Chapter 3 continued…

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No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family and the FDNY

Chapter 3  Manhattan, Meetings and Memorials (first draft)

 

Through the years, one of the discussions Bruce and I had was about funerals especially in light of being a Christian and the possibility of a line of duty death. We both agreed that if we truly believed what we said we believed then when one of us died it better be different. If we believed in eternal life than our life and death should reflect that belief. We disagreed on line of duty funerals. I felt the presence of the city officials and all of pomp and circumstance really had nothing to do with the deceased and/or their family. I felt it was impersonal and intrusive. Once after a rather heated discussion on that matter I had told Bruce “I don’t want the mayor at your funeral. He doesn’t even know you.”

Bruce responded, “That’s your problem because I won’t be there. I’ll be dead.”

In the past week or so, I experienced the power and strength of the “brotherhood” and even though I didn’t understand it I wanted to respect it. I wanted to do what Bruce as a firefighter would have wanted but I also wanted to do what was right for our family. My pastor, family and friends all had input about the service but the main voice I listened to was my own, Emily’s and Meghan’s. We decided a Saturday would be best – Saturday September 29. The location won’t be our home church as I didn’t want the girls remembering Daddy’s service every Sunday. Maranatha Church of the Nazarene in Paramus, New Jersey was more centrally located. Bruce and I were married at Maranatha when it was in New Milford before the move to the bigger location. Emily was the first baby dedicated in the new building so Maranatha offered a sense of home without being our home church.

People were resuming their normal lives. We were slowly putting one foot in front of the other. Still living in the immediate – what needs to be accomplished today. Most days Emily and Meghan went to school. My home church set up a schedule for meals and an information source on the church website. Carol organized postponing the start of classes at the studio. I contacted the YWCA Childcare Center and Wyckoff Christian Preschool, where I also taught, to postpone starting until the first week of October. Christine and I tried to figure out what needed to be done for the service and life in general.

Squad 41 was calling twice a day. Firefighters were still arriving on my doorstep. One afternoon the Captain from Squad 41 and a few of the firefighters came to the house. We all set round the kitchen table, drank coffee and they offered the assurance that they were doing their best to find “the guys.” Two firefighter friends, both named Jim, came one evening and shared stories which brought laughter from my girls. A welcomed sound.

Pastor Steve suggested a worship folder for the Memorial service that would include the order of service, Bruce’s obituary, photos and messages from the girls and I to Bruce. We wanted the service to celebrate Bruce’s life and bring glory to God. We carefully choose the songs and readings. The girls and I discussed who we would like to participate.  Bruce’s mom pastor was invited to participate as well as other pastors and friends. Mom Van Hine supplied some childhood photos. We sorted through albums and boxes to find photos to tell Bruce’s life story not only as a firefighter but as a hiker, tree guy and most importantly as a son, brother, husband, father and friend.

Instead of a guest book for people to register their attendance, we included a printed postcard with our address on one side and a place to share a memory or thought on the other. A basket to leave the postcards in is a good idea. What am I going to wear? What are the girls going to wear? Should we have a bag piper? What about a reception afterwards?  Cheesecake and coffee? Do I really have to do this?

a bit of Chapter 3 – No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family and the FDNY.

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Chapter 3

Manhattan, Meetings and Memorials –  first draft (unedited)

Tuesday September 18 was the first time I ventured into the city since the attacks.  Squad 41 notified me of a FDNY meeting and their offer to pick me up and take me to one of the various gathering spots from where I would be moved to the actual meeting. It was all quite mysterious. I supposed the intention was two-fold – one keep the media away and to protect the identity and privacy of the family members. I decided that we would get ourselves into the city. Manhattan had been my stomping grounds during my teens and twenties. In recent years trips into the city were for Christmas decoration viewing or museum trips with my girls. I didn’t see the need for a FDNY escort so Tony, Carol’s husband, drove me, Christine and Emily in. Meghan stayed at “Auntie” Carol’s house.

