When my parents escaped a hotel bombing, I realized life insurance isn't for you - it's for the people you leave behind
Courtesy Alissa Fitzgerald
- Afghanistan was a part of my life from as early as I can remember - my parents sold a documentary about the country in the '80s and wrote about it throughout my life.
- After the war in Afghanistan began, they went back to make a film about Sima Wali, the human rights activist, and showed me their life insurance policy before they left.
- The day of their flight home, their hotel in Kabul was bombed. While I waited to learn their fate, I thought of that life insurance policy and understood why they'd bought it.
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The early 2000s were a simpler time: Cell phones still flipped and Facebook logins required an active college email address. As a college senior in 2002, life was steady and strikingly unremarkable. Until my parents voluntarily went back to Afghanistan.
To be fair, Afghanistan was always a part of my life. In 1981, my parents sold a documentary to CBS Evening News. They gathered a crew to film the reality of what Afghan people faced after the end of the Russian occupation.
My mom ultimately had to miss out on shooting the doc because of, well, me - I was born later that year. But they were hooked. They went to Kabul as a couple in 1983 for ABC Nightline.
My earliest memories of dinner-table conversation range from US involvement in Afghanistan/Pakistan relations to what trouble the mujahideen had caused to the ramifications of a newly formed Taliban.
Still, all of this occurred in a faraway land with faraway people. By the time I left for college, Afghanistan was no more a part of my daily life than the peak of Mount Everest or the Palace of Versailles.
Going back to Afghanistan
Then the towers fell, and Afghanistan - the focus of my parents' life work - was on every American's lips.
My parents mobilized. Their friend and ally, Sima Wali, was an exiled member of the former royal party, forced to leave after the Soviet coup in 1978. She'd since dedicated herself to organizing for women's rights and equality in Afghanistan, campaigning around the world. Finally, there was an opportunity to return to her homeland.
Her journey needed to be documented, and my parents were the ones to make it happen. The fall of 2002 worked for everyone.
"Too bad you'll be in school or you could join us," Dad joked. "We can eat chicken on Chicken Street."
I laughed, equally filled with relief and regret. That joke about Chicken Street, referencing a shopping hub in Kabul, was as old as I was.
My parents' life insurance
Before they set off, it was decided that I'd come back home for the duration of their trip (10 days) to be with my brother, who was a senior at a public school in a suburb of Boston.
I was nervous. While my parents had branched out in their youth, they'd mostly worked at home while we were kids, researching and writing. Over the course of the next 10 days, and for the first time in memory, they would be unreachable.
The house felt different when I walked in; somber yet excited. My parents asked that I sit down. Mom pulled out a manila envelope, slipping out a stack of papers. She laid them out before me.
"This is where we're staying, the Kabul Hotel downtown, our flights times and destinations, and one more thing." She shared a look with my father and barreled on. "This is our life insurance policy. We should be fine, but if anything happens to us, you and your brother will be taken care of. The lawyers know what to do, but you're in charge."
She nodded and I nodded and then he nodded. We all nodded. The papers slipped back into the envelope.
In a daze, I wandered upstairs. How did this suddenly feel real? How had they talked to lawyers and only now pulled me into the loop? That life insurance policy had changed everything. The reality of their trip to a war-torn country was laid out in stark contrast to our regular lives. And I would be the one in charge.
I knocked on my brother's door.
"Mom and dad are leaving tomorrow," I said.
"Yeah," he replied.
"They have a life insurance policy. I just saw it."
"Oh." He turned around. "What does that mean?"
We talked for the first time about what would happen if something happened. Would we keep the house? Would we live there? How would we get them back from across the world?
I was scared of bombings and the Taliban and a world where nothing made sense. I was scared of a world without my parents. What would life even be like?
Death, it seems, is rather daunting. Life insurance felt like a ray of light - albeit a weak one - in the depths of uncertainty. It was my responsibility to take care of the house and my brother. No matter what, I would be in charge.
By the end of the conversation, I did feel OK. Everything would be OK. My parents had done everything they could to make sure that we were taken care of. They had metaphorically, and literally, put their money where their mouths were.
A bombing in Kabul
They left on their grand adventure, and I watched the news religiously. Kabul had been bombed a few months before, but things seemed relatively calm by the time they left.
They called from the road. Dad marveled at how much lighter cameras had gotten since 1981 and talked about eating chicken on Chicken Street. Mom was thankful she'd packed enough peanut butter for 10 days.
Courtesy Alissa Fitzgerald
The end of their trip dawned. I knew, generally, when their almost-24-hour flights ended, but with time zones it was still unclear when the flights began.
They were set to arrive later that afternoon when it happened. I flipped on the news to find that the Kabul Hotel had been bombed earlier in the day. Timing-wise, I knew they were fine, they had to be if their flight was due to arrive in a few hours. But there was a niggling doubt. What if something had changed? What about cancellations? Those happened all the time.
As I watched the on-screen glow of fire and wreckage in a smoldering corner of the hotel, I pictured that life insurance policy and felt my panic ebb. My brother and I would be OK. Their life insurance policy had given me reassurance when they had none.
My parents called a few hours later and regaled me with tales, unaware of the bombing. I exhaled. That moment in my parents' living room had taught me that life insurance isn't for you, it's for the people you leave behind.
Their travels led to my own: working as a chef on yachts in Croatia, running with the bulls in Pamplona, castle hopping in Germany and Austria, and a search for the best boat noodles in Bangkok.
The solid safety of life insurance has never lost its appeal, and it was the right choice for my parents, with a house and children.
It's not the right choice for me at the moment - I chose travel insurance over life insurance because being airlifted to the mainland from the middle of the Adriatic Ocean depletes a bank account in moments. It fits my lifestyle and helps me thrive. Life insurance is for taking care of business once you've passed.
Having kids may change those feelings. For now, I'll wait until I'm offered an exclusive in Kabul.
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