They call themselves the "Widows Club" -- four young women bound by the loss of their husbands on Sept. 11, 2001.
Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, each received an outpouring of sympathy from friends, relatives, in-laws and co-workers.
These women, however, found that they offered each other a kind of support and consolation that no one else could provide.
"Love You, Mean It" is a collection of their experiences: how the widows met their husbands, how they spent Sept. 11, and how they grieved afterward.
At once heartbreaking and inspiring, the collection is unlike any other book about 9/11.
Read an excerpt from "Love You, Mean It" below:
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable. -- HELEN KELLER
The Widows Club July 2002
It was a Tuesday in July, the second Tuesday that would change our lives forever. We'd decided to meet in a bar on Park Avenue South, not far from where we all work in midtown Manhattan. "Let's do early drinks," we said, like we were going on a date and wanted to see how things worked out before committing to dinner.
Clear blue skies over the city were deepening before sunset as we left our offices. Not too hot, no signs of storms. The kind of perfect summer evening that makes New Yorkers want to go out and do something. And everyone was going somewhere with someone that night, or so it seemed. Just because our lives had come to a standstill, it didn't mean the world stopped turning for everyone else. Happy couples were strolling arm in arm to dinner. Husbands and wives chatted over drinks in sidewalk cafés. Everywhere we turned we were faced with the reminders.
On the way to the bar, we tried our best to focus on the evening ahead and not to look back. Ten months later we were still too defeated for anything like excitement -- we knew that whether we were in some Park Avenue bar or on top of Mount Everest, this constant ache would be right there with us. But what we can say is that we were thankful we had plans that evening and that we were going to meet one another. We were all friends with Claudia by now and we'd met everyone else in the group at least once. We'd all been attracted to Claudia's determination, her refusal to let the unthinkable destroy her life forever. We sensed that we had much more in common than the obvious. And let's face it, at the end of every working day, there were so many hours left over in the evening that if we didn't arrange to meet someone -- anyone -- it would be yet another evening of go-home-and-get-under-the-covers-again and pray for the time to pass. Time seemed like an eternity.
Ann: I was the first one to arrive. I sat at the downstairs bar and ordered a drink to steady my nerves. My main worry, as I watched the door, was that I was going to be the odd one out in the group, the fish out of water. I'd met Julia and Pattie, so I knew that they were city girls, just like Claudia. And here I was, fresh from the suburbs, a mom with three kids. I hadn't lived in the city for years. My life right now revolved around juggling a full-time job and raising my children by myself, keeping my broken family together, not trawling the bars of Manhattan. I was wondering if I was going to fit in. Why was I worrying? This wasn't like me. Or was it? It was hard to remember anymore. To my relief I looked up and recognized Pattie coming toward me, glasses on and hair pulled back, dressed all in black.
Pattie: I was the next one to arrive. At that time, I was barely going through the motions, staying functional; I wasn't allowing myself to operate beyond the immediate demands of get up, get dressed, go to work, come home. I recognized the pretty woman with the blond hair at the bar right away. Claudia had introduced us briefly a few weeks ago. I'd been at a bar with work colleagues and Claudia and Ann happened to be sitting next to us having drinks. "Hi, remember me?" I said to Ann. She pulled me in, kissed me on my cheek. "Of course!" Over the past ten months it had been so difficult for me to connect with new people. But with Ann, right away we had an easy rapport and I sensed a willingness in myself to be honest and vulnerable. Apart from anything else, I felt relieved not to have to answer the question "How are you doing?" I never knew how to answer it and Ann didn't ask. That night, I was wearing black, as usual, not because I was following any traditional guidelines for mourning but because for me, the lights had gone out.
Julia: I know I was nervous about coming to meet everyone. I was so unhappy at the time that I often worried about how I would react in social situations. This had never been a problem for me before. In fact, not so long ago, I had a reputation for being the karaoke-party-throwing girl, a big personality wrapped up in a small frame, always ready to have fun. Although I was anxious on my way to the bar, at the same time there was also this underlying numbness about me, because by this stage, I'd pretty much given up trying to feel better. It was like I was waving the white flag. I'd surrendered. I was in a "nothing to lose" state of mind. I saw Ann and Pattie at the bar, took a deep breath, and made my way over.
Claudia: I was the last to get there. "I'm so happy we finally managed to get together," I said, and I meant it. All three of these women had given me so much already. They'd been there for me and let me be there for them. Any small hurdle they'd managed to overcome -- driving a familiar route alone without bursting into tears, sleeping without pills, managing to make it a day without melting down -- if they could do it, I could do it. It gave me hope. So I was pleased that they were going to get a chance to spend time together, because my instincts told me they were going to get along. I saw that the other three had ordered their cocktails of choice. A good start. "Vodka martini up, with olives," I told the bartender. This evening, like Pattie, I was wearing black, but not because I was grieving. This is New York. Everyone wears black in New York. Even if it's the height of summer. Even if you're not in mourning for your husband, killed in the World Trade Center ten months ago and still not coming home.
