Recently, my husband shared with me a moving article from the Atlantic, entitled, “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind.” Written beautifully by Jennifer Senior, it tells the story not only of Bobby’s life and tragic death on 9/11 in New York City, but also teaches lessons about interpreting life that are filled with wisdom. After reading this article (which I highly recommend), I have found myself thinking about many of its lessons.
What has been presented about this article in popular media revolves solely around the phrase, “Life loves on.” This phrase was believed to have been written by Bobby in one of his diaries he left behind. Bobby was an extremely intelligent and thoughtful person who was succeeding in his career and enjoying his life in NYC in 2001. Through the diligent research and delicate analysis of Jennifer Senior, Bobby’s perspective is revealed in a depth that even his family had not deciphered in the twenty years since his sudden death.
Misinterpreted since his funeral is the phrase, “Life loves on,” as it was read in his handwritten diary at the time by his soon-to-be fiance. The family believed it to be a message from Bobby to keep loving and living. His father has it tattooed on his arm and his mother has an engraved necklace of the phrase. As a byproduct of writing and researching for her article in 2021, Jennifer Senior discovered a new story. After she photographed the page from the diary, her editor did a handwriting comparison and found that the way Bobby wrote his “i’s” could appear as “o’s” meaning the phrase would have been more accurately read as, “Life lives on.”
One would have expected the family members to be upset or angry at this discovery – that the phrase they had clung to for the past two decades had been wrong. That is the presentation I heard in the soundbytes of the morning news when in August 2021 this story came out. When I read this article in December 2021, I was shocked that what I had heard was so misrepresentative of the depth of the true story of this family.
Through her writing project, which led Jennifer Senior to visit in person Bobby’s parents, brother, and former fiance, Jen, she discovered so much about Bobby in addition to the actual words of that phrase. She met with Jen at her home in Washington, D.C. and walked out with the diary that had caused a rift in Jen’s relationship with his family. She even found a copy of Jen’s eulogy from her own brother, one of Bobby’s college roommates.
In the eulogy, Jen read what Bobby wrote,
“It is OK for people to die. It hurts, and it is a deep loss, but it is OK. Life loves on. Do not fear for those who are dying. Be kind to them. And care for them.”
Jen’s interpretation of that phrase that “Life loves on,” caused her to vow to love on in her own life. She did and has made a new life. And when Jennifer Senior texted her a photo of the page with the new interpretation, Jen’s reaction was filled with grace. After initially being shocked and appalled, she seemed to immediately step into grace. She said that family and friends, “saw and felt what they needed to.”
Jennifer Senior interpreted the situation with depth. She reasoned that, “if Jen hadn’t kept the diary, misread it, formed a eulogy around it, the McIlvaine family would never have had a motto for their grief for 20 years.”
Helen, Bobby’s mom, had a reaction filled with beauty. When she was told the new truth of the phrase, she stated that the misunderstanding of the phrase was actually a gift. It was another special way of remembering Bobby.
So even though the media presented the story on one level as if they were wrong for 20 years, I think the real story is much deeper and more complex. In fact, what is truly amazing about Bobby’s writing is that he spent many of his final months pondering life and grief. By a strange coincidence of timing, he wrote his thoughts after Jen’s mother passed away earlier in 2001, and he witnessed the effects on her.
The great light in the whole life story of Bobby is buried deep in the text – of both Bobby’s diary of 2001 and Jennifer Senior’s article of 2021. Jennifer uplifts a message that resonated with me so much that I often find myself thinking about the words. She found in his diary what she accurately calls an epiphany. On August 20, 2001, he wrote:
“There are people that need me. And that, in itself, is life. There are people I do not know yet that need me. That is life.”
And Jennifer writes so eloquently not only recognizing the beauty of his thought, but also adding her own insight:
“That is Bobby at his very finest, his most humane, his most mature. He understood that our commitments to one another are what we’re here for….”
How true this is. How beautiful to see their words combined together. This piece is so multi-dimensional and meaningful. Without Jennifer’s initiative and talented analysis, this never would have been discovered. It was truly through her research that a new story emerged – one that has made me reflect on his words – “there are people in my life who need me. And that, in itself, is life.”
It is this beautiful truth that is unrecognized. Life can present challenges left and right, but knowing that part of the meaning of life is fulfilling my commitments to those who need me and being needed by my children, husband, family and friends, is an epiphany just like she said. Being aware of this need and dependence is a beautiful circle to see. Life envelopes these needs. Fulfilling the responsibilities is a gift. Some days it may seem mundane to fulfill the needs – making a grocery run or cleaning up the many messes in a household with children – and other times it may seem overwhelming to fulfill the harder-to-carry needs – of telling my mom it’s ok. And that she could go.
All of these needs are facets of parenthood and childhood and the sandwich in between both. Appreciating each and the whole range of needs is a challenge. The legacy we leave behind can be found in the words we say and write. For Bobby, he left behind an indelible legacy in his words. One that I appreciate and needed to read.
I can’t thank Jennifer Senior in person for writing such a beautiful article; I don’t know her, but I appreciate her writing. She unearthed what could have been lost forever, words written by an insightful young man and the graceful responses of his family members to his legacy. My gratitude is best given I guess by paying her an homage – one that Bobby himself found in her writing – ending here with a quote from her about Bobby’s mom’s experience raising Bobby that applies to my experiences both as a parent and in the end with my mom:
“It was a privilege. It was a gift. It was a bittersweet sacrifice.”
© 2022 Megan Davia Mikhail