Ten Years Without Jeff
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.