As much as I didn’t feel I needed a FDNY escort, I felt the need to represent my firefighter husband in an honoring way. I carefully choose my attire to show respect for the importance of a meeting that would be attended by the governor, mayor and other city officials. I was shocked when we arrived and there were people wearing t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.

The drive into the city was surreal. Men in full military garb with the biggest guns I had ever seen were guarding the George Washington Bridge. I felt like I had been transported to another country.  We don’t have military on our bridges. This is the United States of America.  Looking at the skyline, I had no idea where the towers had stood. They were south of the Empire State Building but where?

Christine commented “I thought I would know where they had been. Like there would be a cardboard cut-out or something?”

We chose the Fire Zone at Rockefeller Center as our meeting spot. We were met by concerned faces, offered cups of water, cookies, restrooms and assurances the buses would be arrive shortly. Plain clothes police or security or whomever directed us to the buses as they received instructions in their earpieces and spoke into their sleeves.

As we crossed the closed off street, Emily said “Mom, I think we are in a bad movie.”

“Me, too.”

Boarding the bus, I saw faces with the same dazed look I am sure my face had. Most people had family or friends with them, my heart was deeply saddened at the sight of a young man who was all alone. Is he representing his dad? He is too young to have to be the man of the family.

The bus drove a few blocks to a large hotel where we were directed to a ballroom. We found four seats at a table and introduced ourselves. The one young woman was the fiancé of a firefighter. The other three people were the wife and grown children of an FDNY officer.

I glanced around the room to see if I knew anyone. Since my interactions with the other wives from Squad 41 was only at the yearly Christmas party and annual dinner dance, I didn’t think I would recognize anyone. Over the past few days, I had spoken to one of the other Squad 41 wives whose husband was also listed as missing.  I had promised her if/when the time came to declare them dead I would take that first step. I would take the lead.

Mayor Giuliana, Governor Pataki, Chief Thomas Von Essen from the FDNY and the Medical Examiner spoke. The purpose of the meeting was to inform us that the mission was going from rescue to recovery. They had found no one alive in days so it was time to change the focus. The heavy equipment was going to be brought in to move the debris. There was discussion about DNA samples and opportunity to give DNA before you left. In the years since that meeting, some FDNY widows have come to call it “the leave your DNA at the door meeting.” The formal meeting part was followed by a question and answer time during which time many people myself included wandered around looking for familiar faces.

I eventually saw the other wives from Squad 41. I didn’t really know these women as personal friends. Our husbands worked together but I didn’t know them. So here we were navigating this terrible event together but not together. I remember hugs, brief conversations and the promise to pray for each other. At one point, I said “why don’t we pray right now.” Did I just say that out loud?

I found Tony while the other wives gathered their families. The scene is so vivid in my mind. I’m standing in this large ballroom, the noise level was high, there were people all around, the commissioner of the FDNY was onstage answering someone’s question and we are holding hands in a circle. And for a moment the other voices in the room fade away and there was only this circle of people and Tony’s voice offering a prayer of hope. More hugs and promises to stay in touch.

The next morning, I informed Christine that it was time to have a memorial service. It was time to pronounce Bruce dead. I decided that there were three groups of people that I needed to know were okay with the idea before I made plans – my daughters, my mother-in-law and the Squad 41 firefighters. In a phone conversation with my sister-in-law, I realized my mother-in-law had scheduled a meeting with her lawyer to change her will. I took that as a sign that she assumed Bruce was dead. I mentioned to Charlie that I wanted to have a memorial service. He assured me that it is up to me when and where but that the fire department hadn’t given up hope of finding the guys.

That evening, Christine and I sat on the living room floor with Emily and Meghan.

“Where do you think Daddy is right now?”

“Heaven.”

“Then it is time we plan a memorial service.”

“But what if we are wrong? What if they find Daddy?”