If you passed us on the way to the restaurant that night, or rubbed shoulders with us at the bar, you probably wouldn't have guessed that we were widows. To the bartender, we must have looked like yet another crew of girlfriends meeting for drinks after work, probably commiserating the latest terrible date, the Mr. Big who didn't call, the guy who stood us up again. We were all in our thirties. We're all successful, independent businesswomen. We looked the part. Even under the circumstances, we pulled off the charade.
But if you'd stopped and looked for another moment, you might have also seen us for what we were beyond the outfits we wore and the faces we put on each morning. We were changed. We'd almost forgotten the women we used to be before September 11. When we looked in the mirror, we tried to recall what our faces had looked like without the harshness in them. The anguish we were experiencing infiltrated every part of our beings. We were thinner than we'd been, physically thinner -- but we were also less substantial in the psychological sense. We no longer felt like we were fully ourselves. It was a dark, depressing feeling. We missed our husbands more than seemed bearable. And although it was only the middle of July, the anxiety about the first anniversary was building. The one-year mark was coming around too soon, and none of us wanted it to arrive. We would have done anything to make time stand still. The idea that we could live through a whole year without our husbands seemed impossible. There was no way all these months could have passed, every day taking us further away from his actual existence. More than anything, we didn't want to leave him behind in the past, like a memory. We wanted to hold on and never let go. In our minds we would trace his fingers, his toes, imagining a hug or his touch. Even thinking about the eleventh stirred up such an array of deep and difficult emotions, big giant waves pounding us, throwing us under the water, forcing us down so we couldn't breathe.
RIGHT FROM THE start, we always skipped the trivial stuff -- the weather, the movies -- and cut to the chase. "Does anyone have any news?" Claudia was asking. It was always her first question to the other widows. Claudia was paralyzed with fear that the police would show up to give her the news that her husband Bart's body had been identified. She had heard the stories about families being woken up in the middle of the night by a knock on the door, the policeman on the doorstep. Every morning her first thought was "I wonder if today's the day." "I promise, you would be the first to know...," exhaled Ann. "Same here," said Pattie. Both Pattie and Ann were waiting as well. Julia's husband Tommy's body had been recovered right away. Claudia went on: "Last winter, I came home from work one night and there was a police officer in the lobby of my apartment building. I assumed he was there for me. He wasn't, but that didn't matter. By the time he'd explained to me that he'd just come in to warm up from the cold, I was inconsolable." Bart's work ID and his credit cards had been recovered from Ground Zero, but not Bart. Claudia would hold her husband's Amex in the palm of her hand and wonder how the hell a sliver of plastic had managed to survive but Bart hadn't. She'd show the cards to people and they'd look like they were afraid to touch them, like they could catch being murdered.
"Either way, hearing or not hearing, it terrifies me," Claudia was saying to the others. We all lived with these thoughts each moment, replaying them over and over again. They were paralyzing, keeping us from sleeping at night and from getting out of our beds in the mornings. "I'm obsessed with the images of what happened inside that building," Claudia continued. "Did Bart try to go down the stairwell and the stairs were gone? Or instead of being stairs was there a wall of flames? Did he try to climb the stairs to the roof and it was locked? I know he would never jump, but I'm so afraid he was trapped." She told the others about a conversation she'd had with Larry, her brother-in-law, one of Bart's best friends and married to his sister, Kathleen. One day over lunch they'd been talking about Claudia's obsession with what had happened. Larry knew she needed to find some relief from these images. "He told me: 'Claudia, we have to come up with a story you can live with and stick to it.' "So that's what we did," Claudia explained. "We imagined Bart's thought process. We decided that Bart would have said to himself: 'Well, I can be rescued here on the one hundred and fifth floor -- or I can go up to the bar at Windows on the World, pour a Macallan Scotch, and the firemen can rescue me there.' Now whenever the thoughts come back to me, I say to myself, Windows on the World, Macallan, Bart..."
Julia reminded herself that, after all, she'd been one of the "lucky ones." She'd had a wake and a proper funeral for her husband a week after September 11, one of the first of the thousands of funerals and memorials that would take place over the course of the coming year. As she listened to the rest of us talking that night, she knew she wanted to share her own experience with us. That a funeral hadn't brought her any closure or acceptance. That she was just like us in so many ways. "You know, when I went to the funeral home to pick out a coffin for Tommy..." Julia stopped mid-sentence. "What am I even saying? Ten months later and I still can't believe I'm talking about a coffin for my husband. How is that possible? A funeral for Tommy? At the funeral home I started begging the -- what do you call him, the funeral director? -- to let me see the body, to let me hold his hand or something. I told him I needed to see him because I had to make sure it was Tommy. The funeral director wouldn't let me. He assured me that I needed to remember him as he was." Julia explained that, at that time, she was still convinced that Tommy was alive. She'd figured it out. The CIA must have been so impressed with Tommy's cleverness in getting out of the building, that they'd hired him on the spot. They'd told him he had to go away for a while, but he would be back in a year or two when his mission had been completed. Tommy couldn't be dead.
