Jennifer Gardner Trulson was a proud mom watching her son put together a puzzle in his new classroom on his first day of school when the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September 11. That night, she and husband Doug were supposed to take son Michael and his little sister, Julia, to dinner to celebrate. But Doug Gardner never made it home to dinner. The executive for Cantor Fitzgerald died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Jennifer has decided to share the story of trying to put the pieces of her family back together for her young children in a memoir, Where You Left Me. She spoke with The Stir about keeping her husband's memory alive for their kids, her marriage to the kids' stepfather, Derek Trulson, and the challenge of helping her kids deal with their grief even as she comes to terms with her own loss.
What’s been the hardest part of raising your kids without their dad?
The greatest joy of raising Michael and Julia was seeing the experience reflected in my husband’s eyes. Without him, I felt like that proverbial tree falling in the forest, and my children and I were completely unmoored ...
The hardest part of parenting the kids today is always being conscious of what Doug is missing. Every time my son hits a shot on the basketball court or my daughter practices her trope for her bat mitzvah, I ache that Doug doesn’t get to witness his kids’ milestones. He deserved to pace the sidelines at their games, worry about their curfews, and cry at their graduations.
Can you share some of the process for balancing memories of Michael's father with working through his fears?
Though Michael was just shy of 5 years old when Doug died, he had a strong sense of his dad and a wealth of memories that, to this day, he still discusses. Michael has always been an old soul, an empathetic child who could express his thoughts and feelings freely with me. I knew early on that he needed answers that would help him cope and come to terms with what happened. It didn’t make sense to try to spare him from learning how his father died; he’d learn it soon enough from others. I wanted to be the one to tell him, in age-appropriate, truthful language he could absorb.
Of course, I shielded the kids from the horrific images in the media. But, my son understandably did fear that “bad people” could hurt us too. I didn’t want him to be afraid to walk to school or go to sleep. I reassured him that the world was a reasonably safe place and what happened at the Trade Center was a one-time, horrible thing that wouldn’t happen again (what else could I say?).
We talked about safety a lot, until one day he assured me that we would always be fine because we lived on the second floor of our apartment building. At no time, however, did I need to tread lightly when it came to talking with the kids about their dad. In fact, sharing stories openly made the kids feel that Doug was nearby, that just because he was gone, he didn’t have to be absent from our lives.
How do you keep Doug and Derek separate in your kids’ minds?
The only issue I’ve ever encountered was navigating the kids’ needs when it came to what they would call Derek when he became a part of our family. Both kids called him “D” while we were dating, but the day we got engaged, Julia started to call him “Daddy.” This bothered Michael at first because that word had real meaning for him. Daddy was Michael’s hero, playmate, and protector whom he loved and missed. My son feared that people would forget Doug existed if his sister called Derek “Daddy.”
I needed to gently explain to Michael that, for Julia, the word “daddy” symbolized an empty hole, something that others had but she was missing. She needed to call him “Daddy” because she didn’t remember Doug and needed a father of her own. I also reassured him that he could call Derek “D” or “Derek” or whatever he wanted.
It was important he recognized that, even if he called Derek “Dad” one day, no one would ever forget that Doug had been there first. Everyone knew who Michael and Julia’s father was, especially Derek, who would never do anything to disrespect their dad’s memory or place in the family.
What do you hope your kids take away from the media blitz surrounding the 10-year anniversary?
Since my kids are now 14 and 12 years old, they are pretty much aware of what the media has in store for the 10-year anniversary. Over the years it has been impossible to shield them completely from the relentless, graphic coverage of the attacks. I’m not at all surprised that they have no interest in immersing themselves in the media blitz. Still, Derek and I will keep a running dialogue with them as the date gets closer, and we will watch more SportsCenter than is healthy during [this] week.
I also hope that my book helps the kids get a semblance of control over the coverage. We recently taped a segment for 20/20, which will air on September 11, and permitted the kids to be interviewed on camera. Derek and I vacillated on whether to allow them to participate, but in the end, we felt they had the right to speak about their father and their lives. For so many years, they have had to passively endure the anniversaries. This year, they wanted to have a voice.
Will you allow them to watch the coverage -- even with the risk of seeing their Dad’s face on TV or that loop of the plane hitting the towers?
With respect to seeing pictures of Doug, we welcome that. Photos of their dad adorn Michael and Julia’s rooms, and they approved the pictures we selected for use in publicity materials ...
Closure is folly, and I want Doug’s loss always to sting. He deserves to be remembered and missed. But, life is about being happy and loving fully, and my children’s optimism and resilience continue to astonish me. We will try to mark our incredible journey during this difficult anniversary by reminding the kids that, even though they are the children of 9/11, they are, more importantly, the beautiful legacies of two extraordinary men.
Images via Jennifer Gardner Trulson