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The Dead Wives Club, or Char in Love

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Tina Bilcher with her son, who was just 13 days old when his father, a fireman, died on September 11.  

So it was Char’s mother—she’d hurried over when she saw the TV—who took the call. The firehouse was on the line. Char distinctly recalls the message her mother relayed: “We don’t know where he is, but he’s fine.”

Char called the station to double-check. They assured her that Mike was fine, though still not located. Later still, she’d get a third reassuring message. Thank God, Char thought between cigarettes—Char was usually between cigarettes.

Char turned her attention to Jean, whose husband, a Fire Department lieutenant in Manhattan’s Ladder 20, was missing. She hadn’t gotten any reassuring messages. Jean’s husband and Char’s had grown up together in Staten Island. Most summers, the two families vacationed together, a week at Great Adventure. Char left her three kids with her mother and hurried over to Jean’s house. It was a six-minute drive in her Tahoe.

Jean refused to put on the TV. She and Char sat on the front stoop and waited for the phone to ring. Jean’s neighbor Cheri Sparacio—Jean and Cheri share a driveway—was outside, too. Cheri, three months pregnant, waited for her husband, a currency trader in the World Trade Center, to get off the bus, as he usually did. She joined Jean and Char on the stoop.

Char’s kids phoned. “Why hasn’t Daddy called?” they asked. “Mommy, come home.”

“No, Daddy’s fine, but Mrs. Fischer’s not fine,” Char said. “Daddy’s busy. He’s working.”

Around midnight, Char’s mother called. Char had to come home. The kids had been watching TV and were going nuts. At Jean’s house, people had started to show up—the Fire Department’s efficient support network had kicked in—so Char drove home.

Toward one in the morning, Char was putting out the garbage on the side of her house, thinking the kind of thought she sometimes had: Firemen’s wives do everything, since the guys are often gone. Just then, a gray pickup pulled in across the street. In the truck, Char could make out two guys, a fireman from Mike’s house, Gerry Koenig, who she figured was driving Mike home. She waited for them to cross the street when she noticed something. All hell had broken loose today, yet Gerry wore a blue uniform shirt and a tie.

Char’s reaction was to run. She’d been a fireman’s wife long enough. She knew the Fire Department required proper dress of those who deliver unhappy news. Char circled around the truck, away from Gerry. He followed her.

“Why are you here? You shouldn’t be here,” she shouted over her shoulder. “Mike would never have left you there.”

“Char, it doesn’t look good,” Gerry said.

“Where’s Mike? Go get Mike.”

Then Char’s mother started to call her girlfriends, and the next thing Char knew it was three in the morning, and the house had 50 people in it. (Gerry, meanwhile, drove twenty minutes to Madeline Bergin’s house—her husband was in the same firehouse as Char’s husband. He had more bad news.)

The next day, people brought over fruit, junk food, flowers, even checks—she got so many flowers she sent some to Cheri, who didn’t have the Fire Department’s network. (Cheri’s news was bad, too, like Jean Fischer’s.) And crowds of people, hundreds of them, filled Char’s house, which Char thought was irritating and a little funny. Wouldn’t Mike, officially just missing, be really impressed when he came home and saw all the friends he had?

A week later, people were still there. Char said, “If I sat on the front steps, there were twelve people on the front steps. I’d go in the backyard, and twenty people were sitting around.”

All of a sudden, Char was really wanting to talk to Madeline. Previously, they’d moved in different circles. Madeline, who’d just turned 40, was a kindergarten teacher. Her husband had recently bought a bar and planned to run it when he retired from the Fire Department. Char, then 45, owned a children’s-clothing store. Mike was an athlete. Char hunted up Madeline’s number, went into her bathroom, locked the door.

“People you haven’t seen in twenty years, are they ringing your doorbell?” Char asked Madeline.

“Oh, my God!” said Madeline.

“Me too,” said Char. “Do they keep staring at you?”

They did.

“Me too.”

Later that night, like at 2 a.m., Char was drinking a glass of wine, and Madeline called.

“Can you sleep?

“No. Can you?”

“No.”

Char was hardly quiet, but Madeline was a real talker. They went on for two hours.

Char’s best friend at the firehouse had been another wife, whose husband had survived. She didn’t stop by to see Char until three weeks had passed, at which point Char asked, “What are you doing here?” She said something about her kids, but Char knew the real reason: They were in different clubs now. Madeline became Char’s new close friend, and not a day went by that they didn’t talk two or three times, and often during the night, since they didn’t sleep very much. Char and Madeline befriended another widow from the firehouse, Lisa Palazzo, 31 at the time.

Char was thrown together with other widows from her husband’s firehouse, which had lost eleven guys—almost half its crew—and she remained close to Jean Fischer, though she never saw Jean’s neighbor, Cheri. Cheri was a 9/11 widow, too, but she was civilian, and as if that wasn’t divide enough, she once publicly bristled that so much attention was paid to fallen firefighters. Was her dead husband’s life worth any less? She and the firefighter’s wife next door stopped speaking.

The widows became Char’s essential friends, especially Mad and Li—Char shortens everyone’s name. At the memorial for Lisa’s husband, one of the first, Char and Madeline promised to stick by Lisa. Hundreds of people attended, including the mayor, and the firemen ushered the widows up front in their good dresses and manicured nails.

Char, though, was having trouble with all the solemn behavior. She urged Lisa to show the video—Lisa made a tape of the funeral for her young kids—to her husband when he arrived home. “How many people get to witness their own funerals?” Char whispered to Lisa.


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