JUST when you would think Peggy Say would be having dark, hopeless thoughts, when the burden of lapsed time would finally overwhelm her, she is ``upbeat,'' in her word. Tomorrow she will mark her brother Terry Anderson's six years as a hostage of Shiite fundamentalists in Lebanon, but her voice is matter of fact, even confident about his imminent release, as she sees it. Speaking one week before Mr. Anderson's anniversary in captivity, she says of the mood among the hostage families: ``There's a ... wary but solid optimism that there is no way - if we're going to get on with peace conferences and reconciliation and rapprochement [in the Middle East] - it has to begin with the release of the six Americans and the other hostages.''
President Bush, she says, ``can't go to war for the freedom of the Kuwaiti people and not take a very strong stand on six Americans that are still living in basements. I just don't think it'll play in Peoria, you know.''
``We believe,'' she says at another point in an early morning telephone interview from her Washington hotel room, ``that we are on the way out, that this is on the way to being resolved.''
She is in Washington to organize today's ``Tribute to Courage,'' a ceremony marking Anderson's anniversary and the enduring captivity of 13 other hostages (see story below). Ms. Say has come to Washington ``hundreds'' of times over the past six years to consult and confront US officials and to seek the help of foreign diplomats. But today, convinced that international efforts are underway to free the hostages, Say says she is making the rounds to invite people to the ceremony.
She's also about to begin promoting her book on the last six years, ``Forgotten: A Sister's Struggle To Save Terry Anderson, America's Longest-Held Hostage'' (Simon & Schuster, pp. 318, $22.95).
Anderson, the chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press, was kidnapped by members of an Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalist group called Hizbollah. Most of the hostages in Lebanon are believed to be under their control.
Say's optimism isn't naive. The Gulf war has had dramatic impact on the hostage situation: Hizbollah had demanded the release of 17 Shiite prisoners in Kuwait in exchange for the release of the Beirut hostages; the Shiite prisoners were freed after the Iraqi invasion. The war has also led to new and improved relations between the US and Syria, which now controls Beirut, and between the US and Iran, which has always had some influence over the kidnappers.
Tomorrow's event, Say reports, is ``the last ceremony.'' The families think they can see the end. Changes on the homefront encourage them too. They were mightily cheered last week when Mr. Bush, in his post-war speech to Congress, said he had asked Secretary of State James Baker III ``to raise the plight of the hostages held in Lebanon. We have not forgotten them. We will not forget them.'' Mr. Baker has been touring the Middle East this week, and was scheduled to meet with Syrian President Hafez al-Ass ad yesterday.
Say sees a renewed awareness of the hostages cropping up among Americans in the wake of the Gulf war. Say and other family members are also seeing more about the hostages in the news media. The Wall Street Journal last week printed an editorial called ``Next, Terry Anderson.''
``Wasn't that wonderful,'' Say exclaims. ``I mean it just gave me goosepimples.''
Of course her struggle over the last six years hasn't been accompanied by such satisfaction. Her memoir, for example, details the despair the families felt after the US hostages from TWA Flight 847 came out of the Middle East in mid-1985 without the seven US citizens then held in Beirut. Say argues that the seven were part of the same negotiations, but that then-US President Ronald Reagan feared time-consuming complications and settled for the 40 who had been on the TWA flight. ``Reagan wanted the camer as turned off the TWA hijacking immediately,'' she writes.
Say has had her moments of triumph. She describes how she built up the moxie to canvass the lobby of the Damascus Sheraton, a daily haven for influential Syrians and Palestinians. To each she would hand a photo of Anderson, and say: ``My name is Peggy Say and I'm here trying to get information about my brother, the hostage Terry Anderson....''
But anger and frustration are never far off in her story. The aftermath of the Iran-contra affair was particularly debilitating to the hostage families. After US officials took such extreme measures to win release of some of the hostages - including selling arms to Iran - the embarrassment caused by the exposure of the operation resulted in a ``devaluing'' of those not freed, Say asserts in the book.
The idea was to convince the captors that the hostages had no value to the US government, but Say didn't buy what she says was the new policy. ``The only conclusion I could draw ... was that they were blaming [the families] for Iran-contra; we had driven poor Ronald Reagan to his desperate deeds.''
The difficulties of the past six years make her unwilling to let herself be surprised this time: a hard-edged tinge of fear pokes through her well-reasoned optimism even in a telephone interview. ``Part of me is certain that it's going to happen and part of me is frightened that we might slip through the cracks again.''