Life after loss: Canadians transformed by 9-11
Vanessa Greco, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, September 8, 2011 5:31PM EDT
Static crackles across the phone line as Abigail Carter pauses to consider which parts of her life have been altered by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Half a minute passes. There is a sharp exhale. Then, at last, she breaks her silence.
"Everything," she says. "My life has changed in every single way possible."
Abigail doesn't mince words. When a pair of hijacked airliners decimated the World Trade Center a decade ago, her husband vanished with the life they built together. Thrust into a new normal, the Toronto-native has spent the last 10 years adjusting to her "unintentional life."
The 9-11 terrorist attacks have been labelled the most pivotal event of the 21st century -- an irrevocable act that shook the collective consciousness and changed the shape of foreign policy. Many who watched on television as the Twin Towers buckled into steel and smoke said the moment was surreal, a horrific stunt pulled by a macabre Houdini.
But what happens when an iconic event leaps off the evening newscast and collides with an ordinary life? In Abigail's case, "you're completely transformed."
Ten years ago, Abigail was a young mother of two living in Montclair, N.J. She and her husband Arron Dack, a towering jokester with a broad grin, had moved to the United States a few years after getting married in Toronto.
The young couple woke up around 6 a.m. on the morning Arron died. Arron, a software company executive, was attending a trade show at the World Trade Center that day and wasn't sure what to wear. In a rare move, he let Abigail choose his tie.
"I remember holding his hand just a little bit longer that morning, thinking ‘Don't go, just don't go,'" said Abigail from her new home in Seattle, W.A.
But he left, sporting the tie his wife chose. At 8:46 a.m., a hijacked passenger jet careened into the WTC's North Tower. While smoke rose through the building, Arron phoned Abigail and instructed her to dial 911.
"I thought he was being dramatic. I just said, ‘Okay, I'll dial 911.' I didn't even say I love you because I just assumed I'd talk to him again in 10 minutes," said Abigail.
The North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m. Arron, 39, was never seen again.
His daughter Olivia, then 6, would never eat Dad's special "Minnie Mouse" pancakes again. As time passed, his 2-year-old son Carter would barely remember what it was like to have Arron hoist him into the air like a free weight.
Haunted by memories in their New Jersey home, Abigail moved her family to Seattle to start anew. There, she wrote a book about her experience losing Arron. Abigail also continues to lead a "grief and loss" class at a nearby community centre.
On the phone from her Seattle home, Abigail says she hasn't made any big plans for the 10th anniversary of her husband's death.
"Going to public memorials for 9-11 always left me angry," she explains. "After a while, I realized it's because they weren't enough. I needed my own memorial for him."
Instead, Abigail erected a mosaic-tiled birdbath in the family's backyard, a playful nod to "Lemonbird" -- Arron's nickname for her. On the third anniversary of 9-11 she invited neighbours over to christen the bowl with champagne and silly straws.
"Remembering him in the little ways, that's what I prefer," said Abigail.
'It still doesn't make sense'
Over the last decade, there's been a yawning chasm in Stephan Gerhardt's life -- a gap that becomes more pronounced with every milestone.
A lot has happened since his "little brother" Ralph vanished into a smoke-choked office on the 105th floor of the WTC's burning North Tower 10 years ago. Time, like a brisk wind, whistles past the hole that 9-11 left.
"I've changed jobs, started my own business, got married, got a divorce," said Stephan. "These are moments you want to share and Ralph wasn't around for any of them."
On Sept. 11 2001, Ralph was working in Tower One as vice-president of the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald. He called his parents in Toronto shortly after the first hijacked airliner crashed a few floors beneath the company's main office.
"Something just happened at the World Trade Center," Ralph told his father Hans over the phone. "We either got hit by a bomb or a plane. I am okay. We are okay. I love you, but I have to go now. We are evacuating. Call you later."
Cantor Fitzgerald lost more than 600 employees on Sept. 11 2001. Though his body was never found, Ralph is presumed to be one of the dead. He was 34.
"I don't think I was ever really angry about it," said Stephan, enunciating slowly while on the phone from his home in Washington, D.C. "I just didn't understand why all these people were murdered. It didn't make sense. It still doesn't make sense.
Stephan said he tries not to dwell on his brother's death anymore. But, occasionally, time goes whistling past the chasm again and reminds him of Ralph.
"I've gotten a funny email and thought ‘Ralph would get a kick out of this,'" said Stephan. "I'm always remembering — from the big things to the little things, to everything in between."
This year, Stephan plans to travel to New York City for the 10th anniversary of his brother's death. It may sound odd, Stephan concedes, but there is a strange comfort in standing at Ground Zero.
"It's as close as I can be to where he is," he said.
'I'm a fighting widow'
In 2004, famed author Joan Didion wrote a memoir chronicling her experience with grief after her husband died of a cardiac arrest. The first lines in her book are: "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant."
If anyone can vouch for those words, it's Maureen Basnicki.
Ten years ago, Maureen and her husband Ken had just finished building their "dream home" on a sprawling property near Blue Mountain, Ont.
Adding to their bliss, Ken had just been promoted as financial marketing director of the software company BEA Systems. On Sept. 11 2001, he was enjoying his new title at a company conference on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center's first tower.
That's when, for the Basnicki family, life changed fast. Life changed in the instant.
Ken was on the North Tower's 106th floor when the first hijacked American Airlines flight barrelled into the building. Nearly 900 people died on floors 101 through 107 that day, reported The New York Times. Ken was one of them.
The 48-year-old father of two never returned to his dream home. Ken's kids, Erica and Brennan, stepped into adulthood and eventually his wife moved into a different house altogether.
"The walls were screaming at me. I couldn't stay there," said Maureen, over the phone from her new home near Collingwood, Ont.
As incomprehensibly awful as 9-11 was, it gave Maureen a renewed sense of purpose. Five years after Ken's death, Maureen helped launch the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (C-CAT). The group lobbies for legislation that would let Canadians sue countries or groups that support terrorism.
She also regularly visits New York City to give tours of Ground Zero, where she plans to be on the 10th anniversary of her husband's death.
"It's occurred to me that [9-11] was an incredible day or terror and hate. Not just for my family but the entire world," said Maureen, in a soft but forceful voice.
"I try to work my way through that horrible, traumatic day because I don't want to be the grieving widow. I'm a fighting widow," she said.