“I would like nothing better than for Daddy to walk into his own service. I don’t          have to be right, but it is time.”

a little more from Chapter 2 – Sunday – No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family & the FDNY

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Chapter 2 (first draft)

Joy comes in the morning

By Sunday my house was full of people with the best of intentions but it was too much. My friend and pastor, Steve Shomo, stepped in and suggested daily guidelines – Ann doesn’t answer the door or phone, Ann takes a nap every day, Ann eats three meals a day. The time for circling the wagons had come. My baby sister became my protector.  If you wanted to talk to me you would have to get past her unless you were on the list. Yes, there was a pen and paper list of people. Originally the list was people who needed to be contacted and people who I needed to hear from for encouragement. On Sunday, the list became a list of who had access to me.

Within days the list grew into a spiral notebook full of tasks to complete, contact information for the FDNY and NYPD as well as quick resource of numbers for friends and family. I started printing emails and placing them in a three-ring binder so Bruce could see them when he came home. One of those emails was from a young man who had spent the night in our pop-up trailer. Some people bring home stray cats or dogs but Bruce brought home hikers. Appalachian Trail thru hikers to be specific. The Appalachian Trial runs through Greenwood Lake so in the summer time there were hikers invited to sleep in our yard or take a shower or both. Bruce enjoyed hiking and he wanted me to enjoy it too but it wasn’t my thing. I did play a role in his hiking ventures. I was the drop off or pick up person. On ocassion the pick up involved an extra passenger who became a guest for the evening.

On Father’s Day 2001, Bruce invited two young men to spend the night in our pop-up trailer, enjoy a hot shower and a home cooked meal. We were in the process of selling the pop-up so it was already set up in our driveway. In our conversation over dinner we learned that the one young man, David, was a doctoral candidate who was trying to finish the AT before beginning his studies and the other was his cousin who had agreed to accompany him for a portion of the journey. The dinner conversation would also reveal that we were reading the same book – The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkerson. A tiny little book that had caused a big stir in Christian circles. Interesting discussion followed. Bruce prayed for safe journey as they continued their hike and David prayed for us. After dinner that evening, television news reports would reveal a horrific fire in NYC in which three firefighters died in the line of duty.

Bruce attended the funeral of one of the firefighters on the Tuesday which was also Meghan’s eighth grade graduation. He was running late and called to see if Meghan was okay with him wearing his uniform to her graduation. Little did we know how precious the photos of Bruce in his uniform and Meghan in her cap and gown would become. The receipt of a simple email brought all those memories to mind.

Another excerpt from Chapter 2 – Friday No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family & the FDNY

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Chapter 2

Joy Comes in the Morning (first draft)

Friday would be the first time I ventured out. I commented to friends I had spent more time at home in the last few days than in months. Christine drove Emily and Meghan to school on Thursday (it was their choice to go) but I decided to drive them on Friday. I needed to do something normal and to get out of the house.

On the way home, I went  to CVS.  That was a weird experience. My ability to remember what I needed and where items were located in the store was definitely impaired. There was the sense of being in a bubble – separate from my surroundings, almost invisible but completely exposed at the same time. How can these people be being going about their lives like everything is normal?  I felt there was a big flashing sign on my head. Can they tell I am barely holding it together?

I also stopped by my local library. The librarian had a confused look on her face as she looked up from the desk.

“What are you doing here?”

“My library book is due!”

“Oh, how are you doing?”

“I’m doing!”

“I’m doing” became my pat response to “how are you doing?” I was doing something like returning my book to the library but as far as how are YOU doing that question I couldn’t answer.  How are you coping was another question asked time and again that question was easier to answer because I wasn’t coping I was hoping in God’s promises. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness on Christ the solid rock I stand.” My hope wasn’t built on Bruce coming home which was my heart’s desire but it was build on God is in control. At first I said I was hiding behind God and peeking out every now and then to see if it was safe. I envisioned God as this big rock and we (Emily, Meghan and I) were placed securely behind him. After a while, God became the arms I rested in as He carried me and my girls down a path we never expected to be on.

