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3 years after attacks, conflicting emotions

On the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center that killed her husband, Cindy McGinty of Foxborough took part in the massive memorial service at ground zero. ''I felt a very strong pull to be in New York," she says. ''It was the right place to be."

On the second anniversary, she craved solitude rather than solidarity. She and her two sons had to learn to ''be this new family that we were," so she took the boys hiking in the Catskill Mountains, far beyond the reach of painful headlines and television footage.

Today McGinty will come full circle. She will be in Boston for a day of mostly private memorial events with hundreds of other New Englanders whose loved ones were brutally torn from them three years ago. It is the right place to be this year as she remembers her late husband, Mike, she says, and the right people to be with, given the almost familial bonds she has forged with numerous widows of 9/11.

But for McGinty and many other relatives of 9/11 victims, this third anniversary also brings with it conflicting emotions. They know that some Americans believe they should ''get on with their lives" -- even as the recent use of 9/11 as a political football in the presidential campaign has made that harder than ever. They still feel a jolt of surprise when they hear of a wedding or a concert scheduled for Sept. 11, and yet -- while they know it will never be just another day for them -- a part of them welcomes such signs of a return to normality.

''I struggle with it," acknowledges McGinty. ''I don't want people to look at me and pity me, to feel sad when they look at me." In the next breath, though, she expresses anxiety about what she calls ''a real danger in forgetting the impact of this, for our nation and for specific families."

Three years ago, there seemed little chance of that. The nation's response in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks -- which with a death toll of nearly 3,000 were the deadliest ever on US soil -- represented a rare convergence of public and private mourning. The families of the victims felt nestled in a national embrace. Yet precisely because the attacks were without precedent, there are no clear guidelines for the annual remembrances as the event recedes deeper into the past.

''This isn't your normal way of dying," observes Mike Sweeney of Acton, whose wife, Amy, was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11. She relayed details about the hijackers to an airline supervisor on the ground in Boston, which helped the FBI identify them. ''This is a tragic, public, ongoing historical event. It's new ground," Sweeney said.

Consequently, with another year's distance, there is the sense of a nation improvising its long-term responses to the tragedy, uncertain about the proportions that observances ought to assume. Bella M. DePaulo, a social psychologist and visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says both the families and the general public nationwide are ''torn" in similar ways on this third anniversary. ''There is the tug of emotion and empathy that takes you all the way back to ground zero, the yearning to remember and to honor," DePaulo says. ''But there is also something immensely gratifying about having the strength and courage to move on, especially from such a brutal horror.

''If you can go on and live your life fully, then they haven't really gotten to you, have they?" she adds. ''But then, that just brings you back to your initial sentiment: If you say 'Don't look back,' isn't that disrespectful to the people who lost their lives that day and deserve to be remembered?"

Christie Coombs, whose husband, Jeff, was killed on American Airlines Flight 11, is considered a beacon of strength by the other 9/11 widows with whom she has become close friends. But even Coombs acknowledges that this third anniversary is fraught with emotional complication in a way that the previous two were not.

''A lot of us feel the pressure from society to kind of move on, get on with it," she says in her Abington home, which is filled with pictures of her smiling husband. ''I agree we can't live in the moment of Sept. 11, but we can't move on without remembering that it happened."

Toward that end, she is helping put together a book for family members of the victims, filled with photographs and anecdotes about those who died. She plans to read her introduction to the book today at the ceremonies in Boston, and she clearly cherishes her relationships with the other families of 9/11. Still, she acknowledges, ''Three years later, you wonder how many more years will we do this, how long will we be gathering together in this way." She gives voice to another worry: ''Is the country tired of it? That concerns me."

In recent weeks, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have taken center stage in a way some families find dismaying: as a political issue. Speakers at both the Republican and Democratic conventions repeatedly invoked the memory of Sept. 11. Then, a few days ago, Vice President Dick Cheney raised the specter of another terrorist attack in warning against the election of the Democratic nominee, John F. Kerry. Last month, Kerry made headlines when he quickly endorsed the changes in intelligence policy recommended by the 9/11 commission.

''I don't think it should be a political event," says Diann Corcoran of Norwell, whose husband, Jay, died aboard United Airlines Flight 175. ''I don't think either campaign should be discussing it."

For some, their anguished questions about what happened to their loves ones were only intensified when they read the recently published ''The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States."

Sweeney, who read the book, expresses frustration that more security measures have not been implemented. ''What changes have actually taken place? [Former CIA director] George Tenet is the only one who has actually lost his job from this," he says.

While there are a number of public vigils and tributes today, the events organized by Massachusetts 9/11 Fund Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides financial support and other services to families, are private with the exception of a flag-lowering and a moment of silence on the State House main lawn at 8:46 a.m. The goal of the other 9/11 Fund events -- a speaking program at the Boston Opera House, a lunch at the Ritz-Carlton, a reception for charity cyclists on Boston Common-- is not just to remember, but also to recapture a kind of intimacy. In that respect, today's ceremonies may open a new, more muted phase that could establish the template for how 9/11 is commemorated.

Kerry and Romney will be involved in the tributes, but there will be fewer dignitaries than in past years in order to maintain a tight focus on the families. Moreover, a video montage will be shown -- distilled from tributes to the victims by colleges, churches, and even nursery schools -- that is designed to show the families their loved ones have not been forgotten, according to Linda Plazonja, executive director of the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund.

Apart from financial worries and concerns about their children, says Plazonja, ''their biggest fear was that people would forget, that Americans would move on to another tragedy and this would become a thing of the past. That was terrifying to them, as it would be to anyone who suffered such a loss in such a public way."

They will forever identify with others who suffer such losses. In the past week, the 9/11 families were buffeted anew by reminders of terrorism's horrors when a hostage crisis in Beslan, Russia, ended with hundreds dead, many of them children.

''I can never again look at anything like this as a spectator," Coombs says. ''I am immediately drawn in . . . I know what those families are going through."

Beyond that, the approach of the Sept. 11 anniversary brings with it the inevitable torrent of images -- the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers, the wreckage at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field -- that bring a crushing pain. ''I find I'm not sleeping as well," acknowledges Corcoran. ''There's just so many reminders; it's everywhere. And you never know when it's coming out at you. It's out of the blue.

"It's with trepidation that you turn the page of the paper," Corcoran said. "You wake up in the morning and you feel pretty good, and then you can get knocked down and it's Day One all over again."

A source of comfort lies in the fact that so many families have been able to institutionalize the memory of their loved ones in the form of foundations and scholarships. Many of them say they see it as a way to give back to a community that stood by them in their hour of need. Tomorrow the annual Jeff Coombs Memorial Road Race will take place in Abington to raise money for a foundation that provides financial help to local families and organizations. On Friday a golf tournament will take place to raise money for a foundation established in Jay Corcoran's memory that distributes scholarship money to college-bound students in Norwell. On Sept. 19 in Foxborough, a ''family fun day" will raise money for a scholarship foundation in the name of Mike McGinty.

And this afternoon, in a ceremony at the Massachusetts State House, Mike Sweeney will join Romney in presenting the Madeline Amy Sweeney Award for Civilian Bravery.

''For at least a small period, it's a little bit of a diversion from the horrific acts that happened on that day," he says.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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