Imagine watching the collapse of the World Trade Center on television knowing, but not wanting to believe, that your husband probably never got out of one of the buildings. Imagine two days later, your six-year-old child asking for a new daddy: "...if we had a new daddy, we wouldn't be sad any more." Imagine boarding a bus, one of hundreds in a convoy, more than a month after the attack to join other families for a public memorial honoring those who died. Imagine later that same day boarding another bus, traveling to a "Family Assistance Center" and waiting your turn to be handed a small blue box containing dust from the rubble of the twin towers that "represented" your loved one. Imagine being told to proceed down the line and as instructed, hold out your arms to receive a triangular folded flag, one hand over, the other under.
Abigail Carter is one of the thousands who found herself in these shocking circumstances. Her story, The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation, is gripping, poignant, and strangely uplifting—when, four years later we applaud her ability to move ahead. It is the sort of book you can't put down. This is not fiction. I had to take it in small doses.
Abby and her husband, Arron Dack, were not native New Yorkers; they were Canadian citizens living in New Jersey, and had lived in Boston and London. Instead of going to his office that Tuesday morning, Arron was at the Trade Center for a conference at the breathtaking, glitzy restaurant, Windows on the World, at the very top of the North Tower. Abby was rushing to bring her six-year-old daughter, Olivia, to the school bus stop, while grappling to dress two-year-old Carter, when Arron called to say a bomb had exploded in the building. Could she call 911? It was the last time she would hear from her husband.
Abby relates her feelings days later:
"I was haunted by my phone call with him that morning. I replayed it over and over in my head. I wished I had sounded more concerned, told him I loved him. Instead, I had been dismissive, trying to get Olivia on the bus..."
Abby's support system included well-meaning friends, neighbors, and colleagues of her husband. But another day would pass before her parents and mother-in-law would arrive from Canada, crossing the border without incident, even though America was on high alert. Friends drove from Atlanta, Abby's sister arrived from Vancouver. Together these people began the task of helping Abby through her grief, while trying to manage their own. Abby eloquently describes her first visit to Ground Zero:
"The smell was stifling: a mixture of wet concrete, plaster dust, smoke, and burnt flesh. It was a smell I will never forget. It took me a long time to get my bearings and to imagine where Arron's tower had been. Not a single chair, desk, computer, or anything else was recognizable amid the rubble. I watched a bulldozer, balanced precariously atop one of the gray mountains. It moved back and forth awkwardly, bumpily, then its huge shovel rose up and dropped heavily to take a giant bite out of the pile beneath it. Be careful! I thought. Don't hurt him!...After five minutes at most, I was told it was time to leave. A party of dignitaries was set to arrive...I was angry that I was being made to leave. Didn't they realize how long it had taken me to get there? I had endured so much pain to finally reach this place."
If you ever lived in the tri-state area, you either knew someone or knew of someone who perished that dreadful day. Even if you had never been to the Twin Towers, you might have passed by the place on your way to work, or on a day "in the city." You felt a connection. My own family, son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter live in Manhattan. We scrambled to speak to them, learn they were okay. We had been to the Trade Center once for a joyful celebration at Windows on the World.
After the Trade Center tragedy, the Library of Congress created a new subject heading for published works—"September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001." Under the sub-division, Personal Narratives, there are just 54 books. Abby's memoir drove me to read others, such as Kristen Breitweiser's Wake-Up Call, and A Widow's Walk, by Marian Fontana. Although the subject heading is the same, their stories are not. Each is as unique as a fingerprint.
Abigail Carter opened her heart and mind in this intimate, valiant book. Her account of her passage through grief needs to be read. She, and thousands like her, are a source of courage for us all.
Abigail Carter, a former website project manager, lost her husband at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The Alchemy of Loss is her personal narrative of that tragedy. Her work may also be seen in Self magazine and msn.com. She lives in Seattle with her two children. Visit her website.
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