My Unintentional Life

A shorter version of this piece ran on September 1st, 2011 in The NY Daily News. This same long version also ran in Hello Grief and Mindbodyspiritodyssey.com

Arron, Carter and my grandfather on the new dock, Ste. Lucie, August 2001

On that sunny September morning as I was stuffing our daughter Olivia’s lunch into her backpack and getting ready to leave the house to put her on the school bus for her second day of first grade, our son Carter clinging to my hip, my husband Arron called explaining carefully that he was at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center. His voice was urgent but not panicked. He asked me to call 9-1-1 because he thought there’d been a bomb. I didn’t ask if he was OK. I didn’t tell him I loved him. I didn’t know that I would never speak to him again.

Just two weeks before, I had watched six-year old Olivia flip-flop her way down a peaty forest path, peeping into an old stump pocked with moss looking for the fairies her grandmother convincingly assured her lived there. Carter, pillowy knees clasped around my waist, pushed away from me determined to hop down and get a look at the sleeping fairies for himself. As we continued down the path, I warned the kids’ away from the long line of frayed extension cords that were snaking their way down to the dock from the house, my grandfather’s genius at work. From the flimsy bridge, a gap-toothed smile across a tiny stream, I heard Arron running up the path from the beach toward us, warning us of the electric cords.

“Seriously?” I said to him.

“Don’t say anything, Ab. You know your Grandfather.” He was right. I did know my grandfather, a product of the depression when nothing, not even a dangerous and frayed extension cord was ever thrown away. Perhaps the danger was real, or perhaps Arron just sensed the danger that loomed ahead, a danger I could not yet fathom. I just shook my head and followed him and the kids to the water’s edge and the partially constructed dock.

I handed Arron a beer, his dark hair and bare chest peppered with sawdust, a leather tool belt slung loosely around his hips. I gave another beer to my grandfather, a spry eighty-eight year-old in a pale blue cap, clearly the director of the construction operation. He and Arron had spent the last two days building the new dock at our tiny lake in Quebec a replacement for the relic of splintered wood and dangerous rusty nails that had preceded it. “The dock’s looking good,” I said sitting on the freshly cut floor, its piney smell pungent as Arron helped Carter hammer a nail into it while Olivia peered over its edge looking for frogs. Across the lake I watched a solitary loon dip noiselessly under the water and I inhaled the moment – a perfect peacefulness. Less than two weeks later that perfect moment would become a memory that I cherished like a well-thumbed photograph.

How to explain to a two-year old the death of his father? I spoke of “big boo-boos” and “buildings falling down” until he began pointing at tall buildings asking if daddy was there. Each new developmental milestone required a renewed explanation of his father’s death. What I told him at two needed to be explained again at four and with each new piece of information came new fears. Fear of flying, fear of losing his mom. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight and I had to unhook his hands from around my waist each morning when I dropped him off at school.

Our daughter refused to speak of her dad, asking when we could go back to being “happy people.” She told friends who asked about her dad that he was at a meeting in Florida. If I cried when I tucked her into bed at night, she would look at me with horror, as if my face had just turned purple, a condition that might be contagious. Over the years, I’ve battled my kids’ out of control temper tantrums, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, learning issues – conditions that other, non-grieving families face, but that I had to handle alone as a grieving single mom, constantly questioning what was normal child behavior and what was grief. At times I longed to run away or have a night off when my only option was to sit in a heap on the floor and cry. I forgot what it was like to have someone else to take the garbage out, or to talk to about my day over dinner. I was lonely. I too wondered if we would ever be those “happy people” again. I couldn’t see how it would ever be possible.

I have been asked the question over and over, “so how ARE you ten years on?” It’s a difficult question to answer. My life is nothing like I imagined it would be when I married Arron almost 21 years ago, thinking we would raise our kids in tandem and grow old and crotchety together. My life is nothing like I thought it might be the day he died and I wondered if I would have to sell the house. And yet here I sit in a beautiful home that overlooks Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains, a published book under my belt, 3,000 miles from New Jersey on a sunny Seattle day, two beautiful children upstairs hunched over computers, a tiny Boston Terrier on my lap and I think, “whose life is this?”

