Jennifer Sands was shopping for a card for her father two years ago when she instead saw the perfect card for her husband, who loved the deep sea – "Happy Birthday to my husband, the catch of a lifetime" – but it only made her cry.Her husband, Jim, had died in the World Trade Center attacks three months earlier. The moment was just another encounter with what she called "reality bricks" – sudden, painful reminders of her loss that came from everyday things.
Then, Sands confronted her pain. She realized she could still buy cards for her husband, address them, and leave them on the nightstand, even if he wouldn’t retrieve them.
Since the Tuesday two years ago when thousands of young lives came to an end in the Twin Towers, many of the World Trade Center widowers and widows have given quotes to the media, but only a few have shared a step-by-step account of hearing the news and trying to survive the devastation. Sands, who lives in Brick, N.J., has just published a riveting book (A Tempered Faith: Rediscovering Hope in the Ashes of Loss, The Olive Press, $21.95) that might provide local residents with insight into the unusual challenges that have confronted the victims’ relatives every day.
Sands, 39, a pharmacist who was always interested in writing, begins the her 208-page book by noting that she and her husband, Jim, met via an expensive dating service in 1996 even though they lived a few blocks from each other and had attended the same public schools. Yet, they never met until she was 31 and he was 32.
Three months after meeting, they got engaged. They shared the same passions (scuba diving, the football Giants) and even the same sense of humor – they sometimes had entire conversations consisting only of quotes from different movies. "Blockbuster rents movies from us," she jokes in the book.
These are the details we don’t learn from four-inch obituaries, the idiosyncrasies that make it impossible to fully grasp the extent of the loss of one person’s life, much less 2,800 lives. But these details shed light on why it is so hard for a person to move beyond the loss of his or her true love.
"Every month [on his laptop computer], reminders pop up for his allergy shots and his hair cut," she writes. "He must have them hard-coded in the system, because I can’t turn off the alarm. …I have no intention of ever shutting down his computer. He saved every e-mail I ever sent him. Foolishly, I did not."
The most important skill when writing such a book is the ability to make it readable, heartfelt and honest without injecting so much trauma or syrup that a reader is turned off. Sands has managed to shade in her relationship with Jim and all of the twists in her life after the fall of the Twin Towers in a way that is only as passionate or dispassionate as the situation requires.
Jim Sands worked on software for a subsidiary of Cantor-Fitzgerald on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center, a two-hour commute each day. Besides simply writing about her emotional reactions after the tragedy, Jennifer takes her story step by step, talking about issues including the company’s response to the tragedy, and her own response to public criticism of Cantor-Fitzgerald. "Although [CEO] Howard Lutnick was under no obligation to take care of the Cantor families, he has since made it his mission to do so," Jennifer writes. Lutnick, she notes, offered financial assistance and years of health benefits, and became an advocate in various issues facing the families.
Jennifer also had paperwork to contend with. On some documents, she says, Jim is "James Sands, Jr., KITA," which stands for Killed in a Terrorist Attack. "I found that one out when I traveled to Jersey City one month after Jim’s death to obtain his death certificate," she writes. "KITA must now be written in a red, felt-tip marker at the top of each page of our income tax returns and other legal documents from this day forward."
Jennifer also writes of voluntarily having Jim’s Lexus repossessed, as she could not afford two cars. When she turns it on for the first time to prepare it for repossession, she hears a song coming from a CD in the player and knows it must have been the last song he listened to in the car.
The only place where Jennifer strikes a bitter note is discussing the fact that pictures of the tragedy often accompany media coverage. "People are fascinated with tragedy as long as no one they know got hurt," she writes.
She also shares a provocative story: a few weeks after the collapse, she was looking in her drawer for aspirin and noticed all her pills were gone. Her sister, who is a nurse, and her boss at the pharmacy where she worked later confess that they’d stolen them, as well as the keys to the pharmacy. "Now that I look back," she writes, "it was a very wise move on their part. …They recognized that I was not making rational decisions and that the potential for another tragedy existed."
And finally, she talks about the big question – will she ever fully heal? No, she says – the pain might wane slightly, but the loss will always be there in some way. "Will I ever find another man who can bring me so much happiness?" she asks. "Do I even want one? Do I even want to entertain the idea of one?"
Asked about this again last week, Sands said she still hadn’t started dating again. "I cannot predict my future any better now than I could have two years ago," she said. "I am not actively looking."
There is more to be learned from A Tempered Faith. While the cross that is part of the cover art implies that it might be religious-themed (and Jennifer does have conversations with God about why such a terrible thing happened to Jim), it is a general interest book that is both a compelling read and a tremendously helpful source of insight on how someone survives loss of the love of her life.
A Tempered Faith can be purchased in book stores, on amazon.com, and on Sands’ website, www.jennifersands.com. Check the site for information coming up on readings in Central Jersey on Sept. 27, Oct. 11 and Oct. 23.