Charlene Fiore—everyone calls her Char—was at her regular dinner with ten other Staten Island widows, who had unexpectedly become her closest friends. They’d been meeting weekly at restaurants across the island—Forest Gardens, Brioso, or at R.H. Tugs, where they could peer across the harbor. The widows would occupy one large table and, each time, try a new drink. This particular night, Char was on a tear. The subject was that word, widow.
Char is five-eight, with blonde hair, a bright smile, light-blue eyes, long legs, on one of which she had tattooed the name Mike. At dinner, she tended to smoke as much as she ate. She had dropped to 112 pounds.
“Widow? Isn’t that a horrible word?” she said to her friends. Char’s voice sounds a little like a cork popping. “Widow, it’s like a bug. It’s yucky. Who ever came up with it?”
Char was still getting used to being a widow. Or, actually, one of the widows. Her husband, Mike, like the husbands of all the women at the table, had been among the 343 firemen who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. From that day on, Char says, “It was, get the widows into the church, get the widows out of the rain, get the widows to the front of the line.”
What else could you do with weepy women? “They had all these emotions,” says a fireman who’d known Char’s husband. Another reason the widows were escorted to the seat next to the mayor, with whom they would become quite chummy, was that they’d been assigned starring roles in a national tragedy. “Char belongs to the people now,” is how another of Char’s friends put it. Recently, she’d been invited to a Knicks game—her husband had been a star basketball player for the Fire Department team. At halftime, she and her three teenage kids were ushered to center court, where they blinked into a standing, cheering crowd. Because my husband died? thought Char.
But Char knew. She and her friends had become stand-ins for an entire country’s tender emotions. “A symbol of America’s grief,” Char sometimes thought unhappily. In Staten Island, where Char had met her husband on a softball field, the widows were an even more poignant symbol. After all, Staten Island was home to 78 dead firefighters, more per capita than anywhere else. And often it seemed as if the entire borough—blue-collar, Italian, Irish, patriotic, Catholic—had one unyielding goal: to hold fast its dead.
The girls—that’s how Char refers to them—wanted to date. What a word! It sounded juvenile, almost embarrassing, to women who’d almost all met their husbands as teenagers.
Char sometimes thought she could drive from one end of the island to the other and never leave a street named for a victim of September 11. The dead were memorialized in a corner bar dedicated to a dead fireman—it said so on the sign—as well as a bowling league and a high-school gymnasium and a softball field. A basketball league and a grammar-school playground were named for Char’s husband.
Later, Charlene’s widow friends would be thought of as the unappeasable widows, the wealthy widows, the lustful widows. But at the start, when they were assuming their new roles, the widows were the perfect virgins of grief, which was how they were supposed to stay. “The public wants you to live up to what they made you,” reflects Char. “They don’t really want you to move on.”
Okay, Char said to the dinner table of widows. Wasn’t there another way they could refer to themselves? “How about ‘the grieving widows’?” Everyone thought of them that way anyhow. After a little discussion, someone shortened it to the GWs, which had a nice ring and was, to Char’s mind, funnier. “That was a widow’s joke,” Char says. “You had to be one to get it.”
GWs would become their own best friends, drifting away from many of those Char occasionally thought of as the Alive Wives, meaning their husbands were alive. The widows, Char called the Dead Wives. “You were in one club or the other,” Char says. “You wouldn’t want to be in the Dead Wives Club, but we found ourselves in it.” They really did seem a club. The GWs went to therapy together and to bowling and to the cemetery, though, of course, no one was buried there. They comforted one another and vacationed together. Fortunately, since none had to work again, they had the time.
