It only took 10 minutes. Standing in the security line at 5am at Pittsburgh International Airport, I glanced behind me and noticed a woman who was traveling alone. It was a few days after Christmas and most travelers looked like they just rolled out of bed – myself included. Typically, my grooming process when traveling that early includes brushing my teeth, throwing my un-brushed hair in a pony-tail, and making sure the make-up that remained from the day before wasn’t smeared under my eyes. Though, the woman behind me was unlike the rest of us. Wearing a pressed white blouse with dress slacks, beautifully accessorized, her hair and make up crisply done. She was a petite woman who appeared to be in her 60s. As I put my laptop in the separate bin on the belt, I turned to her, “Happy holidays – heading anywhere special?”
She kindly responded, “The west coast-California. It’s home for me.”
She explained that she was in Pittsburgh over the last few days visiting her son and his family. I told her that I had a daughter, but she was with her father that week. We shared custody and it was his week to have her with him.
She asked, “Where does she go to school?”
“She is very young still – only 10, but oddly already talks of colleges she’d like to go to someday.”
At the time, my daughter was reading about the US presidents. As a result, she talked about pursuing schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or Princeton. I laughed when she would remind me that Lincoln’s son went to Harvard.
The woman responded, “My daughter went to Stanford.”
“Wow. When did she graduate and what is she doing now?” She responded, “She graduated a Fulbright Scholar and then left to do anti-apartheid work in South Africa.”
“What does she do now?”
Without hesitation she said, “She was murdered.”
What? I stood there for a moment in shock, and wondered whether it would be appropriate to ask anything further – or even if we had the time. We had both passed through the security scanner and now were heading for the underground transit to our separate gates.
“I’m so sorry for your loss. Do you mind me asking when and what happened? I paused, and put my hand out to shake her hand. “My name is Lori, my daughter’s is Mia.”
She shook my hand, smiled and responded, “Very nice to meet you, my name is Linda. She was murdered a long time ago in 1993, just before the first multi-party elections post apartheid. She was doing work in regards to the inequality and oppression in South Africa. That was her life’s passion. Unfortunately, she got caught in a mob and died in the attack.”
Her daughter’s story sounded familiar so I asked her name.
“Amy,” she replied, “Amy Biehl.”
Linda explained that Amy’s story had aired on various news shows and had been written in newspapers. She indicated that she still travels quite a bit to Cape Town because she and her late husband, Peter, had set up a foundation there in Amy’s name.
In the few minutes standing beside her, I couldn’t help but imagine how it might have felt to have lost a child in such a brutal way – a daughter. My heart sank thinking about it. As I asked her a few more questions, not a single negative or bitter word was in response to any of it. Her demeanor was one of great pride and humility. There was a grace about her standing there amongst all of the weary-eyed travelers telling me about her daughter’s legacy.
As we approached our gates, I asked her if she had a business card for the foundation and when she was back in Pittsburgh to visit her family, if she’d be willing to meet at a Starbucks for coffee. I told her I would love to hear more about Amy’s Foundation and her work. She handed me her business card, gave me a quick hug and said sure. Linda made me feel like we had a common bond, a natural familiarity – maybe because we shared the experience of raising a passionate daughter, or maybe it was just what felt right when leaving a mother who had suffered such a great loss.
Sitting alone at my gate before boarding, I searched the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust. Articles and TV segments listed immediately in the search results. As I read through them, I couldn’t believe what Linda had omitted from her story.
What Linda didn’t share were the events that followed Amy’s death. On August 25, 1993, Amy drove a friend home to the township of Guguleta, outside Cape Town. A mob pulled from her car and stabbed and stoned her to death. Four young men were convicted for killing her. 5 years later, Linda and her late husband supported the release of Amy’s killers. The young men convicted had applied for amnesty through South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Amy’s parents did not oppose it. Rather, they attended the hearing and spoke on their behalf. Two of the four men who were released now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation often accompanying Linda at speaking engagements all over the world. Both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have recognized Linda and her late husband for the impact they, Amy and the foundation have had on the country and their people.
After reading the entire story from the various articles, I sent her an email hopeful she’d meet with me again. I was so grateful when she responded and agreed. Eight months later, we met at a local Starbucks outside of Pittsburgh. Mia came along – as young as she was, she had the same curiosity as I did. How does one forgive such an act against your own child? How?
Linda responded, “It was not Amy that they murdered. She stood for something they did not understand. It was much bigger than Amy.”
Linda shared that she and Peter (her late husband) drew their strength from Amy. She explained that Amy’s involvement and belief in South Africa’s journey to democracy and reconciliation was through education and open communication. She described the current conditions in South Africa since Amy’s death and how the foundation is working to help. Thousands of children have been educated through its programs over the last 20 years. The foundation offers after school programs to develop and empower youth living in challenged and vulnerable communities.
Linda’s story of how she worked tirelessly over the last 2 decades to keep Amy’s legacy alive has never left my heart or mind. I’m so grateful to have heard her story and to have met her. Though, admittedly, even after being so touched by her story – I still wonder, if as a mother, I would have had the same strength to forgive. I hope I would, but still wonder.
Linda, thank you for allowing me to interrupt your quiet moments for the 10 minutes we had standing in the security line. I often recall your story when I’m having a hard time finding the strength to forgive during my own challenging or painful moments. Having the courage never to blame but to choose forgiveness over hate and anger.
Below is a brief movie scene relevant to what Amy’s death and her parent’s response to it meant to an entire country. It is an example of how most humans might respond to hatred and ignorance – and fortunately, how some humans (like Linda and Amy) set a higher and more compassionate standard for us all.