Ten years later I’m baffled that in many ways our lives are better now than when Arron was alive – what I have come to think of as my “unintentional life.” If Arron strode through our door today he would walk into a beautiful house in Seattle instead of New Jersey. It was a move I felt was essential – to escape New Jersey and what I was sure would be the persistent recognition of my kids and me throughout Montclair as “that 9/11 family.” How could he not marvel that his beautiful daughter now drives, has his knack for languages, his giggle? Or that his son looks like him, is kind and generous and can play Taps on the trumpet? I would laugh at his astonishment that my memoir was published in four countries. He would admire his happy-again family, living their unintentional lives.

There is a heavy debt of guilt whenever I realize that our new life wouldn’t exist had Arron not died. Through the pain of our grief, we discovered strength we didn’t know we possessed, learned to appreciate the gifts of life and have empathy for others who were themselves in pain. We were awakened into life by death. Experiencing death head-on opened the door to new opportunities in our lives. In my longing to be with Arron, willing him to exist in some new form, I lost my fear of death – something I’ve come to see as the unexpected gift of grief – a lack of fear that unmasks an entirely new universe of possibility – move across the country alone with two kids? No problem. Write a book? Why not? Teach a class on grief? A fulfilling experience. I stopped worrying what people thought and began thinking almost magically, realizing that the only person standing in the way of, say, writing a book, was myself. I learned to be brave enough to trust my intuition, get help when we needed it, find allies and live with no expectations – a flexibility that invited what I can only express as mindful evolution. Some might call it a growing spiritualism, though I don’t want to get all new age-y about it. Certainly, I began to question fate and faith in my quest to make peace with Arron’s death.

I muddled through “dad” experiences, like starting the lawn mower, knotting Carter’s necktie for a band recital and teaching our daughter to drive. The kids in turn have developed a sense of compassion beyond their years. Olivia, during a trip to Rwanda to help girls affected by the Genocide also learned about the power of forgiveness. Still, we have all had to learn to live with an un-namable absence, always wondering what life would be like if Arron were still a part of it.

This summer at the lake in Quebec, I watched that once pudgy-legged two-year old, now a lanky, tanned twelve-year old, hold the hand of his younger cousin pointing out the fairy’s stump, bestowing its magic upon a new generation. Our daughter, a lithe sixteen-year old enthralled the family who were gathered for my grandfather’s memorial with her effortless beauty and wit. The snake of extension cords no longer posed any threat as I stood again on the dock that Arron and my grandfather built that August in 2001, now adorned with a carved wooden plaque bearing Arron’s name. The family watched quietly as my mother and uncle peddled the paddleboat into the middle of the lake and sprinkled my grandfather’s ashes onto the water’s glassy surface, a ceremony whose dignity my grandfather would have appreciated. Arron too felt present in the breeze that caressed our hair. Just beyond the boat, a lone loon skimmed majestically across the water until I blinked and he was gone.

28 Comments

  1. Leona September 2, 2011 at 9:48 am

    All I can type as I sit in my tear filled face, is “Thank You”. Your ability to share your life experience, inspires me to live with new Intention.

    1. Abigail - Site Author September 2, 2011 at 9:56 am

      Leona, thank you for your lovely comment. I am so glad to have inspired you. Hugs, Abby

  2. Debbie September 2, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Abby, I love to read your pieces and I so appreciate the notion of an unintentional life. You have been in my thoughts a lot lately as the media has more pieces about the upcoming tenth anniversary, It must be so difficult to relive your personal tragedy so publicly.

    In the early days after my husband died in March of ’09, I found your book (I’m sure through no accident). Your words showed me then that even though surviving my husband’s death would be difficult, I could do it. And this piece continues to inspire me on my own journey through this unintentional life. Thank you.

    1. Abigail - Site Author September 7, 2011 at 11:21 am

      Debbie,
      Thanks so much for your kind words. I do all this media in the hopes that my words will help others like you. Thanks for the confirmation. Hugs, Abby

  3. gloria Goldman September 2, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    i could relate well even though my story is so so different in loss of my husband 2 years ago.