Also, and this was important, the GWs looked to the future together, a brighter future. A handful of widows (not, for the most part, those who had been married to Staten Island firemen) had turned political. They clung to the past in order to push for investigations. Char’s GW friends wanted to let go of the past, at least a little. They shared a secret. Two and a half years after September 11, they didn’t really feel like GWs, or not entirely. (That, after all, was the point of their little joke; grieving widows was someone else’s idea of them.) Lately, when the GWs got together, they didn’t talk only about their sadness. They were young, they reminded each other, and they were single and, though they didn’t have to say this, wealthy. The girls—that’s how Char refers to them—wanted to date. What a word! It sounded juvenile, embarrassing, guilty, to women who’d almost all met their husbands as teenagers, and, as they well knew, undignified for symbols of a nation’s grief. Still, one therapist drew their attention to match.com. Slowly, they took off their wedding rings. “It’s difficult to go on a date with a wedding band on,” says one. Adds another, “I miss being in love.”
When Char’s phone rang on September 11, 2001, she was already at her friend Jean Fischer’s house. Mike had been a fireman for nineteen years, as long as they’d been married. For the past ten, he’d worked at Rescue 5, the elite fire station on Staten Island. Mike hadn’t called, but then he never did. Char wasn’t the type to think dire thoughts. They joked about the job’s dangers. Their son would shout to Mike as he left for work, “Get crispy.”
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?”
Later that night, like at 2 a.m., Char was drinking a glass of wine, and Madeline called.
“Can you sleep?
“No. Can you?”
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.
Then Char told Mad, “I need a bar.” When no one was looking, they grabbed each other and sneaked across the street. Char wasn’t much of a drinker, but there she was, trying pink Cosmopolitans, six of them. Eventually, the captain spotted them, and the two tipsy GWs had to return to the funeral home, though before being escorted out, Char managed to grab one last Cosmo in a paper coffee cup.
When they returned, Lisa started shouting, “Where did you two go?” (She was nervous about sitting next to the mayor. “I’d never met a mayor before,” she said.)
“The bar,” Char told her. “But don’t worry, we brought one for you.” Char handed her the coffee cup.
Then Lisa pulled Madeline into the chair of honor—the two of them squeezed into the seat next to the mayor.
“See what it feels like,” Lisa said. They put their heads down. Their shoulders, their backs shook. Passersby touched them gently. Later, Madeline said, “They all thought we were crying.” Really, though, they couldn’t stop their nervous giggling.
Char was stowed behind a row of uniformed firemen, where she sat and pulled the stray threads off their jackets.
At Mike’s memorial, a few weeks later, Char was following the A-and-W diet—Altoids and wine. She worked out a system with Joe Sykes, a Staten Island fireman who’d known Mike since they were 6 years old. Hundreds of people stood on a receiving line. Char hugged so many firemen in polyester uniforms that a red sore spread across the bottom of her chin where it rubbed their shoulders. Civilians in ordinary coats and ties approached, too. Char shook their hands.
When Joe spotted civilians approaching, he’d say, “Char, would you like some water?”
“Thank you, Joe,” Char would answer sweetly.
He’d hand her a glass of wine, which she drank as she shook civilian hands. When firemen neared, Joe would hand her the Altoids, and she’d go back to hugging. It was craziness, “accepted craziness,” Joe would say later.
At the funeral home, Char finally broke down. Her son had sobbed as the oak coffin came off the fire truck until Char whispered, “He’s not in there.” (Empty coffins were the original widow’s joke.) But how long could she insist Mike was just missing? Char fled to the funeral home’s basement.
“The show’s waiting for you,” Joe said when he found her.
“I don’t want to be in the show,” Char answered.
“Char, this is the only time the show won’t go on if you don’t come.”
Joe was so great. Char talked to him a couple times every day, the way she’d talked to Mike. He laughed with her—“It’s weird, we actually had fun,” Joe says —and drove her around, throwing his siren on if traffic backed up. He was by her side at the morgue where Char’s kids got their mouths swabbed for DNA identification. Tears ran down her 13-year-old’s face, and the medical examiner, unfazed, just said, “Open.”