Julia had a body, a wake, a funeral, a tombstone, and a gravesite. She even got his wallet, cell phone, computer, and Day-Timer, all the things he had with him that day. "But you know what?" she told the rest of us. "All these months later, it hasn't stopped me thinking he's coming back. It hasn't taken away the pain. It doesn't make it any better."
Maybe we'd recognized it from our previous meetings, but at the bar, it was becoming clearer. One of the reasons we were drawn together had to do with the license we gave one another just to talk and talk without worrying about bringing others down or saying the wrong thing or making anyone uncomfortable with the degree of our unhappiness. That night, we traded stories, going back and forth. We were getting to know one another, tracing the invisible threads pulling us together, figuring out the links. We talked about our husbands, how special our time with them had been. It uplifted us to talk about our marriages. Our husbands were our best friends, our soul mates, the men we'd taken it for granted we'd grow old with. We'd had these men in our lives and now they were gone. What were we supposed to do? How were we supposed to move forward? How is it possible to be planning your future one day and the next thing you know, all that planning doesn't mean a thing? We were all asking the same questions. Had nostalgia set in? Maybe every widow thinks her husband is perfect in retrospect.It's much easier to idolize someone who's no longer around, when he's not here to make you roll your eyes when he leaves his dirty underwear on the bathroom floor, or he drives too fast, or hogs the remote control. It wasn't that we thought our husbands were perfect. We'd known they'd had their faults. It was just that we'd tried not to let the petty annoyances come between us. We'd shared a bond that made the inconsequential seem just that.
Now we would give anything to walk into the bathroom and find the seat up again. There wasn't a single day that we didn't momentarily forget and feel that he was still alive. Any accomplishment, any success, any failure, any concern -- our first instinct was to call him to let him know. We'd think, "I've got to tell him about this" and actually reach for the telephone. We would dream about running into him in the street, working ourselves up to a point where we actually believed that we were going to see him again. We'd wake up in the morning and roll over to hold him, and for that split second, we would forget that our lives were shattered. And then, the ugly reality hit us one more time. In those moments, it was like he died all over again.
Now there was no one to share life with. Even the small things, deciding what we were going to have for dinner, or what to do for the weekend -- these were the daily pleasures that had been ripped away from us. Instead, here we were, in some godforsaken bar on Park Avenue, drinking and talking and talking, still in so much pain, so far from the women we used to be. This was a club that none of us wanted to be members of. But the cocktails were doing their work, softening edges, blurring the spaces between us, drawing us closer and closer. It wasn't just that we were widows, or that our husbands had been killed in the World Trade Center. It had to do with the kind of men our husbands were and the similarities between our relationships, this chemistry that existed between us.
As we spoke about our marriages, someone pointed out -- "It's gone, but at least it was there." At least we'd had it. Someone else raised a glass. "A toast!" No one remembers who was the first to say it. It just happened, the only natural thing to say. Ever since that first meeting it's always been our toast and it always will be. Our first drink -- and believe us, there have been plenty of drinks -- is always to them. "To The Boys," we said. "To The Boys."
By now, Ann had forgotten any worries she might've had about being the odd one out. She looked around at the rest of us and could sense that we were getting swept away in this as much as she was. Ann recognized that part of the comfort of being here was that she didn't have to worry about protecting anyone's feelings.
"You know, I was taking my oldest son to camp last week," she told the women at the bar, "and all I could think about was that this was the first sleep-away camp, the first summer without his father, and I was trying so hard not to cry because I'm the one who has to be strong. But soon the tears are streaming and my son's patting my arm and saying, 'Mom, it's okay, it's going to be all right.' And I'm saying to him, 'No, no, I'm the one who's supposed to be comforting you!'"
She'd had to remain so strong, not break down completely, for the sake of her family. But in this huddle of widows at the bar, there was no one watching her, not her parents, or her in-laws, her kids, her community. Ann's feelings of missing Ward were sharper, more intense and more overwhelming than she could ever begin to describe. But right now, she didn't need to find the words. We all understood, viscerally. Ann could be exactly how she felt.
We were at the bar for two hours before we realized we'd better eat something. As we sat down in a booth, the conversation switched to the subject we were all dreading. The anniversary of the eleventh.
