YARDLEY, Pa. — Five months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Grace Parkinson-Godshalk found herself driving her late son's Land Rover through a thicket of preserved land in suburban Philadelphia. She and three Sept. 11 widows were looking for the right spot to build a memorial in their hard-hit township.
"All of a sudden, someone said, 'Stop!' and there was an American flag in the bushes," Parkinson-Godshalk, 74, recalled last week. "We said, 'This is where it's going to be.' "
The four women corralled their grief into something tangible, helping lead efforts to build a serene, two-acre Garden of Reflection that honors the nine people from Lower Makefield, 18 from Bucks County and 58 from Pennsylvania killed in the attacks.
Along the way, the women, along with other local Sept. 11 families, have forged close bonds, intensified during weekly counseling sessions. The friends have grieved together, worked together and, as the years pass, celebrated milestones together — a remarriage, a first child, a new home, new priorities. "For me, that group was a gift. ... It was mostly women because it was mostly men who went to New York and worked," said Fiona Havlish, 54, who now lives in Boulder, Colo.
She and two other widows, Tara Bane and Ellen Saracini, bore through endless paperwork together, braved trips to New York, where their husbands had died, and planned the memorial garden those first two years.
Saracini, 52, whose husband, Victor, piloted the second United plane that flew into the World Trade Center, has worked full bore on the memorial garden for many years. Recently, she was pumping water from Hurricane Irene out of a trench that had been dug for the entrance wall.
"It's really been a blessing for me to have something so important in my life," she said.
The $2 million garden opened in 2006, while organizers in New York and Shanksville, Pa., have not yet finished their much larger memorials.
"We all wanted water, we all wanted peacefulness to celebrate the lives that were lost," Saracini said. "We wanted to remember the people we lost had smiling faces. They had daughters and sons. They were daughters and sons. They were just ordinary people who went to work that day."
Havlish had asked her husband not to go to work that Tuesday. Their 4-year-old daughter, Michaela, was starting her first day of school. Donald Havlish Jr., 53, a senior vice president at Aon Corp., an insurance firm on the 101st floor of the North Tower, felt he had too much to do. The couple at least had coffee together before his 90-minute commute to New York.
"I was so grateful that I would tell him I loved him every morning. God, I was so grateful for that," Havlish said.
A nurse, she learned about the first plane on her way to visit a home-health patient and arrived in time to see the second plane strike her husband's building.
Two years later, a newly spiritual Havlish and her daughter drove across the country for several months. "The outpouring of love in this country was so powerful, it just blew me away," said Havlish, 54.
Now a life coach, she finds signs from Don when she finds a penny — he saved them — or spots a blue heron, such as the one that stalked their Yardley home on the Delaware River.
Parkinson-Godshalk, a longtime township commissioner, also has spent long hours on the Garden of Reflection. But she will be in New York City for the 10th anniversary.
"I feel like my son is there. He was lost there," she said. "I used to kind of visualize him floating around downtown New York."
Her 35-year-old son Bill, impish and athletic, loved the city and had just gotten engaged. He was at his desk and called home after the first plane struck the other tower.
"He said, 'It's on TV, turn on the TV. I have to go now,' " Parkinson-Godshalk recalled.
The son emailed clients to tell them the firm was OK. One email went out at 9:03 a.m., as Saracini's plane hit his building. His firm, Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, lost 67 people, and his remains were never found.
His mother visited ground zero afterward and volunteered at St. Paul's, the nearby church-turned-respite center for rescue workers. She also joined 9/11 family groups lobbying on national security issues.
She has felt, at times, like a mother to the Lower Makefield widows. Some, such as Bane, have remarried. Others are engaged, about to start new chapters in their lives.
"They found partners, most of them, and I'm very happy for them. And that's the way life should be," Parkinson-Godshalk said. "But when you've lost a son, you're really — you're stabbed in the heart. I don't think there's any moving on."
Michael Bane's mother died giving birth to him in 1968. He died, along with 2,972 others, on Sept. 11, 2001.
Tara Bane-DellaCorte will string 2,973 handmade hearts around the Garden of Reflection this week. She and local friend Clara Chirchirillo, who also lost a husband in the attacks, cross-checked the spelling of each name, while schoolchildren drew designs on each heart. "Sometimes it's easy to get lost in my own grief, but this has affected so many people," Bane-DellaCorte said. "I'm reading everyone's name, and it's powerful."
Her first child, Cole, turned 2 on Aug. 23, the day of the East Coast earthquake. Hurricane Irene did in his birthday party four days later, but no matter.
"I waited a long time for him, and he does bring me joy," said Bane-DellaCorte, 39. "I feel like ... I'm where I should have been, where I was intending to be, nine years ago."
An art therapist, she went to culinary school after her husband died. Then she met someone and moved to St. Thomas for 18 months to give the relationship room to grow. The couple returned to the States after getting engaged. Many of her Sept. 11 friends attended her wedding. And she has since resumed her work in art therapy. "Michael would never just want me to just crumble," she said.
Saracini is known in Lower Makefield as "the pilot's wife."
She doesn't shy away from the mantle. But when the entrance wall at the memorial garden goes up this month, and the 10th anniversary passes, she will be ready to move on from her frenzied devotion to the cause.
"Then I want to take some time," she said. "A lot of people started building their lives a lot quicker than I did."
Two forces, her children and the garden, kept her going in that dark first year.
One daughter has since finished college, and another is not far behind. Life's celebrations — birthdays, graduations, anniversaries — hit hardest.
"For my children, it's the years that pass by (that's hard), that they go another year that they don't have him," she said above the din of a generator powering the sump pump.
Saracini was volunteering at her daughters' school when the planes struck the towers. Her husband, she said, would not be surprised at the community organizer she's become.
"I bet you he'd say, 'It'd be nice if you could slow down a little,' " she said.
She will do that, when the wall is finished and the calendar turns to Sept. 12.
"People say, 'Well, it's 10 years later, and time heals,' " she said. "Time doesn't heal. Time gets you used to a new way of life."