About a year later, Madeline would fall for the firefighter assigned to help her—it was Gerry Koenig, who’d delivered the bad news to Char—and some didn’t like it. He’d been her husband’s close friend. Also, he was married, though the marriage was troubled. “In the beginning, nobody was really happy about it” was how one fireman from their station put it. “We were supposed to stay away from that kind of thing.” They wondered about Gerry’s motives. By now, everyone knew the widows expected a windfall. Had that affected Gerry’s thinking? But Madeline knew Gerry wasn’t insincere. “I miss him, too,” he’d tell her. “Gerry loved my husband, too,” said Madeline, who, nonetheless, sometimes called Char in tears, unsure if she was doing the right thing.
Char knew how sadness could open you up to someone. “It’s just total grief and dependency, and you don’t realize what’s happening. I depended on Joe 100 percent. I became very attached to this man, as attached as I was to my husband.” Joe is happily married and has quadruplets. His relationship with Char wasn’t romantic, though she once told him, “I wish you could marry two people. You could stay married to your wife and marry me too.”
“That’s what she needed to feel at that time,” Joe says, “I was grieving, too. She helped me get over a lot of things.” Joe counted: He’d worked with more than 100 of the dead firemen.
“Joe basically stayed around long enough for me to let go of that,” Char said. “For me to be able to stand on my own two feet.”
Staten Island is a boomtown of affordable housing, where every third or fourth block seems to hold a subdevelopment of near-identical homes on tenth-of-an-acre lots. It’s the perfect setting for firemen seeking middle-class family life. Firemen tend to be family men, and sometimes live in two-family houses with relatives (who make convenient babysitters), or on the same block with them, or, like some firefighter brothers, back-to-back, so they can share one large backyard. On Sundays, extended families—including, as in Char’s case, three generations of men with the same name—convene for dinner or, on a warm day, backyard barbecues, the smell of which carries all the way to the ferry.
After almost twenty years on the job, a fireman can earn a respectable $72,000, though with heavy deductions against future benefits, he takes home just $1,009 every two weeks, one reason so many firemen’s wives work. Still, a fireman loves his job. He can schedule an entire workweek in two days, which allows time to work a second job, coach the kids’ teams, and still grab an afternoon by the pool he put in with his firehouse buddies. There he’d sit, beer in hand, and wonder, as one fireman phrased it, “What are the poor people doing today?”
Of course, every contented fireman knows one shining irony. As Mike sometimes ribbed Char, “I’m worth more to you dead than alive.”
He didn’t know the half of it. To start, every fireman’s widow received the line-of-duty death benefit—$262,000. And then, the moment the towers collapsed, people across the country wrote checks. The charity totaled $1.4 billion, of which at least $350 million was earmarked for rescue workers. The Twin Towers Fund alone doled out more than $400,000, on average, to each family of a rescue worker. This didn’t include donations to firehouses. People had walked checks into Charlene’s firehouse, which received, unsolicited, more than $500,000. That money was divided among the families of the eleven victims.
Plus, the government set up the Victim Compensation Fund, in large part to limit airline liability. (Families of Oklahoma City bombing victims had no such fund.) The government, employing actuarial tables, established compensation guidelines and appointed attorney Kenneth R. Feinberg to administer them. Feinberg did business in a midtown Manhattan high-rise, taking testimony from widows, parents, kids, and their attorneys that included, at times, poems and home videos. Feinberg awarded each family an average of $1.7 million.
All told, a fireman’s widow would probably receive between $2 million and $3 million, sometimes more, much of it tax-free, plus their husband’s salary, also tax-free, for the rest of their lives, as well as any life insurance they’d purchased.
As far as the money went, Char felt she had nothing to apologize for. This was Mike’s gift to his family. At first, the public seemed to agree. Moved by the widows’ awful loss, people felt this: Whatever the widows want.
Most widows didn’t overhaul their lives, which still revolve around the kids. But some things changed, starting with the anxiety over money. “I don’t have to work ever again if I don’t want to,” Char says. That was just the fact. Madeline, Lisa, and Char don’t work these days. Char still has the store, but hardly ever goes in. One widow who had hundreds of thousands in the bank—she didn’t know what else to do with it—bought a car. “Everybody was telling me, ‘Buy a Bimmer, a Mercedes, you have the money now,’ ” she recalled. She decided on a Toyota Corolla.
