9/11 widow: What I’ve learned

by Alissa Torres
September 7th, 2011



1. The best help can be the simplest gesture

As I walked around the neighborhood in the days after 9/11, I was aware of each moment as it dragged, overwhelmed by the heavy knowledge that my husband, Eddie, was dead, killed in the towers on his first day of work at Cantor Fitzgerald. I didn’t know how I’d ever be free of this intense pain, how I’d ever be OK again.

Then Carla Fine came up to me. We were neighbors who both had dogs, who gave each other casual hellos in the street. She used to sit on her stoop and I always thought she seemed mysterious — sometimes content, sometimes troubled. I often wondered what she was thinking. What I didn’t realize was that her husband committed suicide, which she wrote a book about, “No Time to Say Goodbye.” Her loss, like mine, was sudden, violent, traumatic.

I thought to myself, “Wow, she can breathe, talk and function. She’s gone on to have new loving relationships.”

In the decade that followed, I was the recipient of many, many acts of kindness and generosity, but this may have been the most powerful: Just seeing Carla standing in front of me, someone who got through, gave me a sense of hope that I might do the same.

2. I need a dog (or two)

My old schnauzer, Boris, kept me up and about after 9/11. His walks gave a rhythm to long, dark days, forcing me to take my depression outside on the street, instead of lying comatose in bed. Fiercely territorial, he kept the house an oasis of privacy. The Red Cross had to do its “home interview” with me in a park, with Boris on my lap, comforting me while I submitted to its unkind bureaucracy.

I was pregnant with our first child when Eddie died, and by the time Josh was born, Boris was no longer helpful. I hated waking up to the sound of him scratching the door to go out. It was a reminder of the sadness and difficulties of my new life. If only Eddie were still alive, he could have gotten up while I stayed in bed. At 15, Boris started having grand mal seizures, and he became frail and needy, not quite his former self. I felt guilty as I thought of how much better, easier and affordable life would be without him.

Then Boris did die. On Christmas Eve, 2005, I came home from the vet with a leash but no dog. The days that followed were bad and continued to feel worse. I had no dog to walk, but I needed to walk one.

I adopted a spaniel shepherd mix, a Hurricane Katrina rescue named Lula. She was wild and almost out of control on the street. I thought of us as “Team Trauma” when we were both mean and disheveled, or as the “Super Survivor Sisters” when we both behaved and looked nice. Then two years ago, I got Josh a fluffy cockapoo rescue named Momo who to this day expresses his enthusiasm for life and his love of everyone by peeing. I wanted to return him immediately, because he brought back the panic of those helpless days alone with an infant and an ailing dog. But I was now sturdy, with a sturdy young boy beside me. Life had changed.

3. When the going gets tough, I look for a pen

I wrote in journals. I wrote articles for Salon, six in my first year of widowhood. I wrote my graphic memoir, “American Widow” (art by Sungyoon Choi, Villard 2008). Writing for me has never been cathartic, because loss is permanent, and my grief cuts deep. Instead, it became a way to transform how 9/11 impacted my life. I felt less like a helpless victim of 9/11 — someone violently acted upon and later exploited by the media, a mute and powerless player in a tragedy. Through the creative process I became a subject with a voice, someone who gets to control how her story is told, even if she couldn’t control what happened to her.

4. Single moms get mistreated

In December 2002, we moved to Hoboken, N.J. I needed to escape New York City, my local fame as a 9/11 widow, and the expense of it all. Our new home was a rental in a cute brownstone on a cute street.

The couple upstairs greeted us as we moved in: “So where’s the rest of you?”

“This is it,” I said with a smile. Following an uncomfortable silence, they ended the conversation.

I didn’t hear from them again until a few weeks later, when they left a note taped to our door. Josh was teething at the time, and they complained about him crying in the night. Could I please do something about it?

My gut feeling was that if Eddie had been with me, this would have been a “grin and bear it” situation. But as a single mom, I was somehow less entitled to have a baby who cried. When I asked the landlord to provide some additional soundproofing as a remedy, he instead questioned my parenting skills, stating: “My kids never cried.”

The neighbors grew frustrated. As I woke up in the nights to tend to Josh, they woke up in the nights and pounded on the floor. Whenever Josh cried, day or night, I would cringe and shake.

I knew a 9/11 widow who confided that she identified herself as a “widowed mom,” because if she called herself a “single mom” people would think she was a “stupid bitch who didn’t know how to take birth control pills.” I now knew what she meant. I’d been naive to believe that everyone would be kind to a woman alone with a young child, regardless of her circumstances. Instead I often saw contempt and disapproval in their eyes.

One night as Josh began to howl, the neighbors took their anger to a new level. The entire room shook with their meanness. Did someone jump off a bed to do that?

It scared me into a response. The next day I sent them certified return receipt mail: If they ever bothered us again it would be a police matter. I sent the landlord a similar letter reminding him of his obligation under our lease to provide us with a safe home. I let them all know I was an attorney, and I told them I was a 9/11 widow. Afterward, it stayed quiet upstairs. I tried my best to comfort and quiet Josh whenever he made noise in the night, and soon after, he stopped teething.

I did not tell them my back story to evoke their pity. I did it to assert my power. I only wish other women struggling to raise a child alone had such a trump card.

5. When the media knocks, say thanks but no thanks

Because of the popularity and visibility of my 9/11 stories, I receive inquiries every year from international media looking to include me in their “relive the day/how have you moved on?” pieces.

