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Last April 30, when President Obama went on TV to tell the world that Osama bin Laden was dead, he paid tribute to all the parents who died on 9/11 and all the children who have grown up without a mother or father. When he mentioned "the empty seat at the dinner table," I felt as if he was talking directly to me and my two daughters, Maggie and Charlotte. That empty seat is in our house and it belongs to my husband, Jeffrey R. Smith. Jeff worked on the 104th floor of Two World Trade Center for the investment banking firm Sandler O'Neill. He went to work on September 11, 2001, and never came home, leaving me a widow with a not-quite-3-year-old and a 10-month-old infant. I nursed Charlotte, my younger daughter, at her father's memorial service.
Like so many other Americans, I find it almost inconceivable that 10 years have passed since 9/11. The cliché "it seems like yesterday" has rarely been more apt. You would think that by now I'd have an easier time accepting that Jeff is dead. You would be wrong. I miss him every day, and every day I tiptoe around the gaping hole that his absence has left in our lives.
I mourn all that he has missed: Every one of Charlotte's birthdays. Teaching Maggie to ski (which he planned to do that December). First book, first dance recital, first bike ride without training wheels. My parents were there for most of these milestones. With each one my father would shake his head and say, "Jeff should be here."
Maggie is 12 now and Charlotte is 10. They are smart, well-rounded girls whose lives, I'm proud to say, are close to what they would have been if Jeff had lived. Our home, comfortable but chaotic, often pulsates with both loud pop music and shouting: "Mom, she took my brush!" Or "Mom! I need a ride to the game!" Or the classic "Mom! Tell her to get out of my room!" Despite the sibling squabbles, my daughters love each other a lot. They are Jeff's legacy -- "all of Daddy's love is in your heart," I tell them -- and raising them is the one job I know I've done well.
One vow I made after 9/11, and have kept, is to continue to travel with my daughters. Jeff and I wanted to see the world -- we met in 1992 while scuba diving in Turks and Caicos and spent our honeymoon aboard a dive boat on the Coral Sea -- and once we had children we were determined to include them in our adventures. The first overseas trip all four of us took was to Italy, when Charlotte was 4 months old. For our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Jeff bought tickets to coincide with the girls' napping schedule. Charlotte slept in the baby carrier and Maggie dozed in the stroller as Jeff and I sat with Botticelli's Primavera for 20 minutes. When they managed to stay asleep while we sipped wine on the museum's second-floor balcony, we toasted our success, amazed that our strategy was actually working. Six months later Jeff was dead.
I always tell Maggie and Charlotte we are fortunate people, although something extremely unfortunate happened to us. "Yes, Daddy is dead," I say, "and it's terrible and unfair, but he'd be so proud of us." Last fall, for instance, we went to Boston for a long weekend. It rained the whole drive north, all six hours of it. When we reached our hotel I was exhausted but strangely happy. I felt excited that the girls and I were going to explore a great city together and grateful the three of us could make this kind of trip. The only thing wrong with our photos from that weekend is that Jeff isn't in them.
Determined to give my daughters "normal," I have nurtured their memories by reminding Maggie how she helped her dad choose his tie in the morning and describing to Charlotte how she'd crawl to the foyer when she heard his keys jingling in the door. I've fed them a steady supply of information: Daddy's favorite football team (the University of Miami Hurricanes), his passion for Jimmy Buffett, his dislike of a cluttered dining-room table.
Like me, the girls sometimes have trouble placing these memories in context. Looking at photos, one of them will ask, "Did Daddy take this picture, or is he already dead?" or "Did Daddy ever ski with us?" Charlotte posed this question once in Vermont. Before I could answer, Maggie jumped in. "No, Charlotte," she said, "Daddy died before we could ski together."
"But he wanted to ski with you," I quickly added. "He wanted you girls to love skiing as much as he did."
In the first disorienting months after 9/11 I relied on close friends, my brother, my cousin, Jeff's brother and sister, and Jeff's parents to get me through. But I especially leaned on my parents -- a lot. When both of them died suddenly in the fall of 2004, a mere 55 days apart, I felt more alone than I ever had before.
Not long after their deaths I decided to move from one side of New York City to another. For the first time since becoming a mother I was living with our daughters in a place Jeff had never seen, sleeping in a bedroom in which he'd never slept. It was traumatic, but our new apartment was within walking distance of everything we needed -- the girls' school, a green market, the park -- and that made life easier. Maggie rode her scooter down the tree-lined streets to school. I'd push Charlotte in the stroller as I ran my errands, shopping bags hanging off the handles, dry cleaning draped over the bonnet. Our world felt safe and I thought we might live in that neighborhood forever.