Still, Staten Island started to seem like a place of fancy new “widow cars,” as Char joked. Widows drove Mercedes SUVs and Jaguars and Infiniti SUVs. After her Tahoe fell apart, Char went car shopping with Madeline and Lisa. Madeline had already purchased a minivan, and Lisa an SUV. Char’s kids wanted an Escalade, a $50,000 car. Char bought it without even looking at it. She’d buy a spaceship if it put a smile on their faces.
Houses got renovated. Char hardly went crazy. She installed an in-ground pool to replace her aboveground pool. Another widow redid her house top to bottom. She and her husband had planned to do it together, probably over ten years, doing most of the work themselves. Now she had the money to hire an architect who could finish it in one shot. Some widows bought new homes. Tina Bilcher was 27 and her son just 13 days old when her husband died. She quickly discovered she couldn’t spend time in their two-bedroom ranch house. Every day she was loading her son in her husband’s Jeep and driving around. She needed a place without bad memories.
People said to her, “I’m surprised you’re not going to a studio.”
“That sounds depressing,” Tina replied.
“Yeah, but it’s just you and the baby,” they told her.
Tina didn’t care what people said. “They’re so taken by their own misery,” she thought. Tina took a mortgage on a five-bedroom house—it cost two thirds of a million dollars—and turned one bedroom into a tribute room for her husband. “His cemetery,” she sometimes called it, and hung a quilt sewn from his wedding tuxedo on the wall. “There’s his cummerbund,” she’d point out to a visitor.
Some women, single again, spent money on their looks. “I know it’s a vain thing, but it makes me feel better,” one plastic surgeon recalls being told by a widow. He provided collagen, Botox, and peels to three firemen’s widows on Staten Island. One widow went to the plastic surgeon on her wedding anniversary. At the office, she broke down in tears. He didn’t charge her. He stopped charging all of them.
Staten Island could seem like a place of fancy new ‘‘widow cars,’’ as Char joked. Char’s kids wanted an Escalade, a $50,000 car. Char bought it without even looking at it.
Wealth, though, made the widows a more complicated symbol of grief. Could you really be grief-stricken if you never had to work again? Some neighbors and relatives seemed to quiver with resentment. This was blood money; someone died for it. And now the widows were trading up cars, real estate? People inventoried the purchases, the trips, even the Christmas gifts. A relative complained to the Staten Island newspaper about the many expensive Xboxes under one widow’s Christmas tree. “Her kids were telling my kids all the people they’re going to give Xboxes to, but none to my kids,” she said. One dead fireman’s sister even went to court to protest how the widow was spending her money. This relative claimed the widow blew through $800,000 that was supposed to benefit the son.
The worst was when the plastic-surgery news got around. “Are those new?” somebody asked Tina in the supermarket, and pointed at her breasts.
“I feel like Jacqueline Onassis,” said one widow, thinking of how people had scrutinized that famous widow.
Recently—how times have changed!—people have approached the widows for help. One friend of Tina’s asked her for $10,000—he’d known her husband longer than she had, he didn’t fail to mention. Another widow was asked by a co-worker to co-sign a mortgage. It was so awkward that the widow quit her job.
Char hated the backlash, and, what’s more, she knew it to be a fraud. Yes, people had been generous. “Now they feel like they have a right to know how we spend it,” said Char. “Come on!”
“It’s jealousy, it’s envy,” said another widow of their celebrity—imagine!—and their financial gain. Char, in response, pointed out the limits of her purchasing power. “I can get everything,” she said, “but I can’t have what I really want.”
The GWs had long been acquainted—firemen’s wives in Staten Island ran into one another at the kids’ school or on the ballfield—but they hadn’t been close. Now, though, many felt shut off from non-widows, with whom even small interactions suddenly seemed awkward. A casual comment (“I’ll check with my husband”) sent a chill through a room. “We don’t really associate with them,” Lisa said, referring to non-widows. Of course, the Alive Wives tried to be sympathetic, but that, too, was uncomfortable. It was, said one widow, “ ‘Awww,’ and then that pitiful look.” Then you had to be, as one put it, “a professional widow,” in visible distress.