Despite the diversity of these queries, they all fantasize about getting the same ideal story: I would talk to them candidly with just the right mix of trauma and resilience. I would invite them to talk to Josh.

“How does it feel to grow up without a dad?” they would ask, to which he would shrug uncomfortably, because what can he say? (This question reminds me of the time I heard a BBC journalist ask a young woman who’d been a captive at the Beslan school, “How did it feel when they were shooting at you after you knew they had killed your mother?”)

They would give Josh some art supplies and he would draw a picture for them, one with the towers hit by a plane and his dad on a cloud looking down at him from heaven. “Nice job, Josh!” they’d say, and then as if it were a casual afterthought, they’d offer: “We’d love to include this in our piece.” They would snap our photo of noble suffering, and leave.

Over the years, I have wondered what these stories tell us about our embattled, sad community, aside from which people can stomach all the media attention. I suspect most families would rather stay out of the limelight, still choked on their grief, especially when all the rest of the world wants is an inspiring little sound bite. And I have found that I feel more comfortable there, too. When the journalists call now, I don’t respond.

As the 9/11 media deluge arrives on the 10-year anniversary, I wonder how much the public truly wants and needs this. And if they do — then why? Maybe it’s my cynical side, but sometimes I think we’re like a scary amusement park ride people want to experience for a few moments each year. They want to stand in our shoes, scream and cry, then take a sigh of relief when it’s over because they’re still not us.

Then on Sept. 12, the rest of the world will go on with their day. And we’ll continue to grieve as we’ve been doing all along, no longer of interest to anyone but ourselves.

6. If the government won’t help cancer-stricken 9/11 survivors, recovery and rescue workers — it will not help you

Teary-eyed talk will well up on the anniversary of 9/11. All those politicians, some donning FDNY or NYPD T-shirts, will cry for the martyred victims, pay respects to the victim families, and invoke the heroes of 9/11, hoping no one will remember how they voted against H.R.1638, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, once or maybe twice. Check your representatives’ votes here.

Our government could have helped sooner, but it didn’t. It should have helped heroic firefighters and policemen and EMS workers and other survivors with cancer, but it won’t. The irony is that the social services, safety nets and government entitlement programs that were proven to work in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 are now in danger of being undermined in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

You should be mad. And scared.

7. Government handouts are never free

The disaster relief I received was begrudgingly given. When I applied, I was considered a fraud until I rigorously proved otherwise.

FEMA and the American Red Cross (which is not a charity but a quasi-government organization funded by charitable donations) strive to make those eligible “whole,” but not a cent more than that. Never mind that disasters are messy, and no one can ever be made whole no matter how much money comes their way. These organizations would rather keep all those pennies and create costly, complex and just plain mean structures to scrutinize all the recipients before paying out. (Or in FEMA’s case, demand the money back because they made a mistake.) Over the years, I’ve watched them bungle their way through disaster again and again. There’s nothing quite like being traumatized by those employed to relieve your trauma.

8. Dying in 9/11 is tragic — but then again, so was surviving it

This past winter I came in contact with a woman whose husband escaped the World Trade Center area covered in dust. He has spent the past decade with severe mental and physical health problems that started immediately after 9/11. It was through this contact that I first glimpsed an alternative reality much different from the one I had long imagined: All these years I dreamed of Eddie coming home — but what if staying alive had been more difficult than dying?

Losing my husband that day was the worst thing that ever happened to me. The pain was unfathomable. But everywhere I go, I see unsmiling people. I don’t know their stories but I’m always curious what made their lives so painful. And 10 years later, I wonder if I would really trade their sorrows for mine.

9. We shouldn’t need a holiday to take responsibility for each other and the planet

The 9/11 Day of Service is a lovely idea to honor those who served or died with voluntary acts. But what will we all do with the rest of the year?

10. There will always be someone somewhere talking about 9/11

In late April 2011, I visited my favorite Central Park cherry blossoms. Ever since I discovered this grove a few years ago, I go each spring.

The grove forms a canopy over a path three city blocks long. At its big blooming climax, the boughs are full of ecstatic pink and green bouquets. Then its decline is just as beautiful: The wind shakes the pink out of the trees, carpeting the grounds until the very end. Every year I fantasize about romantic kisses that sometimes materialize and that would again materialize — better than ever — in the coming weeks. Joy, lust and love were easy under the boughs.

On that April day, I approached the trees with the anticipation of a child about to receive the best present ever. But the buds were still tight little fists on the branches, this year’s potential and promise not yet ready to be revealed. Instead of the flowers I found a woman with her two dogs also inspecting the trees for signs of magic. As our dogs mixed it up, we chatted about the beauty of the trees, the specialness of the place, and the camaraderie shared there. We agreed about it all until she said:

“Just like after 9/11.”

I wanted to yank my dogs away and leave her standing there confused. I wanted to yell at her, teach her a good lesson. I wanted to tell her in graphic detail how my post-9/11 had nothing to do with these trees. And in telling her these details, I wanted her to remember me every time she came back to the trees, to sully her future pleasure there just like she’d sullied mine.

These desires, knotted with self-righteous anger and that familiar sadness, caused me to do what I always did in these situations: nothing.

A week later, I returned to the trees in full bloom, the incident with the woman but a wisp of a memory, a misshapen petal among so many perfect ones. The trees stood full, open-armed, welcoming me into the grove.

Alissa Torres lives in New York City with her family. Her graphic novel memoir, “American Widow,” was published by Villard. More: Alissa Torres
Filed in: Voices of Peaceful Tomorrows

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