I was reminded of something that happened at family camp just weeks earlier. Justin, Bruce’s godson, was a preschooler at the time. Justin was warned if he kept misbehaving he was going back to his campsite. Well he misbehaved again and his Dad scooped him into his arms to carry him back. Justin was crying and fighting against his Dad but all his fussing made little difference. His Dad was following through on his promise of what the consequences of not listening were. Justin was going back to their campsite. As I remembered that I was struck by the thought Justin could have rested in his father’s arms. Because either way fussing or resting he was going back to their campsite. I had the same choice (not because there was disobedience) but because this was happening and I could rest in my Heavenly Father’s arms or go kicking and screaming either way it was happening. God eventually put us down to walk but He was ever ready to scoop us up when we needed the extra support.

In the first days after the attacks I was stunned by the outpouring of encouragement from friends, family and strangers – the telephone was constantly ringing, people were arriving with food and offers of support. A friend from church showed up early on the first morning to tell me he was going to the site to look for Bruce. Day after day people stopped by. Many times, I greeted them at my fence to ward off any problems with my 130-lb. dog and to keep those conversations out of ear shot from my daughters. My dog was 130-lb. lap dog in a Rottweiler body. Buster Brown was his name and he was protective of his girls. When someone stopped by he would position himself between me and the person. If the girls were outside he would switch to standing between them and the visitor. He rarely barked at visitors. He just stared at you that was enough to get his point across – don’t mess with my girls. A rumor spread that “Ann wasn’t doing well! She won’t let anyone in her house!” Actually, if you were coming for a visit of course you were invited in but if you were just dropping off something for the forementioned reasons you probably didn’t get in but that was strictly to protect you from my dog and guard my kids’ privacy.

A peek into Chapter 2 – No Surprises

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Sharing portions of Chapter 2 (unedited) over the next few days –

September 12 & September 13, 2001

Chapter 2

Joy comes in the morning

This was role reversal. Christine, my baby sister, coming to help me. I was her big sister by almost 13 years. I had changed her diaper, taken her to Disney World, driven her to school, been her ballet teacher. When she was in high school, I was her employer. She graduated from high school just weeks after my first child was born. Through college she had continued to teach for me. Law school ended our employee/employer connection.

At times our relationship had been more mother/daughter than sisters but here she was standing in my kitchen early on Wednesday September 12 with her suitcase in hand stating,

“I have come to do all those things you can’t do and to stay for as long as you need me.”

I knew without a doubt there were things she could do that I couldn’t – navigate the legal system, ask the right questions, identify a body.

As I hoisted myself up to sit on the kitchen counter I asked “but how? Don’t you have any cases?”  After a brief stint as a corporate lawyer, Christine had become an assistant district attorney in Schenectady, New York.

She sat down at the table. “It’s weird. I don’t have any cases. Everyone pled guilty.” Confused and not sure if she was lying, I was grateful.

My daughters and Christine had a great relationship, so my sister’s presence was not only a blessing to me, but it gave me confidence that my girls were in good hands. To see Meghan and Christine greet each other with their elaborate combination dance/handshake created a sense of normal on a day very little was known. The telling of the very little we knew “he is unaccounted” was told and retold as family, friends and acquaintances called, showed up on my door step or emailed.

Throughout the day the television was turned on to glean information. Real information was a much-needed commodity. The television was not a reliable source as it seemed to me that stories were broadcast without verification. I don’t fault the media for that because the need for information was frantic. It was a rollercoaster that wasn’t beneficial, so the television was off more than it was on.  School was canceled for the day but reopened on Thursday. We hung close to home waiting for news, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting to know what to do next. Every time the phone rang I held my breath as I lifted the receiver would it be Bruce’s voice on the other end?

By mid-morning I called Squad 41 to see if there was any news. A young firefighter answered the phone. I smiled as he commented that he was all alone and didn’t know anything. I could imagine his fellow firefighters telling him stay here (at firehouse) and answer the phone but offering no other guidance to a newbie who had no clue. I requested we set up a schedule that they (Squad 41) would call us (wives of the unaccounted) twice a day whether there was anything to report or not. He thought that was a good idea and promised to pass it along. Firefighters were showing up on my doorstep. The brotherhood whether FDNY or GWL or wherever were fulfilling their promise to care for the families. Many were covered in ash, looking exhausted, offering bagels, cold cuts, assistance in whatever form I requested and the assurance of “voids.”

