A Grieving Mother Turns the Horror of Pan Am Flight 103 into a Monument to Her Son
Suse Lowenstein wears a mask of composure as she invites a guest to examine her latest sculptural work. Self-control is all that holds her together as she regards her creation, a ring of eight sorrowing figures encircling a woman with one arm draped protectively over her womb and the other stretched heavenward in a gesture of despair. The piece is dedicated to Lowenstein's son Alexander, one of 270 people killed last December when a bomb ripped apart Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. "The sculpture embodies my futile desire to have my child back and the anger which comes from knowing he was murdered," she says. "The bottomless pain of the mother figure is something I have felt every day since Alex died."
Sitting amid her handiwork on a grassy knoll outside the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton, N.Y., Lowenstein recalls a happier time, in August 1988, when Alexander posed at their summer home in nearby Montauk for three of the figures in the sculpture. At that point Lowenstein envisioned a work that would celebrate his earthy vitality at age 21. "Surfing had kept him in very good shape," she says. "He was an exceptionally beautiful young man."
On Dec. 21, as she worked in her studio at the family residence in Mendham, N.J., Lowenstein, 45, was surrounded by her photographs of Alexander and eagerly anticipated showing him the progress she had made on the sculpture. A senior at Syracuse University, Alexander had spent the fall studying in London and was expected home that evening for the holidays. Lowenstein's reverie was interrupted by a call from a friend of Alexander's who wanted to know his flight number. Flight 103, Lowenstein replied. "Oh, my God," cried the friend. "Haven't you heard? That plane just exploded over Scotland." Stunned, Lowenstein upbraided the girl for playing a morbid joke. Then she collapsed. "I knew," she says, "that Alexander was dead."
Just three weeks earlier, Lowenstein had felt an inexplicable need to spend some time alone with her son and dropped everything to travel to London. During her week-long visit, Alexander proudly squired her around town. "It was such a beautiful role reversal," Lowenstein says. "I suddenly realized he had become a man."
The next time Lowenstein saw Alexander was in a dream, three days after the crash. "I was working in my studio, and he was leaning against a doorframe," she says. "His face was very white, and he was begging me not to let him go. I woke up and was beside myself."
Lowenstein's despair turned to rage following news reports that the U.S. Embassy in Finland had been tipped by an anonymous phone caller in early December that terrorists were planning to bomb a Pan American plane in Europe. U.S. diplomatic personnel were informed of the threat so that they could adjust their Christmas travel plans. Pan Am was also notified, but chose not to tell its customers.
Nearly a month passed before Alexander's remains were returned to America. At Kennedy Airport the Lowensteins and other grieving relatives gathered at an area used for handling livestock. "The rear of a truck opened, and they started unloading coffins with a forklift," Lowenstein says. "That's all. Neither Pan Am nor the U.S. government sent a representative. They showed us no dignity or respect."
By contrast, Lowenstein is grateful to the Scottish police and people of Lockerbie for their heartfelt condolences and their efforts to recover the personal effects of the victims. "It may seem bizarre," she says, "but I've found myself hungering for every little piece of him." The grisly mementos include torn clothing, half of a camera and torn ID cards. The two halves of Alexander's suitcase landed 40 miles apart, and his windbreaker was found 60 miles from Lockerbie. Every item was returned washed and hand wrapped.
In the months following the bombing, Lowenstein discovered that working on her sculptures of Alexander helped to make him whole again in her mind. "In my studio I could pretend he was still alive," she says. "I found myself screaming or shouting as I worked on the figures. But I kept telling myself, 'Alex, this is for you.' " Inspired by the mystery of Stonehenge, which she and Alexander had visited during her trip to England, she decided to include the figures in a circle of boulderlike forms gravitating toward a mother consumed with violent emotions of grief. She called the piece Evolution.
Lowenstein's greatest fear is that she will somehow forget her son. "I need to speak about him," she says. "The more I think about him, the less pained I am." Her husband, Peter, 54, who owns a small plastics company, has grieved quite differently. He finds it painful to talk about Alexander and cherishes the moments he can spend aloft in his single-engine Piper Dakota. "It is one of the few things I can concentrate fully on," he says, "and not think back to Lockerbie." Alexander's younger brother, Lucas, 20, who will graduate from Syracuse next spring, has been plagued with guilt stemming from normal sibling rivalry. "It is a common thing for brothers to fight," says Lowenstein. "But right now that is not easy for Lucas to accept."
Both Suse and Peter have been active in a committee formed by relatives of Pan Am 103 victims to lobby for improved airport security measures and to monitor the continuing criminal investigation of the bombing. Last month Peter was part of a delegation that met with British transportation officials and Scottish police. "I believe they already know who the murderers are," he says. "Still, I have this awful fear they will never be brought to justice."
Lowenstein says that her next work will depict a circle of women mourning a child's death. Meanwhile she is working on Alex's gravestone, a bronze relief of a serene ocean scene. "Any work I do in the future will involve Alex," she says. "I hope all this pain and sadness will give me power from here on in."
A shadow of a smile crosses Lowenstein's face as a narrow shaft of sunlight falls directly on the tormented mother in her sculpture. "I could sit here forever," she says. "I love the stillness and quiet. It brings Alex back."
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine