I knew Jim Foley, the journalist who was beheaded by the so-called Islamic State a few weeks ago. Not well; I don’t want to overstate it. Since Jim’s death I have learned that he was kinder, smarter, braver, and more complex than I ever had the chance to find out. He had many good friends who loved and respected him, and I know some of them in the same way I knew him—peripherally. Jim was my classmate in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst back at the turn of the century. I’ve noticed that much of the press talks about his undergraduate degree and his graduate degree in journalism, but he was a fiction writer, too. I didn’t have workshop with Jim—I wrote poetry, then—but I knew him in that way all of us knew each other in grad school: we went to readings together, we went to parties together. We drank a lot in those days, at people’s houses, at the smoky Northampton VFW, and even on campus. Jim’s was a familiar face, and he was sort of a gormless dude, as I recall, often laughing or lamenting some small personal failure; another classmate described him as a little “goofy,” and that jives with my memory.
Perhaps because I didn’t know him that well, I was shocked to learn a year or so ago that he had become a journalist, the kind who does incredibly brave things like going to war zones to report, and that he had been kidnapped in Syria. It hit me strongly when I found out, and I followed the case when I could. Jim also grew up in New England, and I would think sometimes about his family, his parents, what their days must have been like knowing their son was somewhere, lost, out of communication, possibly dead. When optimistic news blips would pop up—we think he’s alive—I would feel hopeful that Jim would get out of Syria as he had gotten out of Libya a couple years earlier. I thought once he returned safely I would friend him on Facebook or send him an email and tell him how impressed I was and how proud and how very glad that he was alive.
And then on a Tuesday night in August, at my parents’ house in New Hampshire, my mom pulled out her iPad and said, softly, “Oh no.”
It is a curious thing, when someone you knew, but weren’t close to, dies. Jim’s death was so horrific that many people who didn’t know him were affected, of course. His death was a symbol of so much that’s wrong in our world, so much that’s terrifying, and the sheer brutality of it was more than any human should ever have to endure. In the days that followed, Facebook exploded, and I felt the urge to connect, connect, connect with other writers from my MFA program. People shared stories and remembrances. Others expressed anger at the US government for not paying the $200,000,000+ ransom the terrorists had demanded for Jim’s head. (That, it seemed to me, was shortsighted, though I understood the impulse. But how many thousands of other people would that money have enabled ISIS to kill?) I felt myself watching from the sidelines a little, not sure how to mourn. My article in Elle had just come out, and when someone congratulated me all I could think was how utterly frivolous it was, my infertility, my essay. Who cared? Jim Foley had just been beheaded, and I kept feeling like there was something I was supposed to do about it. Only there was nothing to do.
The night after I learned that Jim had been killed—a Wednesday—I woke up in the middle of the night. My dreams had been dark, awful things, the stuff of premonition or occult—a man was saying, “you’re the best prisoner,” and then I was right there, kneeling alongside Jim in that desert. I woke up gasping. I have an active imagination. I had been down a road like that before, when, three years ago, a friend of mine was brutally murdered by her ex-boyfriend and I couldn’t stop imagining the moment of her death. So I stopped myself, tore myself away from that place thousands of miles away. It was very dark out. “I’m so sorry, Jim,” I whispered, and then I turned on the light (I was terrified of the dark) and got up to use the bathroom. When I climbed back into bed and shut the light I could not even see an inch in front of my face.
And then I heard an owl calling in the night. It wasn’t a simple call, not the great horned, but something longer, a “whoo whoo, whoo-whoo whooooo!” sound. After a few minutes, its mate answered, and I lay there listening to two owls calling for each other, an eerie, beautiful chorus. The next morning, I was the only one in the house who had heard it. It was, I discovered, a barred owl, the most common owl in New Hampshire. In the night, they call for their mates, and the two chorus back and forth like this.
I can’t tell you how comforting that sound was. I thought of how, in superstition, the dead appear often as birds. I didn’t think Jim Foley would come to the woods outside my parents’ house, but you never know. It didn’t matter. I felt his presence. It reminded me, somehow, of what’s basic and essential and good about this life, and while in days to come it did not change my anger or sadness or fear, it felt, somehow, like something profound, two owls calling for each other, finding each other, in the dark.
Rest in peace, Jim.
Listen to the barred owl here.
Donate to the James Foley Scholarship fund here.