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For widow, 9/11 still vivid in a changed world

The author (second from right) in her backyard in April 2011, with her children (from left) Matthew, Julia, and Meaghan. The author (second from right) in her backyard in April 2011, with her children (from left) Matthew, Julia, and Meaghan.
By Christie Coombs
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2011

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ABINGTON - Anyone with any recollection of the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, remembers it as being a beautiful day. The sky was picture-perfect, the temperature was warm, and it was one of those days that made you want to play hooky from work or school to just be outside.

Like everyone else, I remember that Tuesday for the incredible morning that it started out to be, and for the miserable, life-altering day that it became. For me, Sept. 11 was the day I become a widow. It was the day that life as our children and I knew it and wanted it to be came to an abrupt and violent end. Matthew, Meaghan, and Julia, who absolutely adored their dad, now had to face their lives without the most important man in their young lives.

There is very little in my daily existence that is anything like it was 10 years ago. I am still a mother of three great children, but now I’m a single mom, trying, like any other single parent, to fill the role of both mom and dad. Jeff, who was on American Airlines Flight 11 bound for California on a Compaq Inc. business trip, was funny and very entertaining, so in spite of his small feet that didn’t match his 6-foot-4 frame, he left me very big shoes to fill. For the past decade, I’ve tried to supplement the void the children were feeling, but I knew I could never be all to them that their dad was.

For several years after 9/11, when the work of recovery was still going on at the site of the felled World Trade Center in Manhattan and around it, any time we saw a New York telephone number appear on the caller ID, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for difficult news from ground zero. In 2004 I received the first of several calls over a couple of years - it was the medical examiner’s office letting me know they had recovered a small amount of Jeff’s remains.

There’s absolutely no way to plan for such a call, and my emotions truly caught me by surprise. This is something many families wished for, and yet it was the ultimate confirmation of his death - a confirmation we didn’t need because there was no doubt, but confirmation that was emotionally necessary. Getting that call was like learning for the first time that Jeff was gone. The grief revisited with a vengeance, and we again somehow moved on, knowing more calls were possible, even likely, in the future. We just received word that with new advancements in DNA technology, the identification process has begun again.

Life for us after 9/11 became strange very quickly. Because of my background as a reporter and a public relations executive, my comfort with the media and my awareness of how to give a good interview put me on many Boston-area reporters’ speed dial. They called me frequently with any issue remotely related to 9/11. I became recognizable to strangers, and was often approached by them when I was out with the children or with friends.

I remember being in a grocery store in Braintree with my girls a couple of years after 9/11. A lady came up to me and offered her condolences, said she knew who I was, and she admired what I had done. I thanked her kindly and she hugged me before proceeding on her way. The girls said, doesn’t that get kind of weird, mom, being hugged by total strangers? I told them it does, but people mean well and are just looking for some connection to the greatest mass tragedy that has ever hit our nation. I’m a hugger by nature, so it actually didn’t bother me, depending on the circumstances. I appreciated their thoughtfulness, but I understood why the children found it odd.

Through the work I was doing with the Mass 9/11 Fund, a charity formed to assist Massachusetts 9/11 families, and the Jeff Coombs Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit we created to pay it forward by helping other families affected by loss and illness, I met some incredible people, including other 9/11 families.

Also through 9/11, my children and I have had remarkable opportunities. We met Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres; my son met many of his favorite pro athletes and we were taken into the Patriots’ trophy room by Robert Kraft himself; Meaghan met all of ‘N Sync and sat front row at their concert when they were at the peak of popularity; we met Senator Ted Kennedy and later were given the honor of sitting with his casket at the JFK Library; Julia met children her age from all over the world who were affected by terrorism, and traveled to Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England with them. She learned how to speak in front of a room full of high-profile professionals. I spoke at a women’s conference on terrorism in Vienna, and, most recently, I met President Obama.

But more important than those we’ve met or places we’ve been, we’ve had the extraordinary ability to help people who needed assistance for various reasons, all in Jeff’s name. It amazes us constantly that so much opportunity and good will has stemmed from such a tragedy. But as wonderful as all these memories and adventures are, the children and I agree we would give them all back just to have a few moments with Jeff again.

But 9/11 changed far more than the dynamics of my young family and nearly 3,000 other families across the nation. It altered our country as drastically as the Columbine massacre affected how we keep our children safe in schools.

For a brief time, the world perceived America differently. Sept. 11 brought America down a notch in hierarchy, but not in a bad way. As a country, we became more relatable to other nations, especially those that were familiar with the horrors of terrorism. It also put the rest of the world on alert, sending the message that if America the superpower is vulnerable, all others are certainly at risk, too. It put us in a sympathetic light across the globe. But as America became immersed in the war on terror, attitudes toward the United States began to change again, and the post-9/11 conflicts caused some division in relationships with other countries, even some allies, who disagreed with our military action. After the attack on America, terrorism became a global issue, not just a regional concern.

One of the most significant changes since 9/11 is, of course, how we travel by air. I remember occasions 10 years ago when the children and I would travel to Arizona to visit my family, sometimes without Jeff. Upon our return, he’d be at the gate, kneeling down, arms outstretched, ready for a group hug. Anyone could enter all areas of the airport, including the now-secure gate area.

Security then consisted of going through a metal detector, fully clothed complete with shoes and belt, after you’ve deposited your nail scissors, pocket knife, nail file, or even box cutter in a container to be handed to you on the other side of the metal detector. Why, though, would anyone have to travel with a box cutter?

Those sharp items are now considered weapons and forbidden on any flight, along with more than small amounts of liquids brought from outside the secure area. Personal identification wasn’t necessary 10 years ago, unless of course you were traveling internationally. Now we have the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA setting the rules, both as a direct result of 9/11. Getting through security is far more time-consuming and invasive now. But you’ll never find me complaining about it.

Those brutal attacks of 2001 have brought out the best and worst in many of us. As a nation, we united in a way the country has never seen. Even politicians were civil to their “other party’’ colleagues, and nonpartisan was a term of endearment, thanks in large part, I think, to my home-state senator, John McCain. He was one of the first to acknowledge that working together was far more important than being divided for the sake of party lines. When I met him this past spring, I thanked him for that.

But while we were supporting one another and wonderful people were doing downright generous and kind things for our families, we were all looking over our shoulders at who was behind us, especially if we were traveling. I had to explain to my children that just because people were Middle Eastern or looked the part, that didn’t mean they were terrorists or evil. It brought on good conversations about judgment and racial profiling.

Ten years ago, few people knew what Al Qaeda, jihad, or the Taliban were, and hardly anyone had heard of or paid much attention to Osama bin Laden. Now, very unfortunately, he has become a household name, often referred to as simply “Osama.’’ He and his radical Islamic followers have cost the country many trillions of dollars and, more importantly, significant loss of lives as we continue the war on terrorism. He has caused America to be forever on her toes, much more vigilant than ever before as we constantly wonder when the next attack would occur. Even after his death, his followers remind us that terrorism hasn’t come to an end just because its leader is gone. The threat continues under new leadership, who are equally despicable and evil.

We’ll never know what America would have been like today without 9/11, just as I will never know what my family would have been like had Jeff not been murdered. We do know that we are a different nation - better in some ways. Americans, I think, are more compassionate overall, and more willing to do for others, and we have found and exhibit a new respect for our military.

But the good that resulted from the horrific attacks of 9/11 doesn’t make it any easier to endure. We will always miss Jeff, every day of our lives. And we will always feel the excruciating sadness for what Jeff and all the others are missing by having their lives cut short. No end result, regardless of how positive it becomes, is ever worth massive loss of life. We can’t change history - we can only change how we respond to it.

Abington resident Christie Coombs can be reached at mccoombs@comcast.net.


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