To mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we've been sharing excerpts from Where You Left Me, Jennifer Gardner Trulson's new book about a mother coming to terms with the enormous loss of her husband and the father of her children. Douglas Gardner died in the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers.
My son Michael’s fifth birthday was October 17, a little over a month after the attacks. I needed my boy to have a traditional birthday party. He should have his friends around him, clapping, while he blew out the candles. I wanted the silliness and racket of a normal celebration.
But I couldn’t plan it. Logistics, for some reason, paralyzed me. So did the thought of marking our son’s birthday without Doug. Three colorful packages of “Let’s Party” invitations sat unopened on my desk. Pam Weinberg once again saved me and stepped in to handle all of the details. She reserved the children’s play space at the Reebok Club and asked Michael’s karate instructor to hold a demonstration class for the children.
The day before the party, my sister-in-law, Danielle, took Michael for a bike ride in Central Park. Doug’s parents came over, as they did nearly every day, and joined my parents and me as we resumed our usual positions in the living room to wait for the day to end. The phone rang, I picked it up, and Danielle’s distressed voice rang in my ear: “Jennifer, you have to come here right now. Michael fell off his bike.”
“Where are you?” I asked.
“We were just riding slowly up the hill, and he tipped over and hurt his face.”
“Where are you?”
“Across from Tavern on the Green.”
I ran through the service door in the kitchen, flew down the stairs, and headed for the park. I remember my father yelling at me to be careful as I recklessly dodged cars on Central Park West, crossing against the light to Tavern’s parking lot on Sixty-Seventh Street. I tore past the Bloomberg playground, where Doug and I used to spend hours pushing the kids on swings “so high in the sky.” Ahead of me was the entrance to Sheep Meadow, a large grassy field usually overrun with families, hacky-sack players, and sunbathers on a lunch break. I turned right and headed down the drive toward Tavern’s outdoor café. There they were. A small crowd had gathered under a tree, surrounding a tiny form—my boy—holding a white towel against his mouth. Danielle paced anxiously on the sidewalk, looking for me.
I reached the tree, bodies parted, and I saw two frightened brown eyes looking up at me. “Mommy,” Michael snuffled beneath the towel over his mouth and nose. He started to cry.
“Let me see, honey. It’s okay.”
Michael let me remove the reddening towel. His face didn’t have a scratch on it, but his mouth looked like bloody ground meat. Two front teeth were broken and twisted at bizarre angles.
His lip was engorged with an impressive cut. Blood pooled over his gums and dripped onto the towel. He looked and sounded like a mini Rocky Balboa minus the swollen eyes. I gently put the towel back to his mouth and smiled. “Michael, we can fix this, baby. You’re fine. Mommy can fix this.” My father sat on the grass with Michael, and I turned to Doug’s sister, who was fidgeting with worry and fear. “Danielle, it’s okay. Michael’s fine. Kids fall off their bikes all the time. We can fix this.”
One might think I’d be traumatized to find my son lying injured on the pavement a month after what we had been through. On the contrary, I was elated. His injury energized me in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time. For the first time since the attacks, I could be my child’s mother, kiss the boo-boo, and make it “all better.” This is what mommies did, and what I could not do for my children when their daddy died. Moms were supposed to fix things, put them back the way they were. But Doug’s death couldn’t be mended with a few Band-Aids and Neosporin. Standing in Central Park looking at my bloody child, I felt my competence return: This I can repair.
Jennifer Gardner Trulson is a 9/11 widow and the founder of the Douglas B. Gardner Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping at-risk children in New York. She graduated from Tufts University and received a J.D. from Harvard. She lives with her husband and two children in Manhattan. Her new book, Where You Left Me, tells the story of her family's unimaginable loss, and also the resilience, friendship, and love that helped them heal.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.