A Year Without Jeff
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A Year Without Jeff

I began keeping a journal on September 11, at around 10:30 a.m. I was writing to my husband, Jeffrey R. Smith, 36, an equity research analyst for the investment banking firm Sandler O'Neill and Partners, on the 104th floor of 2 World Trade Center.

After I spoke by phone with Jeff the second time that morning, at about 9 a.m., I turned on the TV at his suggestion. I dropped to my knees and cried out loud when I saw his tower get hit. I turned off the TV and began to pray and pace until a friend came over to take our daughters -- Margaret, now 3, and Charlotte, 22 months -- for a walk. That's when I started writing.

I could at that moment only focus on my husband, the man I'd met while scuba diving in the Caribbean in 1992. Although he lived in Florida at the time and I in New York City, we stayed in touch. When Jeff came to New York on business in May 1995, we had dinner. We planned a dive vacation together for the next month, and we saw each other every other weekend after that trip. We traveled to France the following October, and in April, Jeff moved into my apartment. We were married on April 5, 1997.

And now I was writing ... trying to hold on to our life together. Trying to hold on. Re-reading passages from my journal, I can see that I have journeyed through months of disbelief, struggling to accept what happened to my family.

September 11, 2001. Jeff -- you are everything to me. I am praying for you ... the girls need you. They love you. I am looking at all our pictures. Pictures of you and me scuba diving, pictures of the four of us on vacation in the Garfagnana Mountains [in Italy]. Oh, Jeff, we have such living to do. Please honey, be okay. Please.

September 13, 2001. My parents have come to stay with us at our apartment on Manhattan's east side. Jeff's parents have been phoning constantly to see how we're all doing. His brother, Jerry, and his wife were out all night again looking for Jeff. They put up posters, called hospitals, and walked and walked. They said it's a ghost town out there -- New York City has halted. I do not leave the apartment. I want to be here when Jeff calls.

Coming to Terms

September 24, 2001. Unbelievable as it seems -- although I've now told Margaret otherwise -- I keep thinking Jeff is alive, creating scenarios to explain why he hasn't called (perhaps he's unconscious and on a hospital gurney somewhere).

September 30, 2001. I cannot say that I have confronted the reality that Jeff is dead, but today was his memorial service. There was a receiving line, and I felt in some way as if I was at our wedding. I can barely remember the service now, but it went as I planned it. I'm told it was beautiful. I wouldn't know.

October 17, 2001. I'm overwhelmed just trying to get through each day. My cousin asked a friend in the apartment complex to organize a food bank, and she did. Many people -- friends and strangers -- have prepared meals for us. I feel a little awkward about accepting help, but I am deeply touched by all the kindness.

November 20, 2001. It's Charlotte's first birthday. I'm crying for Jeff, who's never celebrated a birthday with his littlest girl, and for Charlotte because she'll never really know her daddy. Margaret and I made her a birthday cake. I rallied and managed to videotape the girls and me eating it. Margaret put her arm around her sister and said, "Mommy is crying because Daddy died, Charlotte." Margaret's birthday, on the 13th, was equally difficult; maybe more so because she talked about how her father might be eating some birthday cake in heaven.

December 12, 2001. I asked our friend to stop the food bank, even though she says people are still willing to cook. It's been such a help not to have to worry about meals. I think I need to take on an assignment [as a freelance writer/researcher]; a distraction would be good for me. Certainly it would give me something to do other than writing letters to insurance companies and lawyers that begin, "Enclosed please find my husband's death certificate...."

The Holidays

December 23, 2001. The holiday season is interminable; it's almost intolerable. Being an interfaith family means more celebrating -- and more memories.

December 24, 2001. Tonight the girls and I hung up our stockings, and I cried when I came upon Jeff's -- the one I made him when we were first dating. Margaret wanted to hang it next to hers, so that's what we did.

January 20, 2002. Little things trip me up. On the playground today, I overheard one mother telling another how they had finalized their vacation plans. I had to walk away. Jeff and I loved to travel, and each year we went on several family vacations, including our yearly European trip, with the girls in tow. Now I can't open the travel section of The New York Times; I recycle it immediately.

February 12, 2002. If someone asks me how I'm doing, I say I'm enduring. I feed and clothe and bathe and love our daughters. I gather great joy from our girls, and their love helps me to go on.

March 11, 2002. I watched the TV special 9-11 on the World Trade Center destruction. I hadn't planned to -- just to tape it. And I was stunned! I did not have the TV on September 11 -- except for that one horrifying moment.... Jeff's employer keeps me up to date on what I need to do -- there's an immense amount of paperwork that has to be processed when one's spouse dies. I am not in a support group, but I now have a weekly appointment with a therapist.

How to Endure

March 18, 2002. It's been a year since we were in Italy, Jeff. Memories of our trip roll constantly in my mind. How I wish I could freeze time and have it stop when we were there!

April 4, 2002. It's my birthday. You would have sent me roses, Jeff, and when you came home from work you would have given me daffodils. Remember the daffodil field we found when we were hiking in Cornwall [England]? ... Tomorrow will be our wedding anniversary, and soon it will be Jeff's birthday -- happy back-to-back events and now days fraught with emotional highs and lows.

April 5, 2002. Well, honey, it's our anniversary. I've been watching the clock all day, thinking about our wedding. I remember how you looked at me when I walked down the aisle. How happy we were in that one moment in time!

April 19, 2002. Today is Jeff's birthday. In my mind, he is forever 36 years old -- forever poised to accomplish great things in his career, forever the father of my two very young daughters.

May 15, 2002. I think Margaret has absorbed what happened to her father; she's a bright child, and I have always told her the truth. Tonight she heard the jingle of our neighbor's keys and he unlocked his apartment door. She turned to me and said when she hears keys jingling she thinks it's Daddy. "Charlotte thinks so, too," she said, "but I tell her that Daddy doesn't come home anymore, because he's in heaven."

June 2, 2002. I have been reading about what the FBI and CIA knew about Al Qaeda. I am angry with the government and angry with the security agents at Logan Airport, too. And all those people who slipped up still get to go home to their families for dinner each night, every last one of them.

June 30, 2002. Time is passing. I am going forward without Jeff. It's difficult to grasp, and it's difficult to live. I'm not sure how I am going to react to all the activity that will surround the one-year anniversary of September 11. I imagine I will talk to the girls about what the day means; I'm sure I will cry ... and yet I am alive. I hear Jeff's voice -- "Life is for the living, Ellen" -- and I know I must live and love and enjoy every minute with our girls. I won't allow their father's death to damage their precious psyches. I remain inflexible on this point; perhaps this is how I've endured. I realize now I cannot clone my life with my husband, and this is bitterly painful. Because that's really all I want: to have Jeff back, to have the life we lived and loved and planned for together back.