I am angry when I go to the city office to reclaim Eddie's three I.D. cards and get a World Trade Center urn. The city worker there presents me with the urn and a large flag, a tight triangle folded so that the stars and stripes are all showing. I grit my teeth and ask: "What would Eddie's family in Colombia want with that?" I have been steeped in the day's news about how the government may have blundered and could have, should have, stopped the tragedy of 9/11 before it happened. The sight of Old Glory, meant to be a comfort, a talisman for protection, feels like a slap in the face.
"Do you have kids?" the worker asks sternly. She is trying to break me, make me cry, I think. This payback for my being so rude to her. My eyes water when I answer the question. "Yes, my son and my two stepsons." I hear my voice -- little, sad, barely in control -- and am reminded that this person has done me no wrong. She doesn't deserve this. It isn't her fault and it isn't mine that we are still poisoned with grief. Neither of us had anything to do with the powers that be, the powers that forced us together on this day for an exchange of symbolic goods. I apologize.
I used to know whose fault it was. At least I thought I did. The loss of my beloved Eddie hurt badly enough when 9/11 was a story about a secret plot that was so fantastic, so sophisticated and hidden, that it escaped our mighty intelligence network. Eddie, just a human among many other humans, was a victim merely because he was there, in the wrong place at the wrong time. His story, and the story of all the other victims, was a story of good vs. evil. Their fate inspired an important national project to root out that evil, and the nation rallied around us, the victims' families, and around that project. Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the plot, needed to be bagged. Our president assured the nation, bin Laden was wanted, dead or alive.
But now the story has become one of incompetence vs. evil. There had been knowledge, hints, warnings -- shared at the highest levels -- and yet no action, not a peep. How was that possible? Suddenly the diabolic geniuses behind this plot weren't that smart. Instead they were just a few fundamentalist lunatics with box cutters and a dream, who could have -- should have -- been stopped at so many points before 8:46 a.m., Sept. 11.
This epic tragedy deserved epic villains. Now what do we do? My healing has been tied in with the story of this disaster and now I am feeling undone, unhinged and ultimately betrayed. I have questioned myself many times since the tragedy: How could Eddie and I fail to realize that the World Trade Center might not be the safest place to work? But I have taken solace in the fact that the people whose job it is to make this country a safe place couldn't anticipate what would happen. Now I'm not so sure.
Now I'm afraid of what will come next. I'm afraid of the questions my son -- who will always be 50 days older than his father's death -- will ask. How will I explain the murky taint in what was once a story of good vs. evil? If nothing else, the story now will be a parable, a lesson of Grimm proportions. You must always tell the truth, I'll say at the end of the story. If you know something that might save someone else, tell everyone who will listen. And if something happens that you knew something about, tell what you knew, immediately. Be honest, before and after. Always.
From the moment that Eddie died, I have played the game of "What if?" There are endless ifs in the game, and the object is for me to find the right one. If I find the right if, I win, and I get to have Eddie back. I used to play this game with the only ifs I had, personal ifs about the things that were in our control: What if Eddie had started working at Cantor a few days later because instead we'd taken a last-minute vacation? What if he'd never been offered the job? What if he'd taken a different job? Never left his previous job? What if I'd kept him home that day, because I'd been so angry with him that I needed to talk to him?
I always lose the game. I try to accept the loss gracefully and resist the temptation to play one more time. Now I have a new set of ifs, provided by the govenment. I still lose the game, of course, but I am a sore loser. The new ifs are not so easy to dismiss as beyond my control. They carry a crushing sense of regret. And I wonder: If I had heard about these ifs soon after Eddie died, would I have endured the same guilt, would I have engaged in a daily probing of the wound if I'd known that I may not have been the only one to feel as if I somehow failed to keep my husband alive?
It helps to read the e-mail a Japanese friend sent to me shortly after Eddie was killed. She wrote:
"You are the one of lukiest [sic] persons on the earth because your husband chose the best way to die. People have to die alone anyway with some pain and they cannot usually choose the way to die and the time to die. If there is the God, he chose carefully those victims, including Eddie. Eddie was chosen because he was such a great person with full of love. His death was an honor.
"What you should have in your mind is not wounds," she wrote, "but an honor as the wife of such great person and as a mother of his son. You have been chosen as the wife of the victim because the God knows you will survive this tragedy with strengths and you will be the one who can encourage other people by going through those incredible hardships."
It helps too if I force myself to remember what Eddie always said about "if." With a wide grin on his face, he'd put a halt to sad conjecture by saying, "If my uncle had titties, he'd be my aunt." As angry as I am, as betrayed as I feel, I am ready to refresh this memory, to remember Eddie, rather than surrender, in a rage, to regret.