A 9/11 Widow: Friendship Is the Only Defense Against a Divisive World

I do not make that statement lightly: terrorists killed my husband

Timothy Kolczak
To remain optimistic one must cultivate friendships. Timothy Kolczak/Unsplash

Last Friday morning my two teenaged daughters and I landed at West Palm Beach airport in Florida, about an hour before the shooter at Fort Lauderdale International airport opened fire in the baggage claim. We were stunned, like everyone, and fortunate to be somewhere else.

We’ve been traveling lately, and just returned from a Christmas holiday in Spain. Our trip was everything I had hoped it would be and more because I felt good about humanity despite the turmoil in the world, and that’s not something I had considered when I made myself plan the trip in spite of the worry I have carried for 15 years. I was feeling good, but now, in light of the Fort Lauderdale tragedy, my newfound optimism is tempered.

On our first afternoon in Madrid we walked to the Plaza Mayor to check out the Christmas market. This was just three days after the Christmas market attack in Berlin, and it was prominent in my mind. Besides the usual reminder to be alert to pickpockets, I heard myself tell my daughters to keep an eye out for trucks or cars: “If you see one, we run out of there.”

What a prelude to entering a Christmas market! But enter it we did, and a few days later, we waded through the throngs of people in the Puerta del Sol, when it seemed as if all of Madrid were on holiday. I remained alert whenever we were in large crowds, but I was surprised to realize that my fears were replaced by a lightheartedness from the pure joie de vivre that was palatable in the people around us.

Everywhere we went we saw people holding hands and laughing, proudly wearing silly Santa hats, taking selfies, sharing tapas. Their infectious happiness made me feel real joy: to be traveling with my daughters, yes, but also joy in the knowledge that people are inherently good, and that goodness truly does prevail over the evil unleashed by terrorists. I felt safe.

I do not make that statement lightly: terrorists killed my husband, and my girls’ father, Jeffrey R. Smith, on September 11th. We feel his missing presence every day, and yet I steadfastly carry on with the plans Jeff and I had for our daughters, plans that included traveling the world. Traveling in Spain, and seeing strangers greet their friends with holiday cheer gave me hope for a truly global society, one that is not horrifyingly rocked by tragedy so often that it happened again just last week.

To remain optimistic one must cultivate friendships, something I was reminded of in the medieval city of Girona, where we visited a Spanish girl and her family. My daughters met Maria at Project Common Bond, a peace-building camp for young adults from around the world who have been affected by terrorism. Maria’s family welcomed us with kindness, and I wept when we said goodbye. Both of our families have been personally affected by terrorism, yet our common past forged a new bond that I believe will endure. I asked my daughters to tell Maria’s parents, in Spanish, “our world is better now that we know you,” because creating friendships seems to be the only defense we have against a divisive world.

I am determined to reach daily for the pure pleasure of living and loving, and to remember that the world is made of people just like me, people who want to stroll through Christmas markets with their teenaged daughters, or visit relatives in south Florida.

Ellen Bakalian lives with her two daughters in northern NJ. She is an adjunct professor at Montclair State University.

A 9/11 Widow: Friendship Is the Only Defense Against a Divisive World