Char sometimes thought that she could only really let loose, be sad or happy or even funny, with other GWs. “We had the same exact feelings,” said one widow. Plus, they shared that scandalous widow humor, not at all like the polite jokes of mixed company, which widows couldn’t always deal with. “I’m not really laughing,” one widow explained. “It doesn’t connect anymore.” But widow humor, if done right, was funny, at least to them.
Like the time after a group-therapy session when Char and the others, maybe six altogether, climbed into Madeline’s minivan. Char, Madeline, and Lisa immediately lit cigarettes. One of the girls who didn’t smoke complained, “Are you trying to kill me?”
At which point Lisa whipped around. “And what do you have to live for?” she wanted to know. The GWs laughed so hard Madeline nearly drove the car into a tree.
By now, almost every widow in Staten Island seemed to have three or four widow girlfriends they couldn’t get enough of. (Even Char’s mother, a widow herself, could occasionally feel excluded. “Your other family,” she called the GWs.) They talked every day—Char and Mad’s first phone call was at 8 a.m. If she couldn’t sleep, Lisa called Char in the middle of the night. And Char would get up. For the widows, lots of days were still difficult. “I don’t just live my life,” a friend of Char’s explained. “It’s a job.” On a day when a widow just couldn’t stop crying, an alarm went out. She got calls from half a dozen other widows, trying to put out that fire.
Widows’ kids became linked, too, like an auxiliary GW club. One day, Char’s 16-year-old, Cristen, dark-haired like her dad, long-limbed like her mom, walked home with another widow’s kid. They were students at Notre Dame Academy—they wore the same pleated skirt, white shirt, ponytail. They stopped for pizza, then passed the street named for one girl’s dad, then the street named for the other’s. They talked about the memorials and other stuff, “how we were a lot alike,” said Cristen. They were both Pisces, and also, said Cristen, “We’re not very emotional.”
“People would be like, ‘Why aren’t you crying?’ ” Cristen’s friend said.
“People don’t understand,” said Cristen.
The widows started going on vacation together, with their kids, too. Madeline used to host all her family celebrations. Now, to keep the kids from falling apart, she traveled most holidays. That first summer of 2002, just to get a break from being a 9/11 widow—“On vacation, you can be anonymous,” Madeline said—Char organized a trip to the Bahamas.
They went for a week to Atlantis, a resort on Paradise Island—seven widows and seventeen kids. The adults lounged by the pool while the kids played on the water slides. It was pricey, but Char loved the place and, on a second trip with Lisa, decided to buy a week every year.
“Mad, we bought a time-share,” Char told Madeline excitedly when she returned, then added, “You did, too.”
“I did?” Madeline asked, but she was happy to send off a check.
The worst was when the plastic-surgery news got around. “Are those new?” somebody asked Tina in the supermarket, and pointed at her breasts.
That first Bahamas trip had been a kind of breakthrough—24 of them and no husbands, like a sprawling extended family. One night, four of the widows stayed in Lisa’s room, drinking a bottle of wine on the balcony. The air was thick, you could see the water. One widow who’d lost a husband and a cousin said, “Can you still not believe this sometimes?” Then they all cried for a while, though within five minutes they were hysterically laughing about what Lisa—as they knew by now, she had that mouth!—had said to that poor man at the pool.
Every day the seven widows sat by the pool. One day, a gentleman next to them made an observation. Here were all these women and all these kids but no husbands. Where are these lucky guys, he wondered, off golfing?
“No,” said Lisa, “they’re dead.”
Well, the guy lost all his color so fast, and his wife couldn’t apologize enough, and Mad and Char had to rush to explain.
