My 9/11 dinner with Bush and Rumsfeld

Two years after losing my husband in the towers, I went to the White House -- and showed them how I really felt

Published September 11, 2010 5:01PM (EDT)

"Get a sitter for Aidan, we're going to the White House tomorrow," Lee says as if I have won a prize. I squeeze the phone against my ear so I can pinch a dead dahlia off of its stem. It crumbles in my hand.

"No, Lee, but thanks for asking." It is two days before the second anniversary of 9/11, and I can feel the anxiety mounting, my heart sliding back and forth, like skiers waiting for the race to start.

"President Bush is honoring Vig, and he wants us to come down," Lee says. I have been working with Lee for almost two years since I started an organization for the 9/11 families after my husband, Dave, died trying to save others in the towers.

"He wants you to come down," I say. "I can't."

"Why not?" he asks.

"For one thing, I'm a Democrat."

"So?" Lee's son died near my husband in the towers. Our politics are so far apart I am amazed we've managed to put our opinions aside for the sake of the organization and all the family members we advocate for. "C'mon, kiddo. Do it for Vig," Lee insists. "Vig" is Lee's good friend John Viggiano who lost two sons on September 11, one a police officer, the other a firefighter. I remember meeting his wife at one of the many funerals. Her expression was limp with grief, a shade pulled down.

"I can't, Lee. I can't pretend to like those people," I say.

"C'mon. They're having a nice dinner to honor John, and they're showing the short film they made about one of his sons. His whole family."

I sigh, picturing Lee's weathered, olive brow, his small brown eyes squinting expectantly on the other end of the line. "I have Aidan …"

"C'mon. Call your mother-in-law to watch him, pack a fancy dress and I'll see you on Wednesday." The other end goes silent.

Twenty-seven hours later, I am with Lee, teetering in baby blue satin heels through an elaborate security system on the East Wing. We'd stopped at my friend Mila's apartment on Dupont Circle to change and now we are at least a half an hour late.

"I can't believe I'm going braless to the White House," I mumble to Lee as we wait in line. Lee and Mila had convinced me to forgo the conservative black dress and wear the sparkling blue floor-length gown I wore to my sister's wedding. I am deeply regretting my choice since I have recently arrived at the age where I practically wear a bra to sleep.

A young, blond intern in a dull gray suit leads us to the Rose Garden, where cocktail hour is almost over. In my heels, I am nearly a foot taller than Lee who dons his Class A firefighter uniform that bears numerous citations and medals he received during his career and military service in the Vietnam War.

We pass a long hallway where oil paintings of former presidents and first ladies line the halls. I take in the white painted walls and the understated grandeur of the rooms we pass until I hear the muted voices of a gathering getting louder. The hall opens up into a wide foyer that faces the Rose Garden. I stop in my tracks. A small gathering stands on the patio in small clusters. I recognize Carl Rove, Condoleezza Rice and Maury Povich. Maury Povich? What the hell is he doing here?

Everyone is wearing business attire.

Lee takes my elbow to make an entrance but I yank my arm away, trying not to panic.

"Lee! You told me this was formal!" I whisper angrily, staring at the sea of dark suits. George Bush Sr. is leaning on a door at the entrance to the garden, looking at us.

"I thought it was," he says with a shrug, chuckling at my reaction.

"It's not funny, Lee. I'm going home," I say, turning to leave, but he tugs on my elbow and pulls me back.

"Oh, c'mon. You look beautiful," he says patronizingly.

"I look like your whore," I whisper and Lee shakes his head.

"Welcome. Welcome," Bush Sr. says, walking over to greet us with a wide smile. I feel my cheeks burn, and I pull my blue satin wrap rightly around myself. Lee introduces us and I plaster on a smile, wishing I could crawl under a rock, or better yet, my covers at home, soft and dark.

George Bush Sr. is talking to Lee about turning 80, about wanting to jump out of an airplane as a birthday present to himself. He looks much younger than he does on television, his eyes a vibrant and piercing blue, and I can't help but notice that he seems as much an outsider as I do, hovering by the door and never speaking to his son.

I follow Lee into the garden, feeling like a gaudy eyesore among the sea of dark suits when Lee spots John Viggiano and they fall into a hearty hug, smacking each other on their backs. John is in his Class A uniform too, his cheeks drooped with sadness.