From that first night when “joy comes in the morning” kept running in my head, I knew God was the only sure thing. I sought guidance from the Bible and each time God gave me what I needed and more than I expected. I wasn’t doing any intense Bible study. Since my ability to concentrate was gone, I was only looking up verses I knew. I didn’t trust myself to remember even the simplest verses correctly, so I read them slowly and deliberately.

A well-known verse in our home was “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable –  if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”Many times, Emily and Meghan had heard me quote Philippians 4:8 as a qualifier. Does the movie you want to see, the thing you want to do pass the test? Is it true, is it right, pure and admirable? On September 13 as I looked up that verse, my eyes drifted up the page to the verses above.As I read Philippians 4: 4 – 7, it was as if God had written those words for me for this moment.  “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again Rejoice”– there was no stipulation you don’t have to rejoice if your husband is laying at the bottom of the World Trade Center. There was just Rejoice! “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”The Lord is near. He is near to me and my girls and Bruce. “Do not be anxious for anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”Do not be anxious for anything – God has got this. He is in control. He promises His peace. My heart won’t be totally broken, and I won’t lose my mind because God will guard my heart and mind. Thank you. Thank you. As I reread the “whatever” verses I noticed another promise “And the God of peace will be with you” I marked the date in my Bible. The Bible Bruce had given me for Christmas in 1992.

 

No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family and the FDNY

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Chapter 1 (rough draft)

A Free Day

Once a month, Bruce and I sat with our calendars to coordinate life. I always ended that sit down with “No Surprises, let me know if it isn’t going to work but no surprises.”  As a mom, wife, small business owner and church volunteer I prided myself on being organized, prepared, in control of my life.

It was supposed to be get-a-few-things-done type of day. With my two daughters back in school, my firefighter husband on duty, and one more week until fall classes resumed at my dance studio, I was free to do as I pleased. The day started as most days did. To be able to ease into my day instead of being thrown into it I got up an hour before my daughters, to shower, let the dog out, get my thoughts together and have my cup of tea.

At 6:30am Meghan staggered into the kitchen, arms at her sides, head down, still half asleep and stood in front of me for her morning hug and kiss on the forehead. At fourteen, Meghan was almost as tall as I was at 5’10”. Meghan, my second born and polar opposite of her older sister, wasn’t a morning person but watch out later in the day she was a force to be reckoned with.

Weeks earlier after freshmen orientation, Meghan had declared “By the time I have been at high school a month, everyone will know who I am. I kept asking if anyone knew Emily and no one did. They are going to know me.” I didn’t doubt that for a moment.

Emily, my 17-year-old reserved, attentive child was starting her senior year and negotiated her schedule to allow for early dismissal. Bruce and I informed her early dismissal required her to volunteer somewhere or get a part time job.

“Mom, don’t forget I have that Red Cross meeting this evening. Are we coming home before that?”

“Probably not. We’ll run errands or visit Nanny & Poppy”

Meghan chimed in “What’s happening to me?”

“Still sorting that out. Daddy will probably bring you home. Let’s go girls.”

The target time to leave the house each school day was 7:15am. My daughters attended Eastern Christian High School in North Haledon, New Jersey thirty miles away so driving them to school wasn’t around the corner or down the block or the other side of town. It was over the river and through the woods to another state we go. Even though school was miles from home it was near to my work making me available for drop offs, pick-ups and emergencies during the day.

As I turned into the circular driveway, I commented “Make sure you have all of your stuff. Em, I will see you at early dismissal time. Meg, I will see you at regular time. Have a good day. Love you.”

Next stop, my dance studio to quickly check the mail and answering machine messages and then home for my free morning. Can’t wait.Finding nothing that needed my attention, I got in my car to leave and the radio came on.

“…a small plane has flown into the World Trade Center.”

As I put the car into reverse, looked over my shoulder and backed up the radio news anchor continued.

