When news broke this month that two Associated Press journalists were attacked in Afghanistan, a familiar feeling of loss and powerlessness immediately took hold of me. Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon were sitting in a car when an Afghan police officer fired on them. While I never had the fortune to know Anja, who was killed instantly, Kathy has filled an important role in my life for two decades, since my mother, a foreign correspondent with the AP, was killed when the helicopter she was riding in crashed into a mountainside in Afghanistan.
Hearing of the attack on Kathy, who was seriously wounded and remains hospitalized in Germany, felt like my life had come full circle in a single moment. In 1993, my mother, Sharon Herbaugh, was the first woman bureau chief for the Associated Press to die while on assignment. In the days following the crash, the phone at my grandparents’ home in Colorado rang nonstop with calls from State Department officials, friends and journalists from all over the world. Kathy took charge of maintaining communication between my family and the AP. She also oversaw the return of Sharon’s body back home, to a farming town on the dusty plains of southeast Colorado.
Kathy traveled from Islamabad to Kabul for the grisly task of confirming that it was indeed Sharon lying in the morgue. Her body, along with the 14 others who were on the helicopter that day, was not retrieved for several hours after the crash. The bodies sat baking in the hot Afghan sun, so the decomposition process was well under way. This was particularly unsettling, Kathy would later tell me, because Sharon was always very proud of her looks: She was a slim 130 pounds at 5 feet 8 inches tall. She kept her hair in long tresses and wore expensive clothing and high-heeled pumps. But none of that mattered anymore.
In the two decades that have followed Sharon’s death, Kathy has maintained a regular presence in my life. I exchanged emails with her only two days before she was attacked on the eve of Afghanistan’s elections. Much of what I know about my mother I’ve learned from Kathy. And she was often a source of support as my grandmother and I navigated the grieving process.
After the violent death of a journalist, much attention is focused on the bravery of the fallen individual. Words like “hero” and “trailblazer” are commonly used. Journalists take on a role much like our military warriors in that they put themselves in harm’s way for a cause in which they believe. The difference is that most journalists are armed only with pens and notebooks with the goal of bringing about a better understanding of our world.
As a survivor of a journalist who died in the line of duty, I ignore all the accolades and think only of the families and loved ones left behind, who have to try to make sense of something that is incomprehensible. The pain left in the wake of Sharon’s death has been very real, but very different for my grandmother and me. My grandmother will talk endlessly about the love and adoration she has for her daughter. But my experience has been far more complicated emotionally. It seems the only similarity in our pain is that we both have never gotten over it.
Sharon’s decision to pursue a foreign post in a conflict region, while leaving me with my grandmother, has been the single most defining factor in my life. I was 13 at the time of her death, but she’d left the United States about six years before the helicopter accident, stationed first in New Delhi, and later in Islamabad. She spent four years covering the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the country’s subsequent civil war, which included the rising insurgencies from the Taliban and mujahideen.
I was a precocious kid, and the relationship between my mother and me had fractured early on. I remember once when my mom visited us in Colorado in 1990, and I was avoiding my homework. She began to get frustrated with me, but there were no parental boundaries in place. “You should go back to India,” I hissed. She asked if that was what I wanted, and I simply replied, “Yes.”
When she couldn’t get home for an extended period, she would call and ask to speak to me. Every time I refused. Once my grandmother asked me why I wouldn’t speak to my mother on the phone. I didn’t answer. I only asked if my mother would come back if I were sick and dying in a hospital. “She would if she could,” my grandmother responded. I wasn’t happy with the answer, but it was not unexpected: It was a familiar feeling of dismissal.
The years following Sharon’s death have been filled mostly with anger. It wasn’t the usual teenage angst. A question posed by an innocent person could elicit a long line of expletives from me. And I’ve corrected people who have referred to her as “Mom,” saying she was only a vessel for my birth. I was hugely embarrassed about my family. Sharon refused to tell me, or anyone, any information about my father. Not even his name. My grandmother, to this day, doesn’t have any more details than I do. I’ve reached out to Sharon’s closest friends and none of them say they know.
People were intrigued by Sharon’s career, which I knew little about. How did she get into journalism? Are you moving abroad to be with her? And I’d become annoyed at people who assumed I would follow in my mother’s footsteps and pursue journalism. And yet, I did. I was encouraged down the path into journalism by friends, family and acquaintances. I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. But once I headed in this direction, it became impossible to change course. I learned to love writing and I love the intellectual part of it, examining larger issues in society and looking at why humans — even mothers — behave the way they do.
Being able to find a peace regarding my relationship with my mother has been an enormous blessing. It didn’t come easy, and I can’t pinpoint when it happened. Now that I have a 3-year-old son, I’ve gained a better understanding of the everyday difficulties in maintaining a successful and happy life. Perhaps it was the years that have elapsed, too.
I’ve come to realize that although I may not have memories of a mother who took long walks with me or who was there to celebrate my achievements, I am proud of Sharon’s work in Afghanistan and her role in breaking glass ceilings for women. And I have gained other important relationships in the wake of her death, such as my friendship with Kathy, that are invaluable. I will never have an emotionally satisfying relationship with my mother, and I’ve accepted that. It’s not what I want, but it is what I have.
Special To The Washington Post