Solidarité: A 9-11 Widow in Paris Discusses the Massacre

A gloomy day in Paris. (Getty Images)

My teenaged daughters and I have just returned from a wonderful Christmas trip to Paris.  People have said to me “Oh you must be so glad you are not in Paris right now,” and I reply “Yes” because yes, I am glad we are not in Paris right now.

Immediately I think selfish thoughts: Sainte Chapelle would be closed, and I suspect we would not be allowed to climb up the towers of Notre Dame.

And then I think of the families, especially of the one man whose wife was killed, and of the six women whose husbands were killed in the attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and in the Jewish supermarket two weeks ago. Now these widows and the widower are left to raise their children alone. I know how they feel because I am one of them: my husband Jeffrey R. Smith was killed in the South Tower of the WTC on September 11th. Our daughters were babies.

I know the blackness that is engulfing the Parisian widows and the other family members. I remember the numbing standing there with an infant and a toddler. I can still see my husband’s funeral receiving line, and I remember leaning over to my cousin who stood at my elbow and telling her that I felt ill because standing in that line felt like I was standing in my wedding receiving line, only it wasn’t—and I ache for these women and the families.

What would I say to them if I were there? The same that everyone else is saying, but I would be forthright: “I am so sorry your sweetheart was killed. I will reach out to you next week.”

And I would reach out to them next week or perhaps the following week to find out if they want to walk and talk, or have a coffee, or do none of the above. They might not ever want to meet me, and I do not blame them—after all I look like what they don’t want to believe has happened to them. They are alone now and must carry on without their partners, their lovers. The hollow drudgery of what lies ahead closes in.

When one loses her husband, the father of her children, she loses the future they planned together—the shared dreams for the kids, the travels, the glorious fun, the camaraderie, the shining passion, the joyous laughter. In my mind’s eye I can see myself sitting on the living room floor in our Stuyvesant Town apartment after Jeff was killed, absentmindedly playing with my three-year-old daughter while nursing my infant and wondering: is this it?

One does not forget these things: I can call them to mind and relive the raw pain in an instant, but I work not to do that. I have recreated myself and a new life for my daughters, and I am content.

No, I am not stuck in the past: how can I be? I am single-handedly raising two teenaged girls, and it’s busy as hell here. I vowed not to allow the terrorists to win, and it’s clear I am the victor, at least here in my home.

But the rings of terror keep spreading, and the disenfranchised now have a place to not only feel welcome but to feel cool, connected; they finally belong to something, and it comes with a free pass for violence. I am dismayed, horrified, and worried.

Uniformed soldiers patrol the Parisian streets we were just navigating three weeks ago. Paris now looks and sounds like New York City after September 11th – red, white and blue everywhere and the silence of no cars or buses. When people began to walk the streets again after September 11th, I ventured outside with my double stroller, pushing my toddler to her second day of preschool. I remember the “RIP WTC” stamped on the sidewalks on 14th Street; I remember the huge American flags flying behind the fire trucks. I remember saluting a truck, while my daughter waved, and I remember I wanted to yell out: “I know you tried to save Jeff! Thank you for trying to save Jeff!” before I dissolved in tears.

That pain makes me wince just to remember it. I know this is what the Parisian widows are feeling right now, and I wish, oh how I wish they were not.

I wish they could see me standing here because I want to show them, even as I wish I were not able to show them, that it’s possible to reach the spot where I am standing. It’s possible, but they won’t believe it now, and it’s too soon to tell them, anyway. 

When the Parisian widows are ready, I can meet them at a café I know in Saint Germaine and we can talk. I do not want to be the person who understands their unqualified grief, but I became this person after September 11th. My hope is that they will accept my offer of friendship.

Ellen Bakalian lives with her two daughters in northern NJ. She is an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. Solidarité: A 9-11 Widow in Paris Discusses the Massacre