it always brought such thoughts to mind (and that makes it really hard to do homework when you're fourteen).

Still, death is a natural part of life, and as Gandalf so succinctly put it in The Return of the King, it is just another path, though one we all must some day take.

My condolences to you Dymphna and Baron, on your daughter, and to you Lisa, for Steven.

The name on the headstone merely denotes faith - of reuniting with him in Heaven, and returning to dust with him on Earth. Soul mates never leave, so long as one of them remains.

PatriotUSA said...

Thank you Dymphana, Baron and
Lisa for such a touching,
beautiful post and sharing such deep,
personal events that make
up our human experience. Good thing
there is a box of kleenex next to
the computer.

This is what sets Gate of Vienna
apart from all other sites. Your
willingness to share, be open and
yes vulnerable is quite special.
It is a rare thing in these days
of high tech communications, which
I hate.

To Lisa, your name on the
headtsone is not weird or strange
at all. As LAW Wells stated it
is about faith of reunion after
we die with our most beloved ones.
That is truly the deepest, most
passionate love that we can ever
know while here on this eartly

The timing of this post is
not a coincidence. I just was
informed about the passing of
an old life long friend just a
few hours ago. Thanks again for
just a really beutiful post. It
has helped and me at a most
troubling time.

Bob Ellison said...

Beautiful story, beautifully written. One semantic quibble: Steven Vincent was not "executed". That implies legal procedure of some kind. He was murdered, of course.

Michael Crosby said...

For me, this is journalism at its finest.

You write a story about a man's death and how it relates to the world. Then the man's wife writes you her powerful words to you, with your thoughts mingled.

This is something one could never hope to find in a main stream newspaper.

Not only that, I realize now I must read Western Civilizations great minds of the past. Boy, you've just given me a whole lot of homework.

PS. I clicked on you being banned on LGF and it took me to another blog. I didn't get the story of you being banned.

Fjordman said...

Michael Crosby: LGF has banned every other blog in the Northern Hemisphere, and quite a few in the Southern Hemisphere, too. It is actively used as a source by Islamic organizations such as CAIR and the OIC. Charles Johnson just labels everybody he disagrees with a "racist" or a "Nazi."

Thank you for a great post, Dymphna. It was beautifully written.

Unknown said...

Thank you. I was going back and forth to Iraq a lot at the time of Steven Vincent's death, and remember very well your post and several others, as well as being impressed by his widow, and the story of his translator.

Brave, loyal Mercutio.

Thank you both for sharing these reflections and memories.

Anonymous said...

I was unaware of Steven Vincent until reading this post because the original was published a few years before I began reading Gates of Vienna. Dymphna, this entire piece is absolutely beautiful.

Michael Crosby, the banned on LGF badge is linked to my blog because I made it. Anyone is welcome to put it on their site (as long as they link back to me) to show their pride of being banned from LGF :)

Cassandra said...

Oh wonderful, wonderful
And most wonderful ...

Obscure quote from my all time favorite movie, and extremely apt to boot.

Words were Steven Vincent's tools. He played them like music and in so doing he played upon our hearts and minds.

I will never forget this wonderful writer and I count it as a great tragedy that I only became aware of his work shortly before his death. God bless you for reminding me how blessed we are in such men.

And now I have to go. There seems to be something in my eyes.