The Magazine

A Year of Firsts and Lasts

From the September 16, 2002 issue: Edlene LaFrance remembers her husband, murdered by Mohamed Atta.

Sep 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 01 • By MATT LABASH
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Though usually Alan just worked nights at the World Trade Center, he sometimes needed money to make rent. So the morning of September 11, he went there to set up a breakfast conference. Edlene can't remember her last words to her husband, but for days after the towers went down, she tricked herself into recalling that he hadn't been wearing his black suit.

From the testimonials of his friends and relatives, it is clear Alan was the kind of guy you'd want to be around. He liked his breakfasts big and greasy at a nearby diner, and he loved to play drums. At his Jehovah's Witness congregation's cookouts, he always assumed the role of grillmaster, perhaps because even at 6'4", he was such a suspect basketball player that friends mockingly called him "Jump Shot." He took his grandmother shopping almost weekly. He liked to work on cars, but not for money. Often, Edlene would gaze out the window at busy Bruckner Boulevard and see a stranded motorist. She'd shoot her husband a help-those-poor-people look. He'd grumble a little, then grab his tools and ride to the rescue.

Now, the first face Edlene sees in the morning is Mohamed Atta's. She keeps a New York Post cover photo of the man who killed her husband on the floor next to her bed. Every morning when she wakes up, she steps on his face. It is a small, desperate gesture, but it's the only revenge she'll ever get. When asked why she'd keep a picture of this murderer in her bedroom (she never calls him a "terrorist" or "hijacker," always a "murderer"), she says, "A lot of times when I don't think it's real, I just turn over and there's his face. Then I know it's real."

It wouldn't seem she'd need any more reminders. Her husband, who had no life insurance, handled the finances, and within the first few weeks after he died--her mind scrambled and her heart literally palpitating--she couldn't even locate her checkbook. Unable to keep track of the bills, she had to get an extension after an eviction notice. Though some charity has found her (Black America Web Relief ended up footing her rent through August), most of the $30,000 or so she's received from victim's assistance funds has gone to offset her son Jody's expenses, since he frequently has to fly back with his family from Chattanooga, Tenn., to help his mom navigate mounds of paperwork and other disasters.

A typical one occurred when Alan's old Volvo had to be retrieved from an impound lot where it was towed from the train station after sitting there for weeks (Alan had the only key). Likewise, her telephone was nearly cut off, but with her nursing job in a "clinic in a bad neighborhood," she has managed to keep it paid up, along with Alan's cellphone account. She doesn't have the cellphone--Alan had it with him when he died--but by keeping the account open, she can still call his messages to hear his voice. "They never found remains," she explains. "It's all we have left of him."

EDLENE LAFRANCE is not a whiner, though she could be forgiven if she were one. She hasn't told her overburdened son that her doctors are worried she has breast cancer. Having switched nursing jobs earlier this year, she has told no one at work besides her boss that she lost her husband on 9/11. Even her own mother, who is senile and who Edlene doesn't wish to traumatize, has no idea her daughter is now a widow. "When she asks where Alan is," Edlene says, "I tell her he's at work."

I ask her if she blames God for any of this. "Why would I?" she asks, out of conviction or convenience or both, "He didn't do it." She says she's been hitting the Scriptures pretty hard lately--not Job, as you might expect, but all the widows'n'orphans passages. There are a lot more of them than she had noticed before, and she says they present a compelling body of evidence that God won't let her fall through the cracks. So far, she says, He hasn't.

The thing that's changed the most for her is time. She no longer measures it in weeks and months, but in firsts and lasts--the last time she did something with Alan, the first time she must do it without him. She doesn't cry much anymore, but the day before my visit, a light bulb burned out in her hallway. She ended up in a heap on the kitchen floor for 20 minutes. It was a 1,000-hour bulb that Alan had last changed. She has not replaced it.

There are long lists of firsts she is avoiding. She will not go on vacation, and chooses not to go to the movies, since that was Alan's favorite pastime. When she goes to their favorite diner for breakfast, she sits at the counter, since she and Alan used to sit at a booth. She knows she must get over this, and it will be easier to, she reasons, after September 11. Right now, she dreads that date the most. Though she'll be surrounded by extended family, all she really wants to do, she says, "is take some sleeping pills and wake up on September 12th."