Ten years after 9/11, a transatlantic legacy of love
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Ten years after she lost her French husband in the 9/11 attacks, Dening Lohez (pictured) attempts to build bridges with her husband's homeland in what she calls her legacy of love.
In a Midtown Manhattan office on a sunny September day just like the fateful one ten years ago, Dening Lohez stoically recalls the moment that changed her life: when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
Hers is a story of a decade-old – and still ongoing – journey to cope with the debilitating loss of a loved one, to try to understand the geography of hate that led to the loss, and to build a living legacy to a late husband.
A Chinese-born US citizen, 41-year-old Lohez met her French husband while they were students at a New Jersey university. Shortly before 9/11, Jerome had just received his “green card” - or US residency permit – and they were planning a family in the US.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Lohez bid goodbye to her husband around 7:30 am and headed for her office in Weehawken, a New Jersey town just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
Jerome left for his office on the 26th floor in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Shortly before 9 am, a colleague with an office window overlooking the Manhattan skyline told her to come over since a plane had struck the World Trade Center. Lohez said she was too busy and continued working.
Around 15 minutes later, Lohez was called again. By this time, she knew it was serious. Over the next few minutes, people in Weehawken started gathering on the Hudson shore, watching the Manhattan skyline with a smoking World Trade Center from across the river.
Lohez was on the waterfront when the North Tower collapsed. “Everyone was silent, nobody screamed,” she recalls. “Men were holding their faces. I saw women tear up. But there was no hysterical crying, no noise, just silence.”
Waiting for Jerome
It was the start of a harrowing day as she kept trying – unsuccessfully – to reach Jerome on the phone while waiting for him to return to their New Jersey home.
By evening, Jerome's company had put out an emergency information number. When Lohez called, the operator said her husband was alive and had “checked in with us”. But at 5 am, after a sleepless night, she called again and another operator on duty said they had no idea about her husband's whereabouts.
With her life and hopes careening like a rollercoaster, Lohez and her family and friends made the rounds of hospitals in the next few days, seeking information.
When she was finally told her husband was officially missing, Lohez called her in-laws in France, who were clinging to the hope that their son was still alive. “It was so sad. His parents said he may be in a mental hospital if he has lost his memory,” she said.
It was eight months before she was called to the New York City Medical Examiner's Office, where she was told that her husband's remains had been recovered.
“They gave me a list of his remains. They told me his body parts showed no signs of burns and there were no signs of stress in his muscles, which led them to suspect he had a quick death and there was not much suffering,” she says.
“The doctor offered us a chance to see his body parts. I had no appetite to view it, but my sister, who was with me, saw it,” she recounts flatly, the ten years of grief now settled into a dull pain.
Nurturing a transatlantic legacy
Now came the decision over where to bury her husband. Lohez decided to bury him in France. “For one, his parents had vowed never to come back to this country so if I buried him here, they would not have access to his grave,” she explains. “But also, I decided that he had only been in America for seven years. He's a Frenchman, he should go back to his country. Besides, I still have a part of him in Ground Zero.”
In the next few years as Lohez struggled to pick the pieces of her life, she traveled frequently to the Middle East, where she took Islamic study courses to try to understand the faith of the September 11 hijackers.
She's loath to summarise her lessons in printable sound bytes. “It's too complicated. But I have no animosity to Arab culture,” she rushes to explain, lest she be misunderstood. “On the contrary, I love Arab culture.”
Through all her wanderings, Ground Zero is a spot that has anchored her. An economics professor at Hunter and Queens colleges in New York, she's also the guiding force behind the Jerome Lohez Foundation, which has provided scholarships to 20 French and American graduate students over the past six years. Her mission in starting the foundation was to foster French and American cross-cultural understanding.
Now it is her way of keeping her husband's legacy alive.
The idea for the foundation came from a conversation Lohez had with a store manager at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport a few years after she lost her husband. When the young American widow casually asked the man what he thought about 9/11, his answer rattled her.
“He said that the 9/11 attacks were a Jewish conspiracy to propagate US foreign policy. 'You deserve it,' he told me,” recounts Lohez with a rueful smile.
Confronted by a chasm of animosity between citizens of two officially friendly yet often mutually mistrustful nations, Lohez decided to act. A conversation that would, in most cases, have ended in a shouting match or a harrumph of reciprocal antagonism instead gave birth to a bridge-building mechanism.
For the past few years, Lohez has also maintained a personal connection to her husband’s homeland by commemorating September 11 with visits to his grave in Bourg-en-Bresse, a picturesque town in eastern France.
But this year, she intends to attend the tenth anniversary commemorations at Ground Zero.
“I will go to the World Trade Center because I want to show my solidarity with the other [9/11] families. Ten years is an important marker, I don't want people to forget,” she says, before quoting a Persian verse frequently inscribed on gravestones – with a minor tweak. "Alas, without me for ten years/ The Rose will blossom and the Spring will bloom/ But those who have secretly understood my heart/They will approach and visit the grave where I lie."