I excuse myself, grabbing a glass of white wine off one of the trays being passed. I play with Sport on the lawn, rubbing his soft belly on the perfectly groomed grass. I notice the Secret Service is eyeing me, hovering on the patio and talking into their lapels. "The whore in the blue dress is playing with the first dog," I imagine them saying.

When dinner is finally announced, I practically run to the foyer where a buffet has been set up. I am first in line and quickly help myself to poached salmon, asparagus and salad. As I walk back outside, I just wish this night would be over. I can't wait to peek in on Aidan sleeping, his long lashes fluttering in his sleep like wind on grass. I will have to wake him early tomorrow for the service in Park Slope and then we will head over to Green-Wood Cemetery to put flowers on Dave's grave.

Balancing my plate and wine glass, I find a table on the farthest end of the patio, next to a long hedgerow and hide there, letting my thoughts drift with the warm breeze, barely tasting the brine of my salmon.

"Is someone sitting here?" I hear a voice say. I look up to see Donald Rumsfeld and his wife smiling stiffly.

"No. Go ahead," I say, shifting in my chair to make room at the small cocktail table. They carefully place their plates and sit in the metal chairs that scrape loudly on the slate.

"I'm Joyce," the wife says, twisting toward me and extending a hand.

"Marian," I say, shaking it. Joyce is pretty, or holds the shape of someone that used to be, her face and high cheekbones softened a bit, her blond hair not overly coiffed like most women her age, but falling in gentle curls around her face.

"Donald," the voice across from me says, his glasses reflecting the remaining light.

"There you are!" Lee says, sitting in the last empty seat. "I've been looking all over for you."

"This is Lee," I say making the introductions. Rumsfeld notices Lee's pins and they immediately fall into war talk. Joyce is telling me about her daughter, who loves rock climbing, and I am distracted, one ear poised on Rumsfeld, who is telling Lee that he just returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. Joyce notices this and gracefully joins the conversation with the men. Rumsfeld is talking about the pride he has in "his men." Lee agrees, taking a sip of his wine and I stare at my plate, my cheeks on fire.

"What do you think, Marian?" Rumsfeld says, looking at me, his blue eyes small and sharp behind his glasses.

"Me?" I feel Lee kick me under the table. I know he doesn't want me to answer. "You don't want to know what I think," I say, smiling, reminding myself that I am here for Lee and John. Lee seems pleased with my response, but Rumsfeld persists.

"No. I am curious," he continues. I look over at Lee who must be squirming as much as I am. I swallow my bite of fish.

"I think this administration used the death of my husband to go into a country we have no business being in," I say, stopping myself from saying more. A long uncomfortable silence lands in the center of the table.

Joyce clears her throat and suddenly asks me about my late husband. I dig into my purse and procure the wake card I keep in my wallet from Dave's memorial. There is a photo on the back. The one Dave liked best of himself dangling from a rope rescue drill high above the city.

"So handsome," Joyce says, simply handing the card to her husband, who studies the photo in silence. Lee offers up his own wake card of his son Jonathan, who looks like a younger version of Lee, smiling in bunker gear.

"Dave and Jonathan were found a few feet from each other," Lee says. "And we didn't know each other before."

A young man in a suit asks everyone to head into the screening room across the hall. I had forgotten all about the short film and am momentarily confused. Rumsfeld hands me back my card.

"Keep it," I say, as if it would make a difference. Lee puts his hand on my back and leads me inside where a receiving line to meet the president and his wife has formed.

When it is our turn, Lee introduces himself and mentions our organization. "And this is Marian. She founded the organization. She lost her husband, Dave. It's also her wedding anniversary," he says.

The president takes my hand and shakes his head, his small eyes squinting at me. "You got the double whammy," he says in his Texan drawl. I don't know what to say to this, so I just stand there, a strange half smile on my face. "You know my wife,"" he says moving on to the next guests.

"Yes, hi Libby," I say, taking her hand, which is surprisingly soft.

"Laura," she corrects, her face never changing expression.