“…a second plane has hit the World Trade Center”

 What? I pulled back into the parking space and sat a moment. I turned up the volume.   Maybe that Nelson Demille book I just read is really happening – pilots are being blinded. No, that’s not possible?!

Home seemed like where I needed to be.  I was operating on auto-pilot. As I merged onto Route 208, the FDNY issued a total recall.

“All firefighters report for duty.”

I knew the FDNY doesn’t call firefighters into work via the radio. This was bad, really bad. We must be at war but with whom? As I drove the radio continued to drone on, I started to pray. Lord, protect Bruce. Bring him home.I knew he would be sent down there. Bruce was a firefighter in a Special Operations Command (SOC) unit, a Squad. Squad 41 to be exact. Squad 41 ventured into Manhattan from the Bronx on a regular basis. I have joked that firefighters in Squads (and Rescues) do things they don’t tell their wives. It is bad enough that your firefighter husband runs into burning buildings. You don’t want to know he hung from a building, crawled around in a confided space, or suffered exposure to a biohazard all in the name of an average day in a Squad or Rescue.

When I arrived home, I turned on the television. The news professionals appeared as rattled and puzzled as I was. The images were baffling and then reports out of Washington, DC. What, now?  The images of a plane crashing into the Pentagon flashed on the screen. I started to pray again. Lord, please protect my country. Please protect New York City.

I paced, pleaded, prayed and the television kept reporting additional events. One of the twin towers collapsed, another plane crashed in Pennsylvania, the other tower collapsed.

I remembered in the Old Testament how Abraham prayed for a city to be saved. He asked God if there were one hundred righteous people to save the city and worked down to ten people and finally one person. I figured I had no time to waste so I prayed if there was one righteous person in New York City please save my city. I suggested to God that Dr. Mucci, District Superintendent for the Church of Nazarene, would probably qualify as the one person.

I was worried that my brother and/or brother-in-law might be traveling for business or be in New York City.  I tried to make several calls to my parents in New Jersey and sister in New York. No calls would go through.

“All circuits are busy, please try again later.”

Suddenly my telephone rang.

“Mom, where is Daddy?”  It was Emily.

“I don’t know.” I must hold it together until Bruce is home.  “I don’t expect to hear from Daddy. He doesn’t usually call when he is on duty. We will call the firehouse later if we haven’t heard from him by the time he is off duty. Okay? Find your sister and I will pick you both up at early release time. I love you. See you in a little while.”

People have asked me “why didn’t I get my girls from school when I first heard about the attacks? Why drive all the way home?” To be honest it never dawned on me to get them from school. I think I believed that if the girls were at school, Bruce was on duty and I was at my dance studio or home. It was all normal. And I desperately needed for it to be normal. For it to be all right.

The phone rang again.

“Hi, it’s Barbara. Is Bruce on duty?”

It was my sister who I hadn’t spoken to in a very long time. Since Barbara lived in California I guess we had never mentioned the house rule of not calling to ask me if Bruce was on duty when you hear of a fire on the television or radio. Who would have thought she would know about a fire in NYC?  I was grateful to hear her voice.  Bruce will be so surprised that Barbara called. I can’t wait to tell him.

My thoughts of getting something done or being free to do as I pleased were forgotten. I wasn’t sure what I should do. The television didn’t seem to have any new information. I couldn’t make phone calls. As much as I wanted to be home earlier, being home now felt isolating.  It wasn’t even early release time, so I couldn’t pick-up Emily and Meghan or so I thought.  I decided to drive back to my studio to see Carol. Carolis my best friend and business partner. She is my person. We can talk for hours or we sit with a cup of tea and not say a word. Through life’s mountains and valleys, she has walked with me. We double dated in our teens and twenties. We stood up for each other when we got married. When I started my business, New School of Dance Arts, Carol taught for me. After the first year I asked her if she wanted to be my business partner. At the time there was one hundred dollars in the studio checkbook, I told her if she matched the hundred dollars we would be equal partners in the business. Her hubby, Tony, calls us “partners in crime.” Tony and many others chuckled at our lack of business savvy “that’s not how you buy into a business” but Carol and I were business partners since 1976 so I guess we have done something right.

