Friendship fuels recovery for four World Trade Center widows

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There’s something inherently childlike about the way Pattie Carrington goes through life these days. She attributes a lot of that youthful energy to the seven years of grieving she’s been through since her husband, Caz, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center, died on September 11, 2001.

When Ms. Carrington, 40, answered the door on a recent afternoon to the Northwest Woods East Hampton house where she met her husband in 1996, her first exuberant topic of conversation was a recent trip to Costa Rica (not bad if you’re into surfing), and then moved on to her terrier Lola (who still runs after bald men, thinking she might have found Pattie’s husband). She then launched into a conversation about a paper she’d recently written for an English class about Primo Levi’s survival in Auschwitz. It was hard to get her to say that the school she is attending is Harvard.

What was even harder for her, though, was the topic of survivor’s grief that Mr. Levi’s life automatically brought up.

Ms. Carrington and three other women who lost their husbands on September 11 recently put together a retrospective on the way their unofficial support network helped them through the early years after the attack that killed two-thirds of Cantor Fitzgerald’s New York staff. The book, “Love You, Mean It: A True Story of Love, Loss and Friendship,” was released in paperback by Hyperion Books this spring.

The book is an intensely personal account that is disarming in its lack of reference to the political surroundings of the destruction, the intense police presence in New York after the attacks or the ensuing military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is an intensely personal account of grief that, by avoiding those macro issues, gets to the universal heart of loss. That’s part of the reason why Mr. Levi’s analytical, equally intensely personal account of his own survival in a concentration camp resonated so strongly for Ms. Carrington.

“How do you do it?” she said, ruminating on the years Mr. Levi dealt with survivor’s guilt. “You have to do it.”

By making the book a meditation on the act of grieving, the four women have actually tapped into a universal experience that have led many of readers to write letters thanking the women for helping them with their own grieving process.

“When anything traumatic happens to anyone, your whole life stops and you’re on a whole new path,” she said, adding that since Caz’s death she often reverts to a state resembling childhood.

Sometimes she still wakes up remembering Caz.

“He was so alive and now he’s so dead. What? You spend so much time trying to acknowledge that,” she said.

The four women who wrote the book had all recently married men that they planned to spend the rest of their lives with when their husbands were killed. They met to form their support group for the first time in July 2002. All of them knew Claudia Gerbasi, a sales director for Cole Haan who had married Bart Ruggiere in 2002. Ms. Gerbasi has a summer house on Sammy’s Beach in East Hampton.

Ms. Gerbasi suggested that she and her friend Ann Haynes, whose husband sat next to Mr. Ruggiere at Cantor Fitzgerald, meet Ms. Carrington and another 9/11 widow Julia Collins. Ms. Collins’s husband, Tom, worked for Sandler O’Neill & Partners in Tower Two.

The four women bonded immediately, helping each other through subsequent years of grieving and taking an annual trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, together to replenish their energy to continue with big-city careers that they have somehow managed to continue to pursue.

Each of them reacted differently to the trauma, but Ms. Carrington said that they all had a similar pace of grieving.

One of the most haunting sections of the book is the women’s recollection of the wind and the sound of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello playing at the one-year anniversary memorial at the World Trade Center site.

“That sound is very clear in my mind. A cello can almost cry,” said Ms. Carrington. It’s one of her strongest sensory reminders of Caz, along with the memory of the burnt smell in her Brooklyn apartment in the weeks surrounding the tragedy and the sand at Main Beach in East Hampton, where the couple held their wedding reception in late September 2000.

The women all reacted differently to Mayor Giuliani’s speech that day.

“He talked about the concept that there are so many wars in the world and so many widows,” said Ms. Carrington, who remembered being intensely moved by the universal nature of the experience.

Ms. Gerbasi, who insisted that it was important to remember that their husbands were murdered, disagreed. The notion that the men were murdered, not the victims of some disaster, stands out as one of the few references to terrorism in the book, and Ms. Gerbasi was adamant that they use the word murder to describe what happened to their husbands.

“He wasn’t sick. That was the issue,” said Ms. Carrington, adding that all four men’s death certificates say that the cause of death was homicide. “It was the innocence of it. It also allows you to express rage without being political. One day they’re so alive and the next day they’re not. I had to spend all my energy believing it rather than outsourcing it.”

The women decided to write the book in May 2003, after their friends convinced them that there was something special about the way they were able to be happy when they were together in ways that they couldn’t when they were with people who hadn’t been through the same tragedy.

The women would give themselves an assignment on Monday that would be due Thursday, then writer Eve Charles would compile their remembrances over the weekend.

During the grieving process, Ms. Carrington said that her sense of time had been so skewed that by the time the women began writing the book she had to call family members to remind her when events took place.

“Even today, time is such a bizarre thing,” she said. “At the one-year anniversary, it was a relief to just turn the pages of the calendar, insisting that time would march on.”

She said that “on a dime, a word, a smell or a noise” could set off the altered state that brought her back to the paralysis of grief.

“Now I bounce back from that bottom much quicker.”

Though Ms. Carrington found the writing process and the response to the book to be therapeutic, she said that in a way, it held her in place, grieving and dreaming nightly about her husband when she already knew she could begin to live again.

After the book was written, Ms. Carrington quit her job as a managing director at Deutsche Asset Management, enrolled part-time in a Master’s degree program in literature at Harvard and renovated the house that she and Caz owned in East Hampton.

“Things change. You’ve got to go along with it. That’s an ongoing struggle. I wore black for one year. The other women said I was not doing anybody’s life justice,” she said. “I didn’t want to live with spirit.”

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