"So what's everyone going to do?" asked Julia. There was such overwhelming anxiety surrounding this question. Every eleventh of every month was a date to be reckoned with. We counted every day, week, and month that slipped away from us. How could it have been three months since my husband and I talked? How could it be seven months since I last saw him smile? How could it be six weeks until the one-year anniversary?
"I don't want the time to go," said Ann. "It's too soon for it to be a year." "I know," said Claudia. "It's only July and I'm already sick to my stomach." We all knew there was going to be a ceremony downtown, and we all felt the push and the pull to go. "I want to go," Pattie told the others. "After everything our husbands went through that day -- I couldn't imagine being anywhere else." We knew that Pattie was right. And if we went together, maybe somehow we could make it through the day.
Pattie picked up the wineglass in front of her, but as her hand brought the glass to her mouth for the much-needed gulp, her elbow slipped from the table edge. The full glass of wine emptied itself across the tablecloth, and all over Pattie. Ann, Claudia, and Julia were reaching for napkins. The four of us were suddenly laughing and calling to the waitress for more napkins. This, like so many other things, came under the category of "not a problem." In our former lives, we might have said "disaster." Not surprisingly, that word had a whole new connotation these days.
Claudia started digging around in her bag. She'd remembered the gifts she had brought for Ann and Julia, two small books in colored calfskin leather made by the company she worked for, Cole Haan. Pattie always carried around a little black photo album filled with pictures of her husband, Caz; Claudia had been inspired and done the same with photos of her own husband. "Here, ladies, pick a color," Claudia explained. "They're called brag books. They are supposed to be for new parents to show off pictures of their children, but Pattie and I use ours for pictures of The Boys." When we were with one another we could actually laugh about such things. Putting pictures of dead husbands instead of new babies in brag books. Saying good night to the empty urn on the bedside stand. Wondering if a person can "roll over in a grave" if they don't have one. In the moments of black humor there was connection and hope. Because if we could make one another smile that meant that we could inch ourselves up from the bottom. We'd paid for these laughs with a million tears. Someone made a toast to being able to laugh again. "I'll drink to that," we said, before remembering that Pattie had emptied the last of the wine. Perfectly on cue, the waitress appeared carrying another bottle of red. "It's on the house," she said.
That evening, A bond was forged. There were no awkward pauses between us. No one felt sorry for anyone. No one said, "It's going to be okay...." We were four women who could look into one another's eyes and recognize what we found there. And by the end of the night we'd agreed to the following: We would go to Ground Zero for the anniversary. We knew it would be incredibly hard and painful, but knowing we'd have one another to lean on made it seem possible for the first time. We wanted to go to honor our husbands, but also to honor the thousands of others who'd perished that day. Then, the following weekend, we would go away together. When Claudia suggested the trip, the rest of us agreed. We sensed that the simple fact of having something to look forward to would help give us the strength to get through the weeks ahead. Someone suggested Scottsdale, Arizona. Why not? It was as good a place as any. In the last toast of the evening, we drank again to "The Boys." And to us. "To the Widows Club."
Julia: In the cab heading home that night, I remember having a feeling of actual hopefulness, like that feeling you get after a first date when you know you want to see that person again. I knew I wanted to spend time with these women; I wanted to confide in them. They understood what I was going through and I felt safe in their company. That night, for me, was like coming up from the deep end of the swimming pool and I'd just reached the surface and could breathe again.
Pattie: Ten months later, I was barely functioning, not able to truly connect with anyone. It was as if I was always floating outside of situations. But these women gave me the sense that I didn't have to pull back into isolation; I could become involved with the people around me. It wasn't the amount of time that we'd known one another that counted -- I'd only just met Ann and Julia -- it was the experiences we'd shared already. Now I was curious to see what we might share in the future.
Ann: At the time of that first meeting, I was still reeling from grief and fear and loneliness of life without Ward. He was the one person who would give me the confidence to move forward and the self-esteem to believe that I could manage on my own. I needed his comforting and his reassurance that it would be okay. I needed him to help me, hold me, and make me feel better. But he wasn't there. Now there were these three women in my life and we were going to help one another. It was an understanding that existed between us from that first meeting. They were my new friends and we were going to try to make life a bit more bearable, somehow. It was amazing how quickly it came about, that commitment. It was like something was being sparked in all of us -- signs of life after a winter that had lasted into July.
Claudia: I could tell that everyone had more than gotten along. I knew that we were going to see one another again. I was hopeful that we would really take this trip to Scottsdale together. But even so, when each of us stepped through the front door to pitch darkness again, it hit us just the same. Our husbands were gone, murdered. And in that instant, anything good is lost. Still, every one of us can relate to the words Julia wrote in her journal that night: "This evening has been the happiest I've had since Tommy died. In a journal of bad days, this has been a good day."
Claudia, Julia, Pattie, and Ann