The Side of the Road


When my husband went missing on September 11th, my first instinct was to create a shrine. I replaced the piles of mail on top of my television cabinet with an Irish flag, Dave’s favorite photo of himself and a candle—even though, as a firefighter, my husband hated candles. Days turned into weeks and my small apartment filled with friends, family and food as we waited. When Mayor Giuliani told us in a crowded hotel ballroom that the “rescue” was turning into a “recovery,” I realized I probably wouldn’t get anything of Dave’s body at all.

This tortured me. Looking back, the need to have his body recovered felt primal; it was the essence of my grief. As I attended funeral after funeral with no gravesite, my sadness turned into desperation.

To combat my despair, I started an organization that advocated for firefighters and their families. As rumors swirled that the recovery at Ground Zero was being mishandled, my organization became a kind of watchdog for the site. I met with the mayor, the police commissioner, the fire commissioner and the medical examiner. I visited the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. I returned to Ground Zero, where rescue workers complained that truckloads of “debris” were being carted off to Staten Island before they had a chance to search them.

We managed to slow down the recovery effort, but as I spent more time at Ground Zero, it became obvious that if my husband’s body were ever found it would only be a small piece. I held Dave’s funeral on his birthday, October 17th. I purchased a grave at Green-Wood Cemetery under an old beech tree, but the coffin we buried was empty.

In December, while I was in Hawaii, Dave was found. Three parts—more than I expected. I was grateful beyond words.

A few months later I was asked to be on the Family Advisory Council of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the state agency in charge of creating the 9/11 Memorial. I dutifully attended the meetings. This was six months after the attacks, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was too soon. At that time, nearly two-thirds of the victims had not been recovered.

Very early on there emerged a hierarchy of grief: the firefighters, the police, the civilians, the widows, the fathers, the mothers and the siblings.

I began to think about what it means to memorialize. The ways to keep the memory of loved ones alive are as personal and varied as the dead. Tattoos, plastic flowers on the side of the road, stickers on cars, sarcophagi: We’ve made tributes to the people we’ve lost since the beginning of our existence. Then I thought about the great memorials I had visited in my life: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., the Holocaust Museum, the Battle of the Bulge. All of them had been built at least a decade after the event they commemorated.

When Ground Zero closed as a recovery site, my organization reevaluated how it could be useful in the future. We dispatched newsletters to victims’ families from our offices overlooking the giant hole, now surrounded by a chain-link fence and permanently named Ground Zero. When the LMDC announced a memorial contest, I was relieved to have a place to send the countless ideas pouring into my office—everything from elaborate architectural drawings to ideas hot-glued together like a science project.

While these efforts moved me, I was concerned that what the families needed (a final resting place for their loved ones) and what the public needed (a place to visit and memorialize) were at odds. Open forums for the submissions process were attended by a parade of special interest groups from naturalists concerned about migratory bird paths to citizens against high rises.

But even the families couldn’t agree. One Family Advisory Council meeting involved a panel of memorial experts including Maya Lin, which asked us what we wanted to see in a memorial. When it was my turn, I said I would like to bring my son and show him how his father had saved so many lives. The members of the panel nodded and took notes. I added that it was important to me that not only the day itself be remembered, but the profound aftermath in which the city, the nation and even the world felt a moment of unprecedented unity. Next up was a family member who, upon taking her turn, sighed, shook her head and said, “Firefighters were not the only heroes that day…” That was the last meeting I attended.

Very early on there emerged a hierarchy of grief: the firefighters, the police, the civilians, the widows, the fathers, the mothers and the siblings. I refused to acknowledge these divisions and thought comparing grief was as fruitless and painful as trying to decide who was sickest at the palliative care ward. It all sucks.

When the larger memorial opened this past spring, I ignored the invitations to go.

Meanwhile, my organization was planning its own small museum that would serve as an interim place for people to go until the larger memorial was built. TributeWTC opened in 2005. While I was proud of the museum and the tours we offered, the united sense of purpose I felt in the immediate aftermath had shifted. There is a misconception that tragedy and loss bring people together. Perhaps this is true at first, when we join together in our shared sadness and shock. But people are who they are. Grief only exaggerates the best and worst of us. In the long aftermath of 9/11, I experienced acts of amazing generosity and acts of dizzying cruelty. When the corruption, politicking and financial waste became more than I could bear, I left the organization I had started five years earlier and never looked back.

When the larger memorial opened this past spring, I ignored the invitations to go. The box of items I’d planned to donate was still sitting on my desk. I wondered why the commemoration I’d felt so strongly about did not inspire me to visit. I still believe that the memorial and museum serve a noble and necessary mission: to teach those who were not there what happened that day. But for me they are a reminder of a trauma I have fought hard to overcome. I know many of the families are disappointed that the unidentified victims are housed in a subterranean vault below the museum, and angry that the gift shop has commercialized their loss. I support their advocacy, but have grown weary of the confusing, sad, complicated mess the act of memorializing has become. It is not that I don’t miss Dave or feel the deep pain of his loss, but for me the best way to memorialize his life is to live mine fully. It is a choice I have made, as personal as a tattoo or flowers on the side of the road.

Photo courtesy of Flickr