The inspiring story of love, loss, and recovery of a 9/11 widow.
On September 11, 2001, Marian Fontana lost her husband, Dave, a firefighter from the elite Squad 1 in Brooklyn, in the World Trade Center attack. A Widow's Walk begins that fateful morning, when Marian, a playwright and comedienne, became a widow, a single mother, and an unlikely activist.
Two weeks after 9/11, the city attempted to close Squad 1, which had suffered the loss of twelve men. Known for her feisty spirit and passionate loyalty, Marian, who was still reeling from her profound loss, began to mobilize the neighborhood to keep the firehouse open. From this unlikely platform the 9/11 Widows and Victims' Families Association grew. Over the next twelve months, Marian struggled with the tragedy's endless ripple effects, from the minute and deeply personal—she wonders who will play Star Wars with her son, Aidan, and carry him on his shoulders; to the collective: she works to get families and widows necessary information about the recovery effort and attends private meetings with Governor Pataki, Mayor Giuliani, Senator Clinton, and Mayor Bloomberg.
Through it all, Marian's irrepressible humor is her best armor, as well as evidence of her buoyant strength. Written with great heart and humanity, A Widow's Walk is a timely opportunity for remembrance and a timeless testament to love's loss and the resilience of the human spirit.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
|File size:||3 MB|
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My eyes creak open and try to read the red numbers, blinking 8:15 A.M. A surge of panic rushes through me. I am late for my son's second full day of kindergarten. I should have laid out his clothes and packed his lunch the night before, but the organizational gene is recessive in my family. I scramble into his room to find him a clean shirt.
"Aidan! Wake up!" I yell. Aidan is sleeping in the middle room of our small floor-through apartment. When he was a baby, I would tiptoe through his room so carefully, it reminded me of scenes from the movie Kung Fu, trying to walk on rice paper without making an indent. Even at five years old, Aidan still looks like a baby, his mouth hanging wide, cheeks flushed red like tempera paint. I watch the soothing rhythm of his chest rise and fall and I stop to fill my own lungs with gratefulness.
"C'mon! We're late!"
Aidan stirs and I rush into the kitchen to make lunch and call Dave at the firehouse on Union Street, eight blocks away. Last night we tried to have our usual eleven o'clock phone call, but the Squad's PA system was broken. Everything was accompanied by a deafening sound resembling a bee caught in a microphone.
"I can't talk," he'd said. "This noise is driving me crazy."
"Ten more hours and you'll be on vacation for a month," I reminded him before hanging up. Dave wasn't supposed to be at work, but I had insisted he switch shifts to have our anniversary off.
Dave was excited by our plans to go to the Whitney Museum today. Now that Aidan was in school, he could pursue his art again, maybe even apprentice with someone well known. He was also considering massage school or going back to college to get a master's in history. He had lists of projects and ideas scratched on paper all over the house, ways to supplement his meager income until he was promoted.
Aidan shuffles into the kitchen and sinks into a chair. "I'm tired," he complains, plopping his head into his folded arms. I kiss his hair, inhaling the scent of sweat and baby shampoo, and dial the firehouse.
"Squad One. Firefighter Fontana speaking."
"Hey. Happy anniversary," I say.
"You, too." He sounds exhausted. Ever since we returned from Cape Cod three weeks ago, Dave has been working extra shifts to pay back the firefighters who worked for him so he could go away. Smearing peanut butter on potato bread, I ask him when he will finish.
"I just have to shower," he answers. I picture him grimy and smelling of smoke. When he "caught a job" and worked at a fire, he came home smelling like the bottom of a fireplace. Sometimes the sooty smell could linger for days, Q-tips turning black when he cleaned his ears.
"Are you sure you're done?" I ask, prying the jelly jar from the refrigerator shelf. Firefighters work two twelve-hour and two nine-hour shifts a week. At the end of his shift, he cannot leave until a member of the new crew arrives and is prepared to take his place. Since Dave is the only firefighter who lives in the neighborhood, he is often the last to go. Despite my complaints, Dave stays late so the other firefighters can begin their lengthy commutes home to Long Island, Rockaway, upstate, and Staten Island. One firefighter travels as far as Harriman State Park.
"Yeah, I'm done," he answers. I can tell he is as excited as I am to be together today. My neck hurts from squeezing the phone, and Aidan is asking for a waffle.
"I'm late. Where do you want to meet?"
