From Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend's Soul

The Friends Who Saved Me

Fortify yourself with a flock of friends! You can select them at random, write to one, dine with one, visit one, or take your problems to one. There is always at least one who will understand, inspire, and give you the lift you need at the time.

George Matthew Adams

Whether it’s birthdays and weddings, or break-ups and make-ups, our friends are there to applaud what we do, offer advice, lend support. But what if it’s helping someone survive the most agonizing experience imaginable? I can honestly say that if it weren’t for my friends, I’m not sure I would be here.

Two years ago, I was driving my three-year-old daughter, Hanna, to her first day of preschool in Princeton, New Jersey, when the radio announcer said: “A plane has just struck one of the World Trade Center towers.” Not believing what I’d heard, I walked Hanna to her classroom.

I was back in my car with my one-year-old son, Harris, getting ready to leave, when the news broke about a second plane hitting the World Trade Center. That’s when panic flooded through me—my husband, Steven, worked in Tower One.

A minute later, my cell phone rang. It was my close friend Jennifer, whom I’d met in our kids’ playgroup a few years earlier. “I don’t think I can drive,” I told her.

“Stay put,” Jennifer said. “I’m on my way.” Within minutes, she was in the parking lot, ready to drive me home. My other friends from the playgroup, Maureen and Lori, rushed to my house. The three of them were practically lying on top of me as we watched Tower One fall on television, and I screamed my husband’s name.

None of them knew what to say to me on that day or the days that followed. But they instinctively knew what to do. When I needed to be hugged, they hugged me. When I needed to be left alone, they gave me space. They were going to do whatever it took to make sure my children and I got through this.

I relied on my family too. On September 11, all planes were grounded, so my mother and brother drove, without stopping, to my side—my mother from Chicago, and my brother from Virginia. Mom stayed for weeks.

But my friends were there for me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. They created a rotation schedule so that someone could lie with me at night until I fell asleep. Meals were delivered to my home daily. Toys and clothing for the kids poured in. My neighbor, Jean, baby-sat every Wednesday night so I could go to a support group. I relied on these women to help me through some unbearable moments, and they came through every time.

One of the hardest days of all was October 11, 2001. Two police officers rang my doorbell. “Is there someone who could watch your children for a while?” one of them asked. My entire body shook violently when they told me that Steven’s body had been positively identified through dental records. Once again, within minutes, Jennifer, Maureen and Lori were at my side.

“He’s never coming home,” I told them. It was all so real, so final. As the officers told us where the body was being sent, I looked at Maureen and said, “I need to go be with him.” She drove me there and held me tightly as we looked at the pine box that was my husband’s casket. Together we removed the American flag draped over it, and she helped me rub my tears into the wood so that part of me would always be with him. I am so thankful I did not have to endure that experience alone.

I always knew I had great friends in my inner circle, but what surprised me was how people I barely knew played such a crucial part in my recovery. I met my friend Haidee just one week before Steven’s death. After learning that our daughters would be in the same nursery school class, we arranged a playdate for the girls. She never met my husband, nor did she know much about me. So when my doorbell rang a few days after September 11, I was shocked to see Haidee standing there. All she said was, “Can I please come in and sit with you?” Since that day, she and her husband, Sean, have welcomed my children and me into their lives. I can’t imagine life without Haidee.

Late last year I turned thirty-five. I had always teased Steven that he’d better throw me a surprise party for this milestone or he’d be in big trouble. Obviously, I had to make new plans. So when Jennifer, Maureen, Lori and Haidee said they’d treat me to lunch and a day at a spa, I agreed. Minutes after I walked into the restaurant, fifty people appeared, yelling, “Surprise!” I was overwhelmed. Never wanting me to feel anything less than special, my friends tried to fill in the gaps left by Steven’s death.

I treasured my friends beyond words. Still, my relationships with them did change. Suddenly, I was the only single parent among a group of happily married people. Social gatherings I used to love were transformed into painful reminders of my loss. Friends were reluctant to discuss their marriage problems or even joke about their husbands’ silly habits, for fear of making me uncomfortable. At the same time, I often shied away from sharing my innermost feelings with them.

It was at the 9/11 support group that I met Lisa, another widow with young children, who became a great source of comfort. Although she and I came from very different backgrounds and upbringings, we were sisters in grief.

On one particularly bad day, I drove to her house and we sat in her kitchen, weeping about all the things we couldn’t say to other people. The unbearable loneliness, the fear, the heavy responsibility of raising children alone—she was going through it all, too. It was such a relief to be with someone who completely understood.

One evening, I told Lisa I was thinking of taking off my wedding band and replacing it with a new ring. It was time to face reality—I was a single, independent woman. I had to start anew. Lisa agreed. But it was a big step for both of us, and we made plans to shop for rings together.

A week later, I was standing outside a jewelry store, waiting for Lisa. When she finally arrived, I got into her car and sobbed: “I remember when Steven gave me this ring, I thought I’d never take it off.” She began to cry, as well, and we shared stories of how we got engaged.

“We don’t have to do this,” Lisa said.

“Yes, we do, we need to do this,” I answered.

We went into the store and each bought a ring. Mine is a silver-and-gold cable ring with a chalcedony stone on top. I love it.

These days, I am doing much, much better than I’d imagined I would be two autumns ago. I have grown more confident. My kids are happy, which is the best indicator I have of how well I’ve handled things. I talk to them about their father every day.

What I have learned is that being independent is very important, but perhaps even more important is knowing you have people you can depend on. On September 11, 2001, I felt like the unluckiest woman alive. Now, I see how lucky I am, blessed with the greatest friends in the world.

Jill Goldstein
Submitted by Debbie Merkle

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