"Did you just call her Libby?" Lee whispers as I follow him into a small screening room with about 10 rows, five seats across. Lee shimmies down the second row and sits in the seat closest to the wall. I sit next to him, enjoying the plush red softness of the seat. I try not to look around but in my periphery I notice that Condoleezza Rice has taken the seat next to mine. "Do me a favor and don't say anything," Lee jokes. I roll my eyes and check my cell phone. It is 8:30. I would be tucking Aidan into bed now, reading the next chapter of "The Chronicles of Narnia" while he fidgets under the sheets.

When everyone is seated, a young man in a suit pulls a thick curtain across the doors we entered from. Secret Service officers stand along the back wall, their arms folded in front of themselves. President Bush stands up to introduce the film "Twin Towers," a short documentary that won an Academy Award. It is about an elite squad in the Police Department, the one that John Viggiano's son was in.

The president is surprisingly awkward, looking more like a 12-year-old giving an oral report than the leader of the Free World. He rubs the back of his leg with one shoe, a habit I noticed at the State of the Union last year. He finally sits next to Laura in the two largest seats in the front row.

The room darkens and the giant screen lights up with footage of the morning of September 11. The camera is shaking, pointed skyward, debris tumbling toward the lens that shows one of the towers on fire. There are firefighters running past, rumbling and chaos, people screaming and smoke. It is a scene of carnage so familiar and surreal, I feel as distant from it as I do from this group of people I am watching it with. Then, like a wave of nausea I know the collapse is coming. This is the moment Dave died. The bass from the speakers vibrates in my stomach, and I am suddenly crying. Not a normal cry, but a hysterical cry that feels like an epileptic seizure of grief. I feel Lee looking at me shocked. In all our time together, I have rarely cried in public, and I am equally stunned by the moaning wail that is coming from my chest, making it hard to breathe. I am suddenly standing, gasping for air. I need to get out of the room. Panicked, I clumsily, climb to the end of my row, stepping on Condoleezza Rice's foot along the way.

I feel everyone watching me as I try to find the door, but the curtain seems to have no opening and I frantically pull the fabric, looking for the seam. I can see the Secret Service men moving down the steps toward me: "The whore in the blue dress is on the move," I imagine them saying, and then Lee appears behind me, reaching across and finding the door.

In the echoing hall, I don't recognize the hysterical woman I have become. I can't stop crying and the Secret Service men are following a few steps behind me like I am an angry animal that needs to be captured.

"Leave me alone!" I snarl at them and then Lee is beside me, his hand landing gently on my back.

"Can you give her some air, please?" he says, and the footsteps behind me suddenly stop. "Is there a bathroom she can use?" he asks someone else, and then the intern with a gray suit appears and we follow her down a long corridor. Everything is blurred from my tears, and Lee guides me down the hall, his hand like a life preserver on my back.

Finally, we enter a small library and a door shuts behind us. I watch the intern walk over to a wall, and like an episode from "Scooby Doo," she pulls the wall of books open to reveal a closet-sized bathroom. I practically run inside, closing the door behind me. I plop down on the closed toilet lid taking in the room that feels like my own padded cell, dark and comforting. Tears fall out in thick drops leaving small wet stains on my blue dress. The crying makes me feel heavy, as if each gulp of air contains metal.

"Marian, are you OK?" Lee asks, his voice muffled behind the door.

"I'll be right out," I say, my breath slowly returning. I stand up slowly, splash cold water on my face, wiping my smeared makeup off with a thick white handcloth with the presidential seal.

"I am so sorry Lee," I say, finally exiting the bathroom. Lee stands looking concerned; the intern is on her cell pacing the carpeted room.

"Don't apologize," Lee says softly, and I am reminded of how many times over these last two years that we have watched each other cry, sharing the weight of our losses.

"If you want to go back in, I'll be fine." I say sniffling.

"No, no, no, " he says, swatting the air. "I couldn't think of a better impression to leave with them," he says smiling, his hand returning to my back as the intern shows us the door to leave, and we walk into the warm Washington night. 

Marian Fontana is the author of the bestselling memoir "A Widow's Walk," and founder of the 9-11 Families Association.


By Marian Fontana

Marian Fontana has been a writer and performer for the past 20 years. Her articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Elle, Parenting and Martha Stewart magazine. Her most recent book, "A Widow's Walk," was on the New York Times best selling memoir list.

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