I retraced the same route I had driven earlier. But this time as I approached the top of Skyline Drive, I noticed there were cars parked on the shoulder. People standing outside their cars. What are they doing?  As the road reached the crest of the mountain, my question was answered. You can see the New York City skyline. Looking far to the right you see lower Manhattan. There was a big cloud of smoke where the building had been. Had I seen the towers earlier?

I entered the studio to find Carol sitting at the table with brochures, registration forms and schedules arranged in front of her.

“Your Dad called more than once. He wants you to call him.” were the first words out of her mouth.

I put my purse on the gymnastic mats and reached for the wall phone. A brief conversation with my Dad ended with a promise to stop by after I had picked up the girls.  Carol and I discussed all that we knew about the attacks. We switched gears to focus on studio stuff -what classes we needed to confirm, cancel, etc.

“I will call you when I hear from Bruce.” I walked out the door. Not realizing that I won’t walk back through that door until Monday October 1 when classes finally began.

Over the past three years I had regularly dropped Emily off or picked her up at school but rarely entered the building. Having been an ever-present parent during Emily’s preschool and elementary school days (I taught at the same preschool and elementary school she attended), I had made the conscience decision to step back and allow Emily to be her own person minus the role of Miss Ann’s daughter.

“Hi, I am Ann Van Hine. Emily has early release. I also want to sign out Meghan.”

“Of course, let me see what class Meghan is in. Emily should be heading this way to sign out.”

The ride to my parents’ house was full of questions with no answers but assurances of love and faith. We arrived at my parents’ home nine miles away to find my Dad sitting at the far side of the dining room table giving the impression he was holding court. My Mom was not thrilled with my Dad’s favorite spot, she wanted her table back for meals, but it had become his desk. My Dad tried to reassure my girls that Bruce couldn’t have gotten from the Bronx to Lower Manhattan before the towers collapsed. My Dad is an engineer and physicist so thinking things through logically was what he did but even as my Dad explained his reasoning I knew he was wrong. My Dad wasn’t tuning into the fact Bruce was in a Squad and would have been dispatched earlier rather than later.

Days later my Dad mentioned that he hadn’t tuned into the Squad dynamic and asked, “why didn’t you correct me?”

“I couldn’t correct you in front of the girls.”

Emily and I discussed the Red Cross meeting. She called to see if it was still on and the answer was no. We hung out a little longer and then decided to head home.  As I drove up Route 17 in my rearview mirror for a brief moment I saw the New York City skyline. I saw the smoke and I willed my girls not to turn around. When we got home, we turned the television on for a short time. We tried to do our daily routine. Time slowed or stopped or something, but it wasn’t moving as in a normal day.

By the late afternoon, I spoke with my sister-in-law, Bobbie, Bruce’s sister. She was at my mother-in-law’s home in South Jersey about three hours away. One of my greatest fears had been how would I tell Bruce’s mom something happened to him?  My father-in-law died ten years prior, my mother-in-law lived alone, and Bobbie lived in Kansas but on September 11, 2001 Bobbie just happened to be in New Jersey for a friend’s child’s wedding. So as all this was happening my 82-year-old mother-in-law was not alone. Thank you, Lord.

Around 7pm, I went into my bedroom to call Squad 41. The answering machine picked up. I left a message “Please have Bruce Van Hine call his wife.” I didn’t wait long before I called again. “Please have anyone call Bruce Van Hine’s wife.”

I called my folks. I told my Dad that no one was answering the phone at Squad 41. When my ever-calm Dad said, “call every number you have for the New York City Fire Department until you reach a human being” I was freaked. I grabbed the FDNY phone list off the back of the basement door and headed to my bedroom out of ear shot of my girls. I glanced down at the list, saw Bronx and dialed. It was Bronx Dispatch. The firefighter who answered explained that this was the number to report fires and kindly suggested that I keep calling Squad 41.

Eventually I got through to someone at Squad 41 who said “No one is here. They went to look for them. They will be in touch when they get back.” This can’t be happening.

