PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Every now and then, Tara Bane thinks back to the day she and her husband, Michael, had their first barbeque in their Lower Makefield backyard. It was hot, not unlike today, while they sat under their cherry tree.
On a sunny afternoon in August, Tara found herself shaded under another cherry tree. This time, without Michael.
“May the longtime sun shine upon you, all our love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way on,” reads an inscription on the bench under the tree, followed by, “April 14, 1968, to Sept. 11, 2001” — the day Michael died.
It’s one of about two dozen benches in the Garden of Reflection in Yardley, honoring the nearly 3,000 people killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Michael worked for Marsh McLennan on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center. Tara didn’t fully understand the severity of the first crash. She thought to herself, “He’ll be fine, it’s big buildings. I was just in them a couple weeks prior.”
Then the second plane hit.
“I panicked. We didn’t hear from him. We didn’t get any messages.”
Life was surreal in those first few days.
“[It was] about a week and a half before I even accepted that he was gone.” She prayed that he would be found sitting in a hospital bed.
“It took me until I went into Manhattan and I saw the mountain of rubble that was left. And that’s when I realized,” she sighed softly, “wow, there’s just no way. … I remember standing a ways away because they had secured and armed guards everywhere. And just saying, ‘He died. He’s dead.’ ”
The couple met in college. Tara was 19, a sophomore. Michael has now been gone longer than she knew him.
At 30 years old, Tara was widowed, surrounded by neighbors with growing families. “I found myself being in the middle of this community here, which was incredibly supportive. And yet everywhere I looked, it reminded me of what I didn’t have.”
She set a goal for herself: Just try to manage for one year. Then another. Then another.
“And I’m still standing, and flourishing.”
She remarried several years later, then had her first child, Cole. He’s now 12, and Tara is divorced.
“And I don’t regret any of it,” she said. “I had life and I lived. [Cole’s] dad actually is probably one of the people who was very instrumental in helping me to live life and remind me that it didn’t have to stop when Michael’s life did.”
A couple years ago at the Garden of Reflection, she and Cole were talking about Michael and 9/11, something she’s always been candid about. To her dismay, he turned to her and said, “I’m glad it happened.”
“What?” she exclaimed.
He told her, “If it didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here.”
“That’s just such a reminder that I had to go on,” Tara said. “I had a choice. I could have crumbled and just withered away and not done anything, but I wasn’t going to let [terrorism] win.
“[Cole is] my reminder that life goes on.”
‘Grief doesn’t go away’
As an art therapist, Tara helps victims of trauma try to heal from grief. Ironically, 9/11 forced her to step back from her work, unable to cope with her own reality.
“I couldn’t help anyone — I could barely help myself. And I certainly had a hard time helping others with problems that I viewed as less than mine, until I was able to manage my own stuff.”
Early on, she channeled her grief into the Garden of Reflection, which was dedicated in 2006. It features a glass wall that names all the victims.
Fifty-eight redbud trees were planted to represent the 58 Pennsylvania victims. For the 18 victims from Bucks County — half of which were from Lower Makefield, like Michael — 18 red maples outline the fountain, which shoots two streams of water straight up into the air to mimic the Twin Towers.
“When I look back at this place, we all wanted it to be a place of peace,” Tara said, “a place where life goes on and life continues.”
Tara eventually returned to her passion, art therapy. The pain is always there, she explained, but the everyday gets better. You just have to learn to live with it.
“I had this horrific event happen to me, and it has affected me forever. But I can still be strong and I can still move on and I can still help others and witness their struggles and help them get through their darkness.”
Learning to love again
There’s a burden that comes with being a 9/11 widow. At the same time, there’s a duty to carry the torch and share the story with others.
“I understand the importance of people hearing from myself or other people,” Tara said, “that for them, it could be healing.”
And that goes for anyone who has lost a loved one, not just from 9/11.
“I say for anyone, just because your partner dies … who said that you don’t deserve to have love?” she asked.
Tara struggled with that concept when she initially met her second husband, but she learned loving someone else does not diminish the love you had for another.
“My love for Michael didn’t change. It’s always there, and it is whatever it was up until the time he died,” she said. “When my second husband met me, I was nowhere near healed. Add a handful of years onto that and more healing — which maybe in his perspective, I changed, but in mine, I healed, and I kept returning closer and closer to who I was pre-9/11.”
Passing the baton
After 20 years, families directly affected by 9/11 have started to ask: Who is going to continue to share their stories?
The nation will always honor the day. Tara just hopes people continue to understand why.
“How can we prevent these things from happening?” she asked. “We need to look at it systemically, and just on a personal level — just being … a good person.
“It doesn’t matter about the person next to you, but how you yourself can be a better person and be more tolerant and allowing different beliefs to come through and not feel threatened by that.”
Although 20 years have gone by, Tara is still surprised by how effortlessly her emotions for Michael come and go. Within that time, he didn’t get a chance to try new things, get a new job — even go bald, she joked. His opportunities for life were cut short.
At least under the cherry tree, on his inscribed bench, Tara can feel Michael’s presence and relish the brief time they shared together.
“I know everyone says ‘never forget.’ And I say, ‘let’s remember.’ Let’s always remember.”