    I feel Abigal’s strenth in relearning as i have learned to do and releasing all those fears i had in having to let go of the constant fear of learning to live with out my ARt.. i made it to this step. Abigal gives me power within to move it more. . She’s a mentor for all of me. gG

    1. Abigail - Site Author September 7, 2011 at 11:22 am

      Gloria,
      I am honored to be your mentor through this crazy journey. It’s amazing to discover strength you never knew you had. I hope you continue to find that power within.
      Warmly, Abby

  4. Jill Schacter September 2, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    This is so beautiful and so much of it resonates with me. I too have been awakened into life by death and have become, if not fearless, certainly more so. It can make me wince to think of how much greater my great years with my husband could have been if it hadn’t taken his death to awaken me more fully. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful expression. (P.S. My children and I also go to a lake in Quebec every summer, near Entrelacs. And my kids are the same ages as yours)

    1. Abigail - Site Author September 7, 2011 at 11:24 am

      Jill,
      Love that you have the same Quebec experience. So healing. I’m so glad my post resonated with you. It is a sad irony that we have these great lives now, but have to live them without the very person who would be most proud of us. But life is full of irony, is it not?
      Thanks for your lovely comment. Hugs, Abby

  5. Rebecca Young September 3, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Its as if you’ve taken the words right out of my mouth…I also want to thank-you for sharing your story. I feel like I know you despite living on opposite sides of the world. You have inspired me in more ways than one with your honesty and insight. As I struggle to find a ‘new normal’ I know that I can read your blog and see that there are others out there who are in the same position as me. It’s a comforting feeling knowing that there is someone who understands the grief thing.
    My thoughts are with you and your family for the upcoming anniversary date.
    xx

    1. Abigail - Site Author September 7, 2011 at 11:27 am

      Rebecca,
      Thanks for your thoughts. It is a strange “new normal” we are all living. I’m glad my blog provides a sense that you are not alone, because indeed, you are not. Thanks for your thoughts for us this weekend. I will be heading to our cottage with my kids and cousin who has also lost a loved one, and escaping the craziness. Reach out anytime you need a sane voice amidst the insanity. I’ll do what I can. 🙂 Abby

  6. Kim September 5, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    You just know Abby. I read this and again thought how spot on you are. I could not have communicated it so beautifully, but I’m grateful that you did. It says it all. I feel connected to you as I’m sure many of your readers do. Thank you.

    1. Abigail - Site Author September 7, 2011 at 11:29 am

      Thank you so much Kim. I am so glad to be able to convey that connectedness. It is all we have sometimes as we each travel in our own ways down this nutty path. Thank you! Abby

  7. bonnie shand September 7, 2011 at 11:07 am

    hi abby
    i just saw you in an interview on ctv canada am…i turned the tv on just as u were finishing. so good to see u…so hard to believe it has been 10 years. i have such fond and appreciative memories of my visit with u and carter and olivia in april of 2002. memories i will never forget. I hope we get to meet again someday. thanx for the blog and i enjoy keeping up to date with u and the kids. thinking of u and the kids and sending lots of hugs and positive thoughts ur way…love bonnie xo

    1. Abigail - Site Author September 7, 2011 at 11:32 am

      Bonnie,
      Lovely to hear from you. Glad to reconnect through Canada AM! It is hard to believe its been 10 years. So long and so short all at once. Yes, I am sure you almost wouldn’t recognize the kids these days. Funny how they just keep growing up! Thanks so much for your thoughts. Hope all is well in your world.
      XO, Abby

  8. Cheryl Citro September 9, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    This time of year always has you and Olivia in our thoughts. Fabiana has wondered through the years how you all are and still thinks of you often. We pass the house and inevitably you are in our conversation, a story, a happy thought. I check in with your blog which is so beautifully and expressively written. You have not been forgotten …..