In some respects, firemen were the pivot point around which Staten Island neighborhoods revolved. In eulogies, these men not only ran into burning buildings, they shoveled snow from sidewalks—everyone’s on the block. Plus, their homes were meeting places. At Madeline’s, where fireman buddies had helped her husband install a backyard pool, 100 people collected every Fourth of July, without invitations. But firemen were more than helpful neighbors and welcoming hosts. They were also the guys who’d pull off the stunts no one could stop talking about. People still recalled how at his dad’s barbecue, Chuck Margiotta—with Char’s husband, the other star of a Fire Department basketball league—would climb onto the roof and, scaring the bejesus out of all below, dive head-first into the pool.
With firemen gone, family differences gathered centrifugal force. In Staten Island, there were horror stories. “Fractured families,” as Char put it. Madeline hardly spoke to her brother-in-law. One mother-in-law had already taken one widow to court, trying to enforce visiting rights to the grandkids. Money fed the differences. A child who was the product of a fireman’s one-night stand walked away with $2 million, while the fiancée and his family got nothing (except lawyers’ fees).
Perhaps envy was at the root of conflict. But grief was in there, too. And money proved a convenient way to express it. In this regard, parents of the dead suffered especially. Invitations would bypass them, going directly to the widow’s house, which was also where their son’s firehouse brothers gathered. Who, some parents wanted to know, would recognize their loss, compensate them? “We’re the forgotten people. We lost our son. We had him 45 years. We got nothing,” said Chuck Margiotta’s father.
“Where do you stop?” Margiotta’s other son, Mike, shot back. “Everybody is trying to say he’s a victim.”
“Parents and the wife,” responded his father. He’d weighed the claims. “No cousins, no aunts.”
In some families, old rivalries reasserted themselves. Catherine Buck—Char met her at the nail salon—had been married to fireman Greg Buck for two years. Shortly before September 11, Catherine and Greg had made a down payment on a beat-up house on a pond. In the meantime, they’d lived with Greg’s parents.
One morning, Catherine sat in her newly renovated home on the street she’d named for Greg—she lives there with a bunch of cats and a dog—and contemplated why she and her in-laws no longer speak. To Catherine, grief had turned competitive. “It devolved into this total struggle between my mother-in-law and me,” said Catherine. She recalled the funeral. “My mother-in-law went up to the casket and would not leave,” said Catherine, who then insisted that the funeral director get a chair for her. “Put it next to his body,” she told him. “I am his wife, and I will be the last one up there.”
One afternoon, the Bucks—Catherine’s in-laws—were at home in their 100-year-old Victorian house twenty minutes from where Catherine now lives. Ernst and Josephine Buck miss Gregory—they call him Gregory—desperately, and constantly relive moments of his life, like a last request to his father: Would he walk the dog? They can’t understand why a street named after their Gregory should be near a house he had never lived in. “I couldn’t go in that house,” said his father. “Gregory never went in there.” Catherine called her street Greg J. Buck Place. His father purchased his own street sign, Gregory Buck Place, and planted it on the edge of his lawn.
Greg’s mother said she always liked Catherine. “I liked her sharing with my son,” she said. “She’s intelligent, she’s pretty, she’s got style.” But with Gregory gone and no grandkids, is Catherine even family? “To say I miss her, it’s like saying I miss the cats,” said his father.
Gregory’s mother, though, imagines she might eventually pick up the phone and call Catherine. “One day,” she said. Meantime, she talks to photos of Gregory she’s posted around the house. “I don’t really believe I’m hallucinating,” she said. But he does respond. She hears his voice. Once, she asked Gregory’s photo about Catherine. “Help me,” she said to her son. “Help me with this.” “Mom,” Gregory told her, “Don’t worry about it.”
Char is a nut for self-help books. Not long after Mike disappeared, she purchased one about being a widow. Next, she bought every grief book she could find. One day, she drifted toward the relationship shelf and thumbed through a book on dating. So complicated, she thought, and put it away.
