Ellen Bakalian knows all the tropes about remembering 9/11. Rather than think about the violence of that day, the widow of Jeffrey Smith ’87, ’88S (MBA) has tried to focus instead on remembering the many ways in which those who died would have enriched the lives of their families, friends, and communities.
Over the past several years, as the anniversaries approached, Bakalian has written short essays on what it was like to raise the couple’s two daughters—Margaret and Charlotte—alone while instilling in the children Jeff’s spirit and ideals.
This essay was written for The Atlantic in 2019 as Bakalian found herself an empty nester—with both young women off to college and another anniversary on the horizon.
In April 1996, Jeffrey R. Smith moved from Florida into my apartment above the Old Print Shop on Lexington Avenue in New York City. I had lived alone for almost 10 years at that point. I cannot say I was living the Carrie Bradshaw life, but I was an independent woman. I loved my job at ABC News, I traveled around the world for work and for pleasure, and I was a doctoral candidate in English literature at NYU. It was a good life, made immeasurably better when Jeff moved in.
Within six months, while on a dive trip to Little Cayman, he proposed. Six months later we were married. We dove in the Coral Sea on our honeymoon, then returned to our jobs, me to ABC, him to his office at the investment-banking firm Sandler O’Neill, on the 104th floor of Two World Trade. Our diving trips were put on hold when our daughter Margaret was born in 1998, followed by Charlotte in 2000. We dreamed of one day diving in the Galápagos with our daughters, but we never got a chance. Jeff was killed on September 11, 2001.
On the Sunday before Jeff was killed, we raced together in my parents’ Comet, a 16-foot sailboat, on a lake in northern New Jersey where I grew up. Afterward, while sailing back to the dock, we talked about what would happen if one of us died. It’s uncanny that we had this conversation. I don’t know how it came up, and of course I have never forgotten it. Jeff said he would want me to remarry. “Life is for the living,” he said. I hedged; I didn’t want to talk about this. I remember how he teased me, saying, “Hey! Now you’re supposed to say that you want me to remarry, too.” I finally told him I did. “But not to anyone younger than me, or blonde.” He agreed. Two days later, he was killed.
Many people are surprised when I tell them that I did not watch the news that Tuesday. I busied myself by keeping the girls occupied, and fielding and making phone calls—when the phone lines worked—hoping for information. I also began to write a letter to Jeff, telling him to “come home to me, come home to me and the girls.” I thought I’d be able to show him the letter when he walked in the door, but the letter ended up becoming a journal entry instead, one of countless such entries to come.
It took me a long time to realize that Jeff was really and truly gone, and when I did, I struggled to figure out what my new reality meant. I met and married Jeff when I was in my late 30s, and when it became clear that we were meant to be, I had to learn to lean on him, a task that was not easy for me, an independent New Yorker. Now he was gone, after only four and a half years of marriage, and I had two daughters to raise alone. The terrorists took my husband from me; there was no way I was going to let them ruin my daughters’ precious psyches too. I planned to win.
I wanted our daughters’ lives to be as close to what they would have been if Jeff were alive to help me raise them, and I told my girls that we would continue to do the things that “Mommy and Daddy planned to do.” My mom and I taught the girls how to snorkel off our dock at the lake, and they taught themselves to catch fish underwater using nets. I can still see these little goggle-wearing girls in my mind’s eye, and my heart aches when I realize Jeff hadn’t been alive to see them.
The girls and I regularly ventured to Maho Bay Camps, an eco-resort (that unfortunately no longer exists) on St. John. We traveled there yearly until their sports schedules dictated otherwise. When they were 7 and 9 years old, we went on a snorkel excursion boat, out to a coral reef in a protected cove. It was a particularly windy day, and there was a lot of chop in the ocean: not the best day to snorkel, especially for young children. Other vacationers were queasy, but the girls were fine, even excited, so we kept going.
My girls were the youngest children on the boat, and I remember the other families watching us as I gathered up our gear to be first in line to enter the ocean via the slide. I was determined to make sure my girls were not afraid. I literally pushed Maggie down the slide ahead of me, then grabbed Charlotte and we went down together. I swam backwards, hooked my fingers through the girls’ life preservers, and dragged them along, telling them to kick, kick, kick, as I sang a little song about Mommy and Daddy going diving with our girls, a song I made up on the spot. Divers my girls would be.
I knew that it was important to keep Jeff alive for my girls, to give them information about their father, so they would know his likes and dislikes, and what he might have said or done in different situations. Jeff and I loved to travel, and whenever we traveled anywhere, I would tell our girls how pleased Daddy would be with their adventurous nature. “Mommy and Daddy wanted to have good travelers,” I would say. Sometimes, even now, when my daughters and I are exploring a walled medieval city in Europe, I turn to them and repeat that phrase, to make them smile.
Most important, I made sure my daughters knew that without a doubt their father tried very, very hard to escape the towers and come home to them, and to me. “Daddy wanted to be with us,” I told the girls. Once, when Maggie was not yet 3 years old, she explained to her 10-month-old sister, “He ran very fast, but smoke got in his mouth.” As much as it pained me to teach my girls the truth, I did it. They needed to know how much he loved them, and how much he wanted to come home. “He was killed, Charlotte,” Maggie said.
Despite what Jeff told me that day on the sailboat, I never remarried. I never had any desire except one: to ensure that my daughters grew into the best versions of themselves, not hindered in any way by the fact that the terrorists killed their father when they were babies. I believe I succeeded: Maggie is now 20 and studying abroad in Belgium this semester, and Charlotte is, at 18, a college freshman. The girls are in the throes of their college careers, as planned, and I find myself living alone again for the first time since 1996.
This time feels different. I live in a suburban house, not a one-bedroom in Manhattan. I’m teaching at a university, not working in television news. I am not in my 30s anymore, and many of my fellow empty-nest friends are downsizing. My cousin Anne, my closest friend, is exploring seaside towns with her husband, trying to find the right mix of location, location, and location. Everyone I know seems to be making plans for the next phase of life. All I can seem to do is exhale.
Living alone can be liberating, and most of my friends have, at some point, told me they are jealous. If the sunset is right and I am holding a glass of rosé in one hand, my new freedom can seem downright exhilarating, but when the sun sets, it’s just me in the room. I ate sautéed vegetables for dinner last night, and I did not clean up the kitchen until early this morning; but I would rather have had Jeff here to nag me about the dishes.
Jeff and I used diving terminology when we made plans of any kind; we would “plan the dive” and “dive the plan.” I recently texted my daughters, who are somewhat concerned that I am now all alone, not to worry about me because they are diving the plan that they and I created.
It has been 18 years since my husband was killed, time enough to raise a child into adulthood, which I have—twice. After losing him, that was my plan, my only plan, and I dove it. Now I am surfacing. It’s time to plan a new dive.
Ellen Bakalian is a writer and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. She lives in northern New Jersey.
From The Atlantic. © 2019 The Atlantic Monthly Group, LLC. All rights reserved. Used under license.