  9. Les in NE September 11, 2011 at 7:06 am

    Abigail, I read your memoir nearly three years ago and was so moved by your words back then, as I am today. Once again, you’ve validated my own feelings about life and grieving and I am happy to know that you and your children are doing well. Thinking of you today…

  10. Chris September 11, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Abigail, your children benefit greatly from your methods of coping with your loss. We all do from you sharing. Love and understanding work as Alchemy for the human spirit. That Alchemy, believe it or not, drives my quest for truth that will protect all of our lives. This is the first opportunity to communicate with a family member I’ve found in 8 years of trying. In order for all of us to protect ourselves and loved ones, I’m hoping you can communicate with me.

  11. Georginette September 11, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful sharing. 3 years ago my husband passed away, and my son was only 4 then. You are right, every year, you add more stories as they grow and ask more questions. I am moving on slowly as I fear to lose my husband’s memories…but thank you for assuring me that having a different life than what we used to have with them is fine…that our different life is just fine, and that even though they are not part of it now but they willbalways be a part of us.

    1. Kim September 11, 2011 at 6:46 pm

      I’ve been widowed for almost 12 years and my husband died when my son was 4 as well. My biggest fear was that I would forget him but I can assure you that the memories become stronger and stronger.

    2. Georginette September 12, 2011 at 1:01 am

      Thanks Kim. I’ve never shared any of my pains and dreams to anyone for the fear that no one can understand me….but reading all the posts helped me realize that I and my son are not alone in this journey ..

  12. Kim September 11, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Abigail, your words have captured my attention and I wish I had found this blog when you first created it. Here is what I posted on facebook today:

    “looking back to 10 years ago, I realize today that I was so numb and hurt from my own life’s tragedy that I didn’t even realize the impact that day was going to have on the world. I remember just wanting to go home and be with my children.”

    On that day I had been widowed for almost 2 years. I had a 4 year old and was preganant when my husband died of cancer. Our widowhood caused by different losses, but I understand completely every word you have written. Today I see the tragedy of Sept 2001 much clearer than I did at the time.

    1. Georginette September 12, 2011 at 1:05 am

      So true…I felt connected with those who have loss their loved ones 10 years ago. We may have different reasons and ways how we loss them but all the emotions we feel are just the same!!!
      I always consider my husband’s death anniversary as my own anniversary of survival.

  13. Melanie September 12, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Hi Abby, I bought your book at chapters a couple weeks ago. I’m so fascinated by your strength and your determination to heal and move on with your life. I was holding on to every word you wrote as if it was happening to me. I live in Vancouver BC, and I hope that one day you come visit this city again and sign my book. I will always remember your story and your family. I am thinking of you all on this day and you are in my prayers tonight.

  14. Barney (aka IronBear138) September 12, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Abby,

    My late wife was working in mid town on that.terrible day. I just discovered your blog today. Sorry for your loss.

    Peace ~ Barney

    (((((bear hugs))))

    PS. My youngest was 12 when we lost her mom and she has just started talking about her after 6 years. It was too painful before now.

  15. Michael September 16, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    My beautiful 27-year-old son was working on the 70th floor of Two World Trade that day. Somehow by god’s grace he made it out alive, climbing down 70 flights of stairs in smoke and horror as I stood transfixed at the window of my D.C. office and watched the Pentagon fire. I suffered no irretrievable loss yet I relive that dreadful day constantly. I’m so glad you’re healing a little. Thank you for letting me share your experiences.

  16. Silvia September 30, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Dear Abby,

    I have been so saddened by your plight and have thought about you for years (since I saw you on tv, was it in 2002?). So sorry for not reaching out sooner….
    What a gift now for me to read about your ‘unintentional life’…thank you for sharing! That you are healing, that you and your darling children are thriving so well, and that you have found peace and fulfilment in your life is truly remarkable given how your world changed so drastically on that fateful day. You are truly an inspiration!!
    belated hugs,
    Silvia

  17. Surbhi March 4, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    I can relate to every word written here. Not a 9/11 child but a similar tragedy. I was the 5 yr old daughter. Reacted the same way. Hated to see my mom cry. Hated it when family or society offered condolences 10 yr later. Or still show sympathy. I am 28 now but trust me every word touched me and reminded so many things. Life has changed and yes life is better in many ways but then..

    1. Surbhi March 4, 2012 at 7:08 pm

      And in my family we still don’t talk about my father. I don’t think I ever will.

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