Ten Years Without Jeff
Triumph Over Evil
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.