Forty Years Later

September 11, 1977

The first anniversary of my husband’s death loomed ahead. As soon as the calendar rolled around to September, the dread began to build. I needed to plan something to get me through that day. I didn’t want to share it with family. My grief felt different and I needed to look at it, be with it, feel it.

I sat in the gazebo looking over Northport Harbor and watched sailboats glide past. I envied the people on those boats, carefree and idle on that summer day, and longed to share their sense of abandonment. I wanted a respite from the despair that had overshadowed everything since Brian’s death.

The weight of the last year still felt palpable. The NYPD presence, their jarring 21-gun salute, the American flag precisely folded. The unanswered questions: Why wouldn’t the Bomb Squad tell me what happened to one of their own? How did the bomb explode? My little boys and night terrors about their daddy getting blown up like Wylie Coyote. I needed just one day away from it all.

By the time I left to pick up Chris from pre-school, I had devised a plan. I would rent a boat, pack a lunch, and spend the afternoon adrift on Long Island Sound.

The young man at the boat rental suggested a rowboat. I had no sailing experience, and I felt his reluctance as he untied the boat from the dock. He seemed to want to row the boat for me, both for my safety and the boat’s, but let go after I assured him I’d be fine.

Putting the oars into the water that morning, I felt Brian’s presence more strongly than any time in the past year. It was wrapped around me as tightly as the orange life jacket the rental guy insisted I wear. A few months before, I’d gone to a fortuneteller on a whim. She told me I had a guardian angel on my shoulder. “It’s my husband,” I told her. “I feel him too.”

I had never rowed a boat by myself, but somehow I managed to row out to the middle of the Sound. I pulled in the oars and floated aimlessly, letting the soothing motion of the water lull me. I did an emotion check – I wasn’t afraid or sad. For the first time in a year, I felt calm.

As I ate my fried chicken lunch, I noticed a speedboat coming toward me. It was far enough away so that I knew it would not hit me, but I held on as the boat began to rock. When the salt and pepper slid into the water, I laughed at the irony of Jimmy Buffet, searchin’ for his lost shaker of salt, then the shock of cold water replaced humor with numbing fear. The wave that capsized the boat had looked like a ripple until it hit my tiny craft.

I sank down into the darkness before the life jacket pulled me back up and fresh air filled my lungs. I flapped around trying to grab on to something, anything, but the boat was too far away, and my feeble attempt at swimming sent me in circles. So I stopped and floated on my back, and watched lazy clouds drift by like I didn’t have a care in the world.

It was only a few minutes before the speeding boat circled around and came back to help me, but in that time I found the serenity I was searching for. I was ready to take back my life.

That was forty years ago. Now my sons have children of their own. I entered the halls of Stony Brook University for the first time that year and earned degrees in literature that allowed a college-level teaching career of twenty-five years. I changed laws for police widows and founded an organization for survivors who had the same questions I had once asked. I wrote my memoir, the story of my humble beginnings in the South Bronx, the bomb that killed my husband, and the relationships that had hijacked my life.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if Brian had lived. Would I have pursued my education or become an outspoken activist? Perhaps, but growth takes fortitude, determination, and, the ability to gather strength from tragedy.

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