Around 10:00pm I decided we should all get some sleep so Emily, Meghan and our 130 lb. Rottweiler, Buster, piled into my bed. I had a feeling that someone was coming to the house and didn’t want to be in my pajamas, so I stayed dressed. I laid with my girls until they were asleep. Then I got up.

I paced, prayed and made a cup of tea. Growing up a “cup of tea” was the quick fix for whatever was happening. A cup of tea could calm you down or cheer you up. My Mom is British so making tea was a ritual. I followed that ritual as I boiled water, heated the pot, steeped the tea and placed the tea cozy over the pot. I poured the milk in the cup first, added one sugar and poured the brewed tea. I sat on the couch cradling my warm cup of tea in my hands and waited for what I didn’t know but I waited.

At a little before midnight, I heard a car pull up, a car door close and then another. Even though the street light allowed me a glimpse of who was heading to my house through one of the three small windows in my front door, I decided I didn’t want to know. I held my breath and waited. Maybe they aren’t coming here.Please don’t be coming here. There was a light knock on the side door. Whoever it is knows we use the side kitchen door instead of the front door. Standing outside were two men – Charlie who was Bruce’s lieutenant and another firefighter, the identity of that firefighter changes in my memory.

I positioned myself between the kitchen and living room leaning with my shoulder against the doorway. Hopefully the house will hold me up if they say something bad. Polite greetings and then silence. I couldn’t stand the suspense “Just say it”.

Charlie whispered, “They are unaccounted for.”

Unaccounted for? wait? what?

In an almost out of body experience I heard myself say “I have no doubt God can get me through this, but I don’t want to go through this.”

I don’t want to. How many times through the years had my own kids and my students said those exact same words? How many times had I chimed in “most of life has nothing to do with what you want to do? I don’t want to pay taxes or do laundry, but I do.”

There wasn’t a sense of dread. There was a sense of this is really happening. Now what?Charlie, the other firefighter and I sat at the kitchen table as Charlie filled me in on what they knew which wasn’t much. Charlie offered assistance, a prayer, a hug and they left.

I locked the door and tiptoed down the hallway towards my bedroom. I hoped and prayed that the girls were asleep and hadn’t heard the exchange with Charlie. They seemed to be asleep, so I went back into the kitchen to make a few calls.

I called Debbie who is a pastor but first and foremost she is one of my best friends. I asked her to contact Pastor Steve and other friends in the morning. As we spoke I glanced out the window and noticed a man walking down the street. There was a moment I wondered if it was real and commented to Debbie “there is a guy walking down the street.” It reminded me of a scene from a movie – the late hour, the single streetlight glowing. It felt eerie. Years later in conversation Debbie mentioned the guy walking down the street and added “I think it was Bruce checking on things.”

I called my parents. Shared what I knew.

“We will drive up.”

“No, it is too late. Come tomorrow. I’m okay. Love you.”

I checked on my daughters again and realized Emily was awake.  I motioned to her to come into the living room. We sat on the living room floor. Within moments Meghan and the dog appeared in the doorway. They joined us on the floor.

“Charlie was here. Daddy is unaccounted for.”

We cried.

We hugged.

We prayed.

We got back in bed.

Once the girls were asleep I got up.  I made another pot of tea.

“Sorrow lasts for a night but joy cometh in the morning” kept running through my head. I needed to see the sunrise. I waited for the new day. I waited for the darkness to be replaced by light. I waited until the sun had risen and then I laid down to sleep. There was another day…

Valentine Roses

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On the first Valentine’s Day after September 11, 2001, Bruce’s firehouse, Squad 41, sent me one dozen long stem red roses. They send a dozen roses to each of six widows from Squad 41. It was an amazing gesture.

I cried because of their kindness.

I also laughed because those were the first Valentine’s roses I ever received.

For each of the twenty-one years we were married, I told Bruce “don’t buy me roses on Valentine’s Day. They are too expensive. The price is inflated. Buy me flowers any other day but not Valentine’s Day.”

He did buy me flowers on random days.

And I am grateful 🙂