Char couldn’t sort it all out. There was Mike. She was sure she still loved him. She’d been marking the time until the kids grew up, waiting to have him to herself again. But how long should a dead husband’s photo patrol the bedroom wall? Tina, now 30, knew she wanted to be in love again. “I miss being someone’s wife. I miss taking something out of the freezer at eight o’clock in the morning and hoping it defrosts in time for dinner.”
Char didn’t need a husband. Certainly not, as everyone knew, for the financial stuff. “I just want to go to dinner,” she explained to a friend one day at lunch. At which point, a good-looking guy named Bobby Nola walked in.
Char looked up at him. “Are you married?” she asked.
“Divorced,” he said.
“Well, then I’ll go to dinner with you,” she said.
At that point—March 2003—she didn’t know that Bobby was a Staten Island fireman.
“It’s ironic that we all wind up with firemen,” Lisa said. Lisa, who recently adopted a son to go with her two girls, had a theory: They fell for similar personalities. “I went to fifteen memorials,” she said. “When you listened to people talk about the firemen, it was like you were sitting at the same memorial time and time again.”
Lisa met her fireman at a bowling alley. Char, a bowler, had urged Lisa to drop by. “Isn’t she beautiful?” Char said to Kevin Tellefsen.
Madeline is still with Gerry Koenig—they live together at Madeline’s. They might have been drawn together by grief, Char figured, but romance eventually followed. Even Gerry’s firehouse buddies had accepted the relationship as something good to come out of this tragedy.
When Bobby first told Char that he was a fireman, she crossed her fingers like he was a vampire. She said, “I won’t marry you as long as you’re a fireman.” Char later relented, but on the day of the ferry crash, when she couldn’t reach him, the old feelings rushed back. (The guys had to call now: Lisa’s, who now lives at her place, once phoned from inside a burning building to say he was okay.) Shortly after Bobby moved into Char’s house, Bobby decided to retire, and she was thrilled. One Sunday evening, Char and the kids were having dinner at Mike’s parents’ house. In the kitchen, Char took her mother-in-law aside. “I have something to tell you,” she said.
“Good news or bad news?” asked Mike’s mother cautiously.
“It depends on how you look at it,” Char said.
“It’s about Bobby, isn’t it?”
In Char’s telling, her mother-in-law sounded downhearted. She knew Char was dating. She’d met Bobby.
“Yeah, it is,” said Char.
“He wants to marry you, doesn’t he?”
For an instant, Char wasn’t sure which way her mother-in-law would go. To Mike’s mother, her son was irreplaceable. Plus, in-laws worried, as one put it, “If another man’s family comes in, do we get pushed further down?” Finally, Char’s mother-in-law spoke. “I think Mike sent Bobby to you.” Which, unexpectedly, made Char sad.
Char wondered if being with someone else, if just feeling happy, would always be difficult. It wasn’t like a divorce, where you legally cut a person out of your life. “Char struggled for a long time with how could she be so in love with Mike and still be with Bobby and have a good time and laugh?” Lisa said. Sometimes it seemed that Char lived with two men, juggling loyalties. She kept Mike’s photo above the fireplace—he was with the kids—not far from a photo of Char leaning over a smiling Bobby. And of course she had the tattoo of Mike’s badge. “You want to see it?” she’d say, and sometimes show a visitor.
Last September 11, Char and Bobby had been sitting by the pool when the local paper called to ask what she missed most about Mike. She dissolved in tears. “You know I love my husband,” she told Bobby, and then, as if husband were an indefinite term, she added, “I love Mike.”
Maybe she needed to test Bobby—Madeline knew she was testing Gerry. She’d ask him what to do with a picture of her husband. (“Leave it in the dining room,” Gerry said.) By the pool, Char pushed the issue, saying to Bobby, “When I go to heaven, I want to see Mike.” Char felt unsure, and gloomy, like the air had come out of her. Suddenly she wasn’t certain that she should even get married. “This is never going to end,” Char thought.
Bobby stepped in. “I’m not challenged by a ghost,” he’d say. He told Char, “Char, if you love me half as much as you love Mike, it’s okay.”
That was nice. And one night in bed, as Char said good-night to Mike, which she did every night, she mentioned how she loved Bobby, too. September 11 became something they commemorated together. Char bought a plot at Moravian Cemetery, as Madeline had. On an agreed-upon day, Mad and Char and Li went with Windex and flowers, with Bobby and Gerry. Together, they cleaned the headstones and paid their respects. Then they went to Lisa’s cemetery, and then to lunch.
Still, as good as things were, “people put things in your head,” Char said.
“The first thing people tell you is, ‘Oh, he’s probably going out with you because you have money,’ ” said Lisa.
Firemen who’d known Mike warned Char: “Isn’t it funny that Bobby wants to marry you now and didn’t want to get married for nine years?,” which was how long he’d been divorced. If Bobby drove the Escalade, a very nice car on a fireman’s salary, someone would say with a wink, “So, Bobby, you’re in an Escalade now?” Char would have to jump in. “The widow car,” she’d say and raise her hand. Lisa finally told her boyfriend, “Just tell them you hit the Lotto.”
Bobby told Char to stop worrying. “Look, Char, will you cut it out?” he chided her. And Char did. After all, Char knew something else, something she could tell only the other widows.
She loved Mike to death, unconditionally. But also, though Mike was fast at fires and on the basketball court, he was poky everywhere else. “If he could get out of not doing something around the house for as long as possible, he did,” says Char, who called him “Mr. P,” for procrastinate.
Bobby, on the other hand, can’t sit still. He cooks, not Char. And he doesn’t go to bed at night until everything is straightened up. On weekends, he’s washing the cars, fixing the pool. Sometimes she has to tell him to lighten up, since we could all be dead tomorrow. But mostly, Char says, “I’m liking it.”
As she told one of the widows in what she thought of as a widow joke, the kind that you couldn’t say in public, “I sometimes feel like I died and went to heaven.”
The wedding is set for the fall in the Bahamas—to coincide with Char, Li, and Mad’s time-share. Four widows are coming. Lisa and Madeline will bring their firemen boyfriends. “She’s the first from our firehouse to take that step,” says Lisa. “It shows that you move on and it’s all right.” Joe Sykes will attend with his wife. Mike’s parents will, too. Mike’s father doesn’t know how much he’ll enjoy himself, but he understands. “Wives usually replace husbands,” he says. “That’s good.” Char, trying to respect her in-laws, told the wedding planner she wanted the evening to be more dinner party than wedding.
Now Char just has to get her dress together. In her mind, it has to be right for Bobby, for Mike’s parents, for her kids. That’s a lot. Madeline and Lisa went with Char to the fitting, and it was a semi-disaster. “It didn’t fit and it wasn’t right and the color was off. She was all nuts,” says Lisa. In Char’s house one afternoon two weeks ago, her 16-year-old, Cristen, says that she is happy about her dress, which is pink, brighter than her mom’s, which, she says, is beige.
“Off-white,” Char corrects.
Two of Char’s kids are there, plus a friend. Lisa stopped by with her three kids, one of whom climbs onto Cristen’s lap. Char’s house is compact, and talk about the dress crosses three connected rooms, until Char, touchy for once, says, “I don’t think the dress is that important. Can we talk about something else?”
Outside it’s probably 90 degrees. Inside isn’t considerably better. “I’m buying you central air,” says Lisa. Suddenly Charlene recalls how, when Mike and his firehouse buddies put on the second floor of the house and Mike wrote everybody’s name in the concrete, he’d managed to convince her that central air wasn’t possible. Oh, well. Char, who is wearing her engagement ring, spots Bobby through the window and fetches him inside. He’s hot, and the shamrock tattooed on his arm is covered in dust from the construction site where he now works. Lisa heads out with her kids. Char orders pizza. “Who’s staying?” she wants to know. Bobby spots a stray knife, places it in the sink. Char, then, has a thought related to her wedding dress. “Maybe,” she says, “we’ll all wear bathing suits.”
Additional reporting by Lauren DeCarlo