It seems strange to say that I really liked Abigail Carter's book, The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation. I mean, I didn't even want to title this post as a book review, because it feels like I'm reviewing someone's life - and this is a story that is very much about someone's life. Several lives, to be exact. But it's such an exquisite read that I need to share it with you, just as Abby has shared her story.
Abby was a 30-something married mother of two young children when her husband Arron called her on the morning of September 11, 2001. As part of his new job, he was attending a trade show that fateful morning at Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the World Trade Center.
In her memoir, Abby writes poignantly and with heartbreaking detail of the days and months following 9/11. (It is rare that I cry while reading books, but I found myself tearing up on several occasions, particularly as she described one night in the first uncertain days after 9/11 when the hall light inexplicably and abruptly turned on and she knew that Arron had died.) As our country was trying to make sense of our new reality, so was Abby. She writes of the big issues - her relationships with her children and immediate family members, all of whom were grieving in their own ways, and of her anger born of grief - as well as the small things (not needing to buy Ruffles potato chips, Arron's favorite). She shares the emotions of being part of the public memorials, her indecision about returning to work, her first forays into dating.
And always, through it all, there is Arron. Woven throughout the book are memories and flashbacks of their life together and Arron's personality; in reading these stories, one's compassion deepens (as if that is even possible, but it is). Through her recollections, Abby gives us a vivid portrait of her husband, of the person behind the mistaken name read at the first anniversary ceremony at Ground Zero. You understand just how much Abby and her children have lost.
The Alchemy of Loss is also about what Abby has learned and how she has changed because of the experience of 9/11. The title is taken from the premise of a book, After the Darkest Hour, by Kathleen Brehony. As Abby writes:
"[she] maintains that loss is a form of 'spiritual alchemy' and can offer us an opportunity to change and grow. Alchemy is an ancient science and form of spiritualism that combines chemistry, metallurgy, physics, and medicine. It's followers aimed to turn lead into gold. The transmutation process follows three steps. First there is a 'blackening' where the lead is stripped of its original alloys and broken down to its barest essential elements to prepare it for transformation. The original form ceases to exist. In spiritual terms, this is the loss of what is familiar and is often characterized by a state of confusion, where we feel disoriented and anxious.
The next stage is the 'whitening' process whereby the metal [or the human spirit] is cleansed and purified, transforming its original chemistry. The confusion and chaos become regulated, more predictable, and we begin to see opportunities in our transformation to develop a fuller awareness of ourselves and our spirituality. Kathleen Brehony describes this stage in the journey as a 'baptism ... a spiritual and psychological awakening.'
A red powder made from the mythical philosopher's stone mediates the final stage, the 'reddening,' resulting in a superpure form of gold. An individual rises above his old, earthbound beliefs and values and achieves a higher level of enlightenment. He is transformed into his gold, pure, or awakened state."
I think this concept is a wonderful way to look at the grieving process, and as such, I've recommended The Alchemy of Loss to my mother. I'll be interested to hear her thoughts, since she buried two husbands before she turned 50. (One of those was my dad; having lost him when I was 15, I could relate to some of young Olivia's emotions.)
The Alchemy of Loss is a highly recommended, loving tribute to someone gone too young and a testament to the power of renewal that life offers. Thank you, Abby, for sharing so much of yourself, Arron, and your family with us. We are better people for you having done so.