"Connecticut Muffin in ten minutes?" he suggests. I can hear the deep male voices in the kitchen, the coffee cups clanking into the sink. Some firefighters linger and talk to the incoming crew before they head home, to miss the rush hour and catch up with their friends. Usually they want to know about what kind of runs everyone went on the night before.
"Okay. I'll see you at Connecticut Muffin in ten minutes," I repeat, and hang up. That's it. No profound discussions. I can't even remember if I told him I loved him. We always did, but ingrained habits are forgotten sometimes, like leaving the coffeepot on or forgetting to lock the door.
Outside the sky is so blue, it looks as if it has been ironed. Aidan is walking slowly, a squeeze yogurt hanging from his mouth. There was no time for waffles, and now I guiltily rush him the three blocks down 7th Avenue to his school.
At the corner near the school, local politicians are shaking voters' hands while fresh-faced college students hand out flyers. It's Election Day. I'd nearly forgotten. I try to get Aidan to walk faster, but he drags behind me like luggage.
"Can we get an Anakin Skywalker toy after school?" His little hand is warm and clammy. Even on busy days, I enjoy how it feels.
"Uncle Jason is picking you up."
"It's Daddy's and my anniversary today."
"Are you going to have a party?"
"No. We're going out in the big city."
"Can I come?"
"No. You have school."
"Can Jason buy me an Anakin?"
If Aidan were a dog, he would be a retriever. I convince myself that his obsessive single-mindedness will serve him well someday as we cross the playground to the school door.
The kindergarten room is noisy and stifling. Aidan bounces toward his seat, oblivious to the little girl next to him crying noisily and clutching her father's pants leg. I kiss Aidan good-bye on top of his head. His hair is so soft it feels like a new cotton pillow.
"I love you," I say.
"Love you, too," he answers distractedly.
Outside in the playground, I peek in the window. It is only the second full day of kindergarten, and I am nervous Aidan will miss me. A few other children are crying, but he is talking to a curly-headed boy next to him, his face expressive and sincere. His eyebrows bounce up and down like caterpillars dancing.
The air is warm and in it lingers the smell of summer. I spot my friend Kim, leaning on her blue Volvo and waving at me. Kim speaks crisply, filling her sentences with words I have to look up in a dictionary.
"I'm so glad I ran into you!" Her wide cheeks spread into a smile. "I'm leaving for the Congo on Friday and I wanted to have a chance to see you."
Kim is a former member of my weekly writing group; she wrote elegant travel essays, until she left last year. Everyone in the group writes from experience. While I spent my teens poured into Sassoon jeans and listening to Led Zeppelin at keg parties, Kim contemplated the evils of apartheid on the dirty back roads of South Africa.
I envy the exotic writing assignments Kim gets but know that I am not capable of such high adventure. Writing and performing one-woman shows about the curious urban characters I witness on the F train is about as intrepid as I want to be. We chat for a while until I suddenly realize that I am late to meet Dave.
Arriving at Connecticut Muffin breathless, I am surprised that Dave isn't already there. I spot Tommy behind the counter and smile. The soft-spoken black man in his late fifties hands me my coffee before I even ask for it. He chuckles and shakes his head when I tease him about smoking.
"Okay. . . okay. For you, I'll quit," he says.
On the benches outside, Park Slope mothers perch behind Maclaren strollers. I find a seat near the sidewalk and sit to wait for Dave. I remind myself to vote and smile in guilty pleasure at having the day alone with Dave. Unable to afford babysitters, we have struggled to balance the heavy tray of work, parenting, friends, writing, exercise, sex, and shopping. With Aidan in school, the possibilities seem endless.
I stir from my reverie to notice that the people around me are speaking animatedly. I hear the words "airplane" and "Twin Towers" when
my friend Lori walks over. She is a short, blond ex-dancer with two
wild boys and a face that's seen too much sun. She teaches aerobics at
the Dance Studio where I worked as a gymnastics instructor for eight years.
"A plane just crashed into the Twin Towers," Lori says. People are pointing at a plume of smoke cutting across the sky like a black arrow. I picture a small biplane wedged into the top of the tower like a candle pushed into a cake. I wonder for an instant if Dave went. After all, he would never want to miss a fire, and I'm sure Squad 1 would go. Squad 1 is the first of seven squads that, along with five rescue companies and a Hazardous Materials Unit, constitute the highly trained division of the Fire Department known as Special Operation Command. SOC companies handle confined-space rescues, collapses, hazardous material spills, terrorist incidents, and more.
No, he's not there, I tell myself. He said he was done. Someone came in for him and he was going to shower. It's our anniversary. He's probably at home waiting for me in bed, ready to fool around before we go to the city.
I stand up.
"Where are you going?" Lori asks, concerned.
"I think Dave might be waiting for me at home." Dave hated that I was always late. Because I'd taught in the neighborhood, I could never make it down 7th Avenue without stopping to talk to parents, kids, and friends. Dave dubbed me "Pope of the Slope" and often insisted that we take the quieter 6th Avenue so we could get places on time.
More people are looking up over the horizon toward Manhattan at a second plume of smoke that is widening and bleeding into the blue sky.
"Let me come with you," Lori insists, following me down to 4th Street, to the ground-floor steps of our small brownstone apartment.
"Dave?" I yell down the hall, but everything is eerily quiet. In the living room, Lori turns on the television and I am stunned to see the top of one of the towers engulfed in flames, like a giant metal matchstick. My heart beats faster as I notice the second tower is also on fire. Footage of a plane crashing into the second tower plays and I am confused. Is this a stunt or some kind of camera trick? What is happening?
My breath catches in my throat as I watch people jump from windows, falling like ash. A man in a green shirt tucks his knees up, like a kid doing a cannonball into a pool, and is gone. The voices on the news sound confused, their cameras filming shakily as sirens blare in the background. Squad must be going. They're just a straight ride through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Now I am worried. The cameras flash to the Pentagon, which is also engulfed in flames. The television cuts back to the towers as a man uses his shirt like a parachute and jumps. Lori is talking, but all I can hear is my heart pounding in my ears. The voices on the news report a crash near Philadelphia and planes grounded all over the country in case there are strangers in the cockpits.
It is the Apocalypse, I think. It is the end of the world.
"What's happening?" I ask the television. Everything sounds muffled, as if I'm underwater. My phone rings but sounds far away. Thank goodness. Dave is calling, he can explain what is happening. Lori answers in a hushed voice and hands me the phone.
It is Mila, my friend from college who lives in the neighborhood.
"Marian, are you watching TV? Please tell me Dave is with you," she says nervously.
"Yes. I don't know where Dave is. . . I think he might be there." Fear and doubt make my voice shaky.
"What would he be doing there?" Mila asks. Worry swells in my chest. Lori looks at me expectantly and then back at the television.
"He'd be running in, I guess. . . up the steps. . . to save people." I imagine him running, carrying a hundred pounds of equipment, the heat from the tower banking down like a heavy blanket.
Suddenly the television emits a low rumble. I can feel the vibrations through the set and into my stomach. Gray spires pour out like fireworks of dust, ash, and metal. I drop the phone and watch in disbelief as the South Tower falls. The ventricles of my heart start to pulse, popping and ripping, exploding in my chest. I clutch my heart, but it is as futile as trying to stop the ocean.
"Oh my God. He's dead. He's gone!" I scream, sinking onto the rug, trying to grasp one of the million thoughts speeding through my head like a movie on fast-forward.
"No. You don't know that," Lori says helplessly. "I'm sure he's fine. He's probably helping people." She tries to sound calm, but her hands are shaking when she takes the phone from me. I want to believe her, but I know he is gone.
I am scared to avert my eyes from the television, as if it is the only connection I have to Dave. Lori is talking to Mila and I am blinking to keep the tears from blurring the images on TV. Reporters are yelling into the cameras, shocked, their faces covered in ash. Images of Dave speed through my head like a highlight film: Jones Beach when we kissed under the green-striped umbrella, Dave massaging my feet while we watch TV, that argument on the R train, the snowball fight in front of the dorm, iced coffees in the backyard, rhubarb pie on the Irish coast, the crease in his shoulder, the way his fingers feel, his dimples, yoga, hands, legs. I stop the images, my face hot and wet from crying. I feel Lori squeeze my hand. I head over to the red phone in the kitchen, a call box that says "911" on the outside. Dave bought the novelty phone at a department store when he first became a firefighter. I pull open the door and frantically dial the firehouse and am not surprised when it's busy. I press redial and will Dave's voice to answer. I would do anything to hear it now, deep and quiet.
Answer. Answer, goddammit. Don't you dare be on that truck, Dave. I hang up and pace across the living room, staring at the television in confusion. My mind races with my feet, back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster. I pace as if my footsteps could turn back the clock, rewind what has happened. The phone rings and I dive for it.
"Hello?" I say expectantly.
"It's Jason," he says in his bass voice. He's my best friend from college and my neighbor. He has traveled with Dave, Aidan, and me on what we affectionately dubbed our gaycations.
"JASON!" I yell, noticing that I sound more like a hysterical, overwrought woman than myself. "You have to help me! I can't. . ." I screech, out of breath as if I have run a long distance.
"Marian, calm down. He might not even be there. You just have to calm down. I'm coming over right now."
I hang up and pace again, covering my eyes with two curtains of fingers. I try to wipe away what I have seen. I run to the red phone again and dial the firehouse. Still busy. I contemplate walking there, but I feel as if someone is kicking my knees from behind.
"Do you think the school is safe?" Lori says, worry wrinkling her face. I realize I have not even thought about Aidan. "Maybe I should pick up the kids." I try to focus on what she is saying, but my mind feels like I have twelve radio stations playing at once, giving me different information. I press my hand to my head trying to recall who was working with Dave last night. If he's with the experienced guys, he'll be safe, I tell myself. Lieutenant Mike Esposito. What about Bobby West? He's as good as it gets twenty-two years on the job in a busy house. They are talented firefighters who protect their men and would never put themselves in a situation that was too dangerous. Dave probably can't get to a phone, that's why he hasn't called, because he told me he would always call. He had promised me less than three months ago. On June 17, 2001.
It was 5:00 p.m. on Father's Day, and Dave still hadn't called. He always called at least once during his shift. Aidan was taking a nap, even though he had given them up almost a year before. I could hear him snoring on my bed as I hung up the sign we made that morning for Dave. It said "Happy Father's Day" in black marker.
I heard the report on the news first: There were firefighters missing. A wall collapsed after an explosion in a hardware store in Astoria, Queens. At least one firefighter was trapped inside the burning building. Two others were buried in the rubble. The reporter on NY 1 was standing in front of Rescue 3's rig when the cable TV cut out. I vaguely remembered Dave telling me he was going to work at another rescue company that day. My landlady heard me crying. She sent her daughter down to keep an eye on Aidan and helped me upstairs. She put a shot of whiskey in my shaking hands while her husband tried to fix my cable. We waited and waited until the phone finally rang.
"This is the worst day of my life." Dave's voice cracked; he was trying not to cry. I could barely talk I was so relieved. I thanked God. I told Dave I loved him. "I gotta go. I'm on this guy's cell and he hasn't called his wife yet. We found two guys. . . I gotta go."
"I'm so glad you're okay," I whimpered.
"Me, too. I'm sorry I scared you. I promise if anything like this happens again, I'll call. If you don't hear from me in twenty minutes, then you can worry. Okay?"
It has been nine minutes since the South Tower collapsed. It turns out that I will have eleven more minutes to hope that Dave went to get me an anniversary present instead of jumping on the truck. I run to the phone again, press redial. Miraculously, someone answers.
"It's Jimmy Lopez, Marian." He is one of the new guys, short and stocky with hazelnut-colored skin. His eyebrows are probably furrowed, his usual expression.
"Is Dave there?" I ask. Just say yes. Please, please say yes.
"I think they're out on a run," he says reluctantly.
"Dave's dead," I tell Jimmy. "I think Dave's dead." I try hard not to get hysterical, not to cry.
"Naw. Naw. He's fine. I don't know what's going on, I just got in, but we'll go get him, okay?"
"It's our anniversary."
"Oh. . . listen, don't panic. He probably just couldn't get to a phone or something."
"A tower's collapsed!" I shriek. Jimmy is silent, and I wonder if he has hung up. "Hello?" I say.
"Yeah, I'm here," he says slowly, and I realize he has not seen the TV yet. "I gotta go."
"Maybe Dave's with Espo?"
"He's on the board."
"What about Bobby West?"
"His sister died yesterday. Matt Garvey is covering for him I gotta go, Marian. I'll call you later."
He hangs up, and the silence echoes in my ears like a high-pitched buzz. I press the receiver and the dial tone staggers, telling me that there are messages. I curse myself for not having call waiting. My fingers shaking, I check the calls: two from my parents, one from my friend Theresa, one from my sister, Leah, who is vacationing in Maine all in hushed and worried voices.
The doorbell finally rings and Jason enters, his brown eyes wide with apprehension. I shake my head in disbelief and collapse into his arms, sobbing. He is one of only a few who know the thick onion layers that constitute my seventeen years with Dave.
"I know it looks bad, but you don't know yet," he says, and I turn my head back and forth, clutching my heart to keep it from breaking into smaller and smaller pieces. He guides me over to the couch and squeezes my hand as we watch TV.
"Did you call the firehouse?"
"Dave went," I cry.
"He might not have even gotten there yet. I'm sure there was a lot of traffic." And as if some terrible cue line, we watch in horror as the second tower falls, mimicking the first.
"OH MY GOD!" Lori screams. I am already on my knees on my thick purple carpet, praying. There is nothing else to do. After a few bewildered moments, Lori and Jason kneel with me, and we hold hands in a circle. The shrieks of panicked people echo from the TV as we bow our heads and pray silently.
"Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name..." I make pacts, treaties, promises, and vows to God in exchange for Dave's life.
On the TV, the giant puff of smoke rises like a wave to meet the first as the acrid smell of burning plastic begins to float through my window screen. The phone rings again.
"It's Joey." It is Mila's husband.
"I'm not sure, but I think I saw Dave on TV," he says calmly. "It's hard to tell, because they're all covered in dust, but it was this big guy who walked like him." Hope expands in my chest, separating my ribs with possibility. I hang up, sit on the edge of the couch, and stare at the TV, transfixed. Firefighters pass by the cameras, dazed, bloodied, and covered in dust. They are carrying people who are wailing and shaking their heads. The cameras film onlookers staring up at the devastation, hands clasped across their mouth, sobbing, and I am one of them, watching, in collective horror, the world change forever.
The waiting is torturous. I begin pacing again while Jason answers the phone and I send Lori to the store to buy cigarettes. I have not smoked in thirteen years, but I need something to calm the nerves pressing hard against my skin. In the kitchen, I read the list of phone numbers from Squad 1 hung on the refrigerator with a magnet shaped like a fire truck that reads "No fire too difficult, no rescue too great!" I scan the thirty names and dial the first number. It rings and rings.
"Hello?" It is Kathleen Box, Gary's wife. Gary is relatively new to the company, but the guys like him; they've even nicknamed him "the barber" for the cropped military haircuts he gives them.
"It's Marian Fontana. Dave's wife, from the firehouse. Is Gary working today?"
"Yes! Have you heard something?" Kathleen's voice is shaky and nervous. I've met her only once, at the Christmas party. She stood next to Gary, looking as fragile as crystal.
"I know they're there. Jimmy Lopez said they'd call when they know something." I can tell her mind is racing as fast as mine.
She takes a deep breath. "You know, I think Gary's okay, 'cause he dreamed this whole thing." Goose bumps rise on my skin as she continues. "A few weeks ago, he had this nightmare. He never has nightmares, but he woke up sweatin' and shakin'. I was like, what's a matta? And he told me he had this dream that he saw a plane crash into a tall building and the rocks and stuff fell on him."
"Oh my God."
"So I'm thinkin' maybe he's okay 'cause he dreamed about it. I dunno. I gotta get off the phone in case he calls."
We promise to call each other if there is any news. I hang up, staring at the list. With a pink highlighter, I highlight Dave's name and Gary's and Mike Esposito's, but tears blur my vision and fall, smearing the ink.
"Oh, sweetie," Jason says, entering the kitchen. Without looking up, I can tell he is crying, too. I look at the wide black numbers on the wall clock. It is only 11:18 a.m., and it feels like it has been years.
Jason and I sit in my small backyard where smoke lingers like humidity in the air. I wonder why no one from Dave's family has called. If I can feel the whole world vibrating, surely one of his six siblings on Long Island knows what happened. I stand up to call, but the doorbell rings. It is Lori, returning from Aidan's school, where she insists the children are unaware and safe, watching a movie in the auditorium.
I watch the thick white ash floating in the sunbeams and pour wine into two glasses for Lori and me. Jason, sober for many years, sips a Diet Coke. So early in the day, the wine tastes like bile. I drink it anyway and light a cigarette, hoping that something will slow down my body, stop the horrible images traveling through my imagination. "I can't take it," I say. I want to scream or kick something, fear and sadness and anger trapped like kinetic energy. Lori and Jason sit quietly while I cry and shake my head, refusing to believe.
"Why don't we play cards," Jason suggests, standing and clapping his hands like a fifties housewife.
"That's a good idea," Lori says. Before I can protest, Jason disappears into the house, the screen door slamming behind him. He reappears with a faded deck from Ireland, the corners white and bent. He deals us each seven cards on my rusty white table.
"Rummy? Does everyone know rummy?" he asks. I nod, slowly putting the cards in order, the familiar shapes and faces comforting me. Two queens, one king, a four and five of clubs, an ace, a nine. My leg is bouncing like a bored teenager's, but I force myself not to stand again, to focus on the cards. My hands are shaking like I have Parkinson's and I can't stop. Put the ace with the king. The doorbell rings, and I throw my cards down and run. Maybe Dave took a detour, went to the Clay Pot to get me an extra-special gift and bumped into Tara or some friends. . . . It is my friend Deirdre, a mom from the neighborhood, her belly bulging with her second child.
"Are you okay?" she asks. I shake my head no. She follows me down the hall. I am biting my lip so hard it hurts. It feels good to feel the teeth digging in.
Outside, Deirdre sees us playing cards and, as if the scene were completely normal, pulls up a chair. Jason deals her in. An image of Dave's father flashes through my head, and I stop and stare. Why am I thinking of him now? I have thought little of him since his death sixteen years ago, a year after I met Dave. Dave has his barrel chest, his nose, ruler-straight, his penetrating eyes. . . My chair scrapes loudly on the cement as I push it away from the table. I am crying and pacing again. I am a match poised on the fuse. I storm into the kitchen to find the Yellow Pages and begin calling hospitals. There are dozens of them. Jason, Deirdre, and Lori step carefully behind me, waiting for a signal of what to do. In a matter of minutes we are all dialing emergency rooms around the city. There are busy signals and confused ER nurses. They check their lists for names. Doctors and nurses near the towers are waiting, but the emergency rooms are virtually empty. I want to run to the hospitals myself, scouring the gurneys until I find Dave, and fling my grateful arms around his big shoulders the way I did on that Father's Day when he arrived home at 1 a.m.
I had been sitting on the couch listening for the sound of the door scraping in its frame. When he arrived, I ran down the hall and enveloped him like a net catching a fish. I kissed his face until he laughed.
"I didn't know you loved me so much," he said, and I stopped.
"I tell you all the time!"
"I know, I just. . . this is different. . . it's good to be home."
That night, in bed, I massaged the tired muscles on his broad, smooth back.
"I didn't stop," he groaned. "I just kept lifting brick after brick...oh, man." He moaned as I kneaded the knots, pressed into the braided muscles. "We found Harry Ford. He's got three kids, I think. Real nice guy. Lives in Long Beach." I worked my way down one of his large arms, landing in the palm of his square, callused hand.
"I hate your job," I said spitefully. I resented how dangerous it was, how it wore down Dave's spirit, for practically no money. It wasn't worth it.
"I always thought that the more I train, the more I drill, the less chance I have of getting hurt," Dave said, his voice muffled in the pillows. "But the guys that got killed today...they were just standing there and the wall just fell on them. It could have been any of us." Dave rolled over suddenly and looked at me, his rugged face lined with concern. "I don't want to worry about money anymore. I don't want to argue. I want to have another kid right away, and I just want us to enjoy ourselves."
I nodded, my throat burning as if I'd swallowed the lid of a tin can. I cupped my hands over my eyes to catch the tears. Through the cracks of my fingers I saw that Dave was crying, too. I had only seen him cry once before and there he was, his blue-green eyes filled, for the first time, with fear.
"Now will you switch to a slower company?" I asked. We'd had this argument many times before. I wanted him to go to a quiet firehouse, one in Staten Island, or a marine company. But that night, Dave smiled weakly, his dimples barely creased as he rubbed his hands through my hair.
"Between you and me, after I get my ten years in, I'll consider going to Marine Nine. . . " His voice trailed off, scratchy with fatigue. I rested my head on the soft pillow hair of his chest. Through one ear, I listened to his heart thumping in watery rhythms. He would celebrate his ten years on September 8, 2001, only a few months away. But when his heart reached the slow and steady beat of sleep, I knew he would never settle for the quiet of a slower house.
We've called every ER in the tristate area. They are poised and waiting, but they tell us hardly anyone is coming in. The rooms are almost empty. I look at the garden, covered in a fine white dust that falls like rain. I try to imagine my life without Dave, but every time I do, my stomach drops as if I am at the very top of a Ferris wheel. Jason is on the phone in the kitchen, making arrangements for Aidan to go to my friend Caren's house.
"Caren says he can stay as long as he wants," Jason tells me, heading outside. Lori and Deirdre have left to get their kids. "She said he can sleep over there if you want." I nod, the tears falling again. I can't let Aidan see me falling apart, and a few hours of obliviousness is a beautiful gift. Jason reaches for me and I sob onto his bony shoulder, my muscles tightening. "What am I going to do?" How can I tell Aidan his father is gone? It just cannot be.
I pull away and head into the kitchen to call my friend Merri, who lives in Tribeca, a trendy neighborhood near the World Trade Center. We met in a writing class where I wrote my first one-woman show, which Merri later directed at Playwrights Horizons. Middle-aged and slumped, Merri has been like a Jewish Yoda dispensing humor and sage advice throughout our twelve-year friendship.
"What can I do?" she asks, trying not to sound as scared as she is.
"I need you to go find him, please!" I tell her tearfully.
She is silent on the other end.
"I'll go," she says. She saw the towers fall from her fire escape and was too frightened to call me.
A steady stream of friends arrive, carrying food, bottles of wine, presents for Aidan. They tread carefully around me, trying to find something to say or do. A neighbor is heating up lasagna; Lori has returned with a salad and a case of energy drinks. Mila and Joey are sitting on my kitchen floor, organizing my cabinets. I can hear clanging pots and Tupperware falling. Why can't I throw anything away? Maybe I've always been afraid of losing something if I did.
"You should really eat something," Lori says. "You haven't eaten all day." But the thought of eating makes my stomach grip. I sit in the backyard answering the phone, my voice quivering as I tell friend after friend "I don't know anything yet. I have to get off the line." My sister, Leah, keeps calling from Maine, where she is on vacation. She can't get over any of the New York bridges to get home. Her voice cracks and it is like hearing myself. People always mistake us for each other on the phone.
"Oh my God, Marian" is all she can muster. "I need to see you! I need to come home."
"Please. . . " I beg, suddenly desperate for my big sister. Eleven months apart, Leah and I grew up fiercely close, overlapping our thoughts and finishing each other's sentences. She was bossy, passionate, intense, and sensitive. Studying dance and flute, she was the elegant one, leaping easily across streams while I always managed to soak my shoes. I was the goofy one who studied bassoon, did pratfalls, and loved to make her laugh. She taught me how to read when I was four and protected me like a lioness. "I have to go," I tell Leah, worried that I will miss a call with news of Dave. Leah is crying so hard, she cannot even say good-bye.
I check the messages again. There are four of them from worried friends, one from my parents. They cannot come until tomorrow. They live in Staten Island, and the Verrazano Bridge between there and Brooklyn is still closed.
The bright sun dips down past the buildings, casting long shadows in the yard, when Merri finally calls. "I tried to get down there. There were hundreds of Army trucks lining Houston blockading streets. It's like a war zone. They seemed to just pop out of nowhere. I got past the first blockade and then there was another one on Canal Street.They only let me through because I showed them my driver's license, proving my residency. You couldn't see a thing, there was so much smoke, so I went back to the firehouse around the corner from me on North Moore. You know, the 'Ghostbusters House.' The firefighter who answered the door said he knew Dave, that they trained together, and so I gave him your number. He said he'd call you if he saw Dave. He was going to check the triage center they set up at Stuyvesant Town. Maybe he just couldn't call because none of the cell phones are working. They all stopped when the antenna on
Copyright © 2005 by Marian Fontana
Reading Group Guide
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Marian’s memoir is incredibly sad in so many moments and hilariously funny in others. What is the role of humor in her story? What is the role of humor in grief and in healing?
2. Marian experiences both a very personal loss, but also a public loss. September 11 was a national event and Dave’s death became part of the history and legacy of that day. On page 114 Marian writes, “What happened to our husbands and so many others has made privacy impossible.” In what ways is Marian’s loss the same or different than if Dave had died on a regular day in the line of duty?
3. In the year after 9/11 Marian witnessed an astounding outpouring of concern and generosity from people all over the world and also encountered people who were insensitive and obtuse about her loss. How do you explain these wide disparities in people’s reactions to September 11? Are some people genuinely compassionate and others not? Do you think 9/11 affected people who lived near the tragedy or had a connection to New York more than other people?
4. Marian and Theresa feel bad when they realize they are getting different treatment as widows of firefighters. Kathleen, who is with them, refers to their checks as “blood money.” Do you think the families of non-firefighters were treated fairly after 9/11? How do you think their experience differed from that of firefighters’ families?
5. Throughout the book, many of the widows of Squad 1 reported getting “signs” from their husbands. Were there really signs, or did the women imagine them in order to reconnect with their husbands?
6. Were you surprised to learn about the closeness of neighbors, the strong community identity, and the outpouring of support demonstrated by the candlelight vigil that thousands of people attended in Prospect Park? Did you have impressions about New Yorkers that were either confirmed or changed by Marian’s story?
7. Marian was raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. She says she does not consider herself particularly religious, only attending church on holidays; but she thinks a lot about God after Dave’s death. How do you think her dual religions informed her spiritual understanding of the events of September 11 and the death of her husband?
8. Marian is a writer, performer, and comedienne. The first thing she sat down to write after September 11 was Dave’s eulogy. On page 158 she talks about the process of writing and the anticipation and insecurity of the creative act. What role do you think writing and creativity had in how Marian faced the months after Dave’s death?
9. On page 199 Marian talks about the exhausting attempt to be both mother and father to Aidan. Discuss the difficulty of trying to be both parents to a child who has lost one.
10. Aidan’s behavior is at times angry, stubborn, innocent, aggressive, and sweet. Discuss Aidan’s reactions to his father’s death.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I wrote a review a year ago. Read this book fewvryears back and i still think of it. I cherish this book. Favorite book READ IT
Best book I've ever read. Funny, smart, sad and everything in-between.
It is rare that I finish a book in rapid fashion, as I read before falling asleep. However, in three nights, I read, and actually re-read Marian Fontana's 'A Widow's Walk'... As I read of Marian's deep love for and like of her husband Dave, and became acquainted with his achievements, philosophies, and of his role as a husband, father to their son,and as a FDNY firefighter, my heart bled for his loss following his murder at the WTC. Upon occcasion, I barked out with hilarious laughter. More poignant however were moments that I would uncontrollably sob. I don't cry often however, Marian and Dave's story is heart-wrenching. As a practicing Medium, I deal with the loss of spouses frequently. This book was a reminder to me of the depths of pain that go with loss, particularly tragic loss. I will recommend this book to clients, both those whom have lost loved ones through illness, but through tragedy as well. Beyond the loss of Dave, Marian Fontana bravely discusses the politics of the U.S. albiet briefly, the politics of the FDNY, and the politics of the organizations which emerged to support survivors and their families. She skillfully wove these components to portray other wives and partners of firefighters who experienced direct losses. As dynamics changed, and relationships shifted while days and years pass, Marian Fontana remains supportive of the firefighters of FDNY, and will forever remain a key player in having educated the public across this country to the gruelling, challenging responsibility that firefighters face, often under-paid, and frequently not recognized. Bless your heart Marian Fontana, for your generosity in the gift you've given in sharing this beautiful tribute to Dave Fontana with your son, and with the World.
I saw Marian Fontana on 'Book TV' and gathered from both her casual demeanor and quirky sense of wry humor that this book would be a winner, and it was! A loving tribute to her husband and all of the rescue workers on 9/11, she successfully personalizes and humanizes the worst tragedy of our lifetime. She manages to treat her experiences with respect while maintaining what I feel is a sense of the surrealness of the events, peppered with a healthy and appropriate dose of humor. Marian successfully paints a picture of a young mother and devoted wife caught up in this unfathomable event and managing to keep on.... Her love for Dave and her son, Aidan is apparent in every word and her reasons for writing it... for her son, ring loud and clear throughout every word. Ultimately, her message is that we must somehow go on, and she does.... I applaud her amazing strength.
I'm an avid reader. In my 50 years I've read many thousands of books. None has evoked more emotion in me than this one. No...I didn't know anyone who died on 9/11. But my son, daugher, son-in-law and his brother, brother-in-law and father are all firefighters. I'm an ER nurse who has cared for injured firefighters and seen their care when they bring in a patient. This book..........you just have to read it!