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After September 11

She lost her husband in the World Trade Center attack. Reassurance about the afterlife came in ways she never expected.

Derek and Kimberly

I don't think I even opened my eyes when Derek kissed me goodbye that morning. You remember things like that afterward. Five months pregnant with our second child and worn out from running after 13-month-old Tyler, I grabbed every moment of sleep I could.

The alarm had gone off at 5:18 a.m. that Tuesday, September 11, as it did every weekday. Exactly enough time for Derek to dress, take our dog, Squirt, for her morning walk, then drive to the station to catch the 6:10 a.m. train to New York City.

He worked for the investment and securities firm Keefe, Bruyette & Woods on the 89th floor of Tower Two of the World Trade Center.

Shortly before 9:00 a.m., Derek phoned. "Honey, turn on the TV!" he said. "A plane just hit Tower One. They think it's just a Cessna, but we're evacuating."

We hung up, and I clicked on the TV. I was watching when the big United Airlines jet plowed into Tower Two. I knew I would never again see my husband, never again feel his arms around me, even before the massive building came thundering down.

I knew, and yet a part of me refused to accept it. What about Tyler's nightly ritual of Daddy putting him to bed? What about our unborn child, Lord? A second son. We'd already chosen his name: Chase. Derek had to be there when Chase was born!

Almost immediately people came by—neighbors, friends from Bible study, family. They brought food, played with Tyler, walked Squirt. Someone offered to pick up Derek's car at the station, and I protested, "Then his car won't be waiting when he gets off the train."

I filled out the missing persons description. What had Derek worn that morning? I didn't know. The black shoes he wore with dark pants were still in our closet, so I wrote, "khaki trousers."

By the end of the week it was harder to keep denying the truth. I was asked to supply personal items from which DNA could be extracted and matched with the remains being recovered at Ground Zero. I put Derek's toothbrush and razor in a plastic bag, then sealed it closed.

There was a tangible finality to the act that I hadn't felt before, not even in learning to accept the outpouring of support that continued nonstop—cards, flowers and gifts, donations toward the children's education. Prayer. So much prayer.

Maybe that's why I decided to hold a memorial service 10 days after the attack, though I hadn't quite given up the secret hope that Derek was alive. Our church was packed; some people I didn't even recognize. Each person took the hand of the one next to him. "Our Father…"

We reached across the aisles, praying with one heart, one voice. The Body of Christ had been a phrase to me. Now it was what I was experiencing—others shouldering grief too heavy to bear alone.

Still I found myself thinking about Derek. About when we first met. My apartment had been decorated with sunflowers—curtains, vases, a quilt. He loved to tease me about those sunflowers! The way I teased him about our dog. I'd had to talk him into getting one.

He finally decided a basset hound would be all right because it would just sit around. I'd been holding out for an active breed, a retriever, maybe. Of course, when Squirt came along, half basset, half yellow Lab, Derek fell in love with her. She was a real Daddy's girl.

I wasn't the only one who kept listening each evening for Derek's key in the front-door lock. Precisely at 7:00 p.m., loyal Squirt would be at the window, her tail pumping. For our little dog there was no comprehending Derek's absence. I knew, though, that I had to accept it.

Early in October I went to Ground Zero. I tried to envision the maze of downtown streets, the concourse, the soaring towers. In this wasteland of smoking rubble, how could I have imagined that my husband had survived?

I turned to the support groups for grieving families, met with other young mothers. One hundred five of us were expecting when we were widowed. Sharing fears, hopes, tears helped.

Our new baby was born on January 2, 2002, the day before what would have been our fourth wedding anniversary. I held little Derek Chase for the first time, overwhelmed with joy. And longing.

My husband should have been there, holding our baby, holding me, in his arms. Never had I missed him more. Never had I felt more confused and alone.

My parents were at my house, watching Tyler. I called them with the news. They said a huge bouquet had just been delivered. Sunflowers! There was no card. I figured someone who knew me and Derek well had sent them for our wedding anniversary.

Every day my two boys reminded me that I must focus on the future. Yet how do you do that when your heart's in the past? How do you leave behind how it was for the reality of how it is?

What made it especially hard for me was having no physical entity to say goodbye to. There had been no casket, no ritual of interment, no moment of leave-taking.

To confirm the DNA recovered from Derek's toothbrush and razor, the New York City medical examiner's office requested a sample from one of our children. I'd seen that mountain of debris. It seemed hopeless to search for any individual trace.

Still, if there was a chance some fragment could be identified….I took Derek Chase to our pediatrician. He slept through the procedure of swabbing his mouth. To eliminate my DNA from the sample, the doctor swabbed mine as well.

At the end of May, a few days before what would have been Derek's 31st birthday, I spent the evening with another September 11 widow, talking as usual about our husbands. Reliving those final moments…our last kiss, the gentle press of Derek's lips on my drowsy cheek.

Driving home with the boys asleep in their car seats, I told myself again that it was time to stop looking backward. Time to get a headstone for Derek and start making plans for a future without…Why were two men standing on my doorstep at eight o'clock in the evening?

One of the men was a priest from my church, the other a police officer. Word had come from the medical examiner's office in New York City. A three-inch fragment of bone had been identified as Derek's.

Was this a message for me, I wondered, a confirmation that I needed to move forward? I thought back to another time I'd received something unexpected, the day I had so longed for my husband, when our little Derek Chase had been born.

The day that surprise bouquet had arrived. Those sunflowers, they came when I was the only one who knew about the birth. Someone who knew Derek and me well—better than anyone—did send them, as much to commemorate the past as to celebrate the future.

The next morning, I phoned the florist to ask about that bouquet they'd delivered in January. Yes, they remembered the order well, an unusual one. A man had come into the shop to place it. He had not given his name.

Ah, but I knew his name! His name was love. The love that comes only from God, holding me, supporting me in so many ways after September. Letting me know that the deep connections formed with my husband live on, especially through our children. Assuring me that it was okay to let go and move on—he was with Derek in heaven, just as he has been with me here on earth, every step of my journey through the valley of grief toward the promise that lies beyond.

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