But after a couple of years I began to yearn for more space, a tree to climb and a simpler way to give my athletic daughters access to sports. I had long resisted the suburbs, not just because I hated to leave the city I loved but also because, as I used to tell my cousin, "I don't want to be the widow at the end of the block." But now suburbia was calling, and soon I was packing again.
In our new town the first conversations I had with other parents were often difficult. Innocently, someone would ask, "Is your husband here tonight?" I'd reply, "He was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center," and the conversation would screech to a halt. Because the other person was usually shocked and unsure what to say, I'd rush to apologize, to rescue the conversation. The only way to do that was to soldier on and say something about how it's okay, really, he's been dead nearly six years now. Or seven. Or eight. I'd smile and change the subject because if I didn't, the other person might feel sorry for me and that's the last thing I wanted.
As more time passed I sometimes wondered if the parents of my kids' friends assume I'm divorced. I'm clearly raising my daughters alone and there's no wedding ring on my left hand (I wear it on my right hand but it's easy to overlook). Still, I was taken aback when another mom recently asked me how long I'd been divorced. Oddly enough, she was the first person to put that question to me outright.
"I'm not divorced," I told her. "Jeff was killed in the World Trade Center."
Wham! She doubled over, fighting tears. "Oh, no, Ellen, I am so sorry." I started to cry, too, and we hugged each other for a moment. She asked, "How have you managed?" to which I could only muster a weak smile. As she wiped away her tears she repeated, "I am so very sorry."
"It's okay," I reassured her, "you didn't know, and I wasn't sure how to tell you. It's okay."
After she left I put my head down on the dining-room table and sobbed. It's not okay at all.
My girls have had their own challenges. Occasionally they have been teased by other children who don't realize that a father's death is not the same as a pet's death, or that knocking down wooden block buildings and yelling "Look, the Twin Towers!" over and over again isn't funny to an 8-year-old whose father died in those buildings. "Walk away, honey," I advised Charlotte when she was in second grade. "They don't get it. They just don't understand about death."
Last fall Maggie and Charlotte switched schools; once again they were "the new kids." I told the new principal and their teachers about Jeff and on September 11 the girls brought in a few items to share with their homerooms: a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, the book of "portraits of grief" published by The New York Times and a few photographs of their father. Later Charlotte told me, "I slumped down in my chair trying to hide, but I knew I couldn't. Everybody in class was watching me." But the other kids listened to what she said, so she felt better afterward. The sixth graders in Maggie's class, who knew more about September 11 than Charlotte's classmates, listened to her respectfully, too. Still, after school, both girls told me they were relieved the day was over.
From time to time I imagine what it would be like to get married again. Last winter Maggie, Charlotte and I went to a get-together at an indoor water park sponsored by Tuesday's Children, an organization dedicated to helping 9/11 family members. I like these outings: My daughters can play with the children while I compare notes with the moms, women with whom I share an unshakable bond.
That weekend I reconnected with some women I'd met a few years ago and was astonished at how many of them have remarried. I kept wondering, How did they find time to date? Several told me they could never have gotten their new love affairs off the ground without their mothers' help. Hearing this, of course, was another knife to my heart. I miss my mom and dad almost as much as I miss Jeff.
I thought about these women all the way home. I could see how happy they were. I've gone on a few half-hearted dates in the last few years, but I haven't fallen in love again. Perhaps I'm denying myself, but I've had a lot to do over the past decade. In addition to grappling with the loss of my husband and parents, I've moved twice and have had to single-handedly raise two young daughters to become thoughtful, caring and intelligent people.
Right after Jeff died I was advised by a dear friend, a man who'd lived through a tragedy of his own, to figure out who I was going to be and how I would get there now that the train I was on had been derailed. I had to start anew, he said, and I had to do it myself. I couldn't allow the tragedy to turn me bitter, because Jeff hadn't married a bitter person.
It has taken me a while to get back to being the independent woman I was before Jeff was killed. A year and a half ago I resumed my career as an academic, joining the classics and humanities department of a nearby state university, where I teach Greek mythology to undergraduates. It's my second career, one I'd begun two years before 9/11 and was forced to abandon. Becoming a professor is probably the biggest step I've taken solely for me.
On that Sunday night last spring, as I struggled to absorb the president's words, I found nothing to celebrate. But I did feel a renewed determination to triumph in the face of evil. In the morning I woke Maggie and Charlotte with the news that bin Laden was dead. Like me, they were glad he had finally been caught but by breakfast felt sad and tearful, missing their dad all over again. We watched the president's speech as we ate, and then the girls went to school. I spent the morning grading papers and thinking about Jeff, my forever-36-year-old husband, who wouldn't be coming home for dinner.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2011.