A love story interrupted leaves a soul adrift
Michael James still can't bring himself to put away his wife's belongings, PETER CHENEY reports in the fourth of his six-part series of survivors' profiles
By PETER CHENEY
Tuesday, March 12, 2002
WILLINGSBORO, N.J. -- He still wears his wedding ring, and the dried flowers she arranged on the kitchen table remain exactly as she left them.
Her dresses still hang in the closet, and her bicycle stands next to his in the spare room, her helmet clipped to the handlebar as if she might be back soon to take another ride.
That will never be, of course. But Michael James is not yet ready to move on from losing his wife Gricelda in the attack on the World Trade Center.
That's why her perfume still sits on her dresser and her clothes in the drawers, and her toothbrush waits for her in the bathroom. This modest bungalow on a quiet, curving street in Willingsboro, a New Jersey suburb two hours south of New York, has become a museum of his life with Gricelda.
"If I got rid of everything, it would help me forget her," Mr. James acknowledges. But he doesn't want to forget. He remembers the day they bought the place together in 1999, the room they wanted to add, the colour they planned to paint the kitchen, where they would display their wedding pictures.
"It was a great day for us," he says. "This was for us, together."
Mr. James is 47 years old, but has always looked younger than his age. He worked as a gym teacher, and in his off hours, he lifted weights, ran and played soccer. But over the past six months, the habits of a lifetime gradually unravelled. He has quit his job and gained 20 pounds.
He sits in his kitchen, remembering how he and Gricelda would look at old couples shopping together in the supermarket and say, "That will be us." Strangers could tell how lucky they were just by looking, he says. "They knew we had something special."
Mr. James and his wife first knew each other as children in Honduras. He came to the United States with his parents in 1972 as a teenager. Gricelda, three years younger, came as a grown woman in the early 1990s.
They met again in 1998. Mr. James had been playing soccer at a field in New York City.
He noticed Gricelda walking along a track at the edge of the field, and recognized her from their childhood. It turned out that they had led parallel lives. Each had been married and separated, and raised two children.
"I loved my first wife," Mr. James says. "And Gricelda loved her husband, too. But we were all young. We didn't know as much. Gricelda and I, we had a different kind of love."
They were married at the Manhattan courthouse in May, 1999, on a beautiful, sunny day.
He remembers how calm he felt, knowing that he was doing exactly the right thing: "She was physically beautiful to me. But more than anything, she was intelligent. She had character. She never complained. If there was a problem, she'd fix it. She'd just keep working at something until it was done."
They bought the house in Willingsboro and began turning it into their home. Gricelda sewed curtains, put together dried flowers, and took mail-order courses in interior decorating and computers. She bought a PC, set up an Internet connection and taught him how to use it. She organized their finances and reviewed their savings plans.
"With Gricelda I felt safe. I knew she would take care of things, and that everything would be okay," Mr. James says. "I admired her. . . . I told my friends, 'I found gold.' "
And he never worried about losing her. "That never once crossed my mind. I could just never picture her being out of my life."
Gricelda also worked as an administrative assistant on the 79th floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower. Mr. James says that when he took her to the commuter train station on the morning of Sept. 11, she gave him a look he had never seen before. And then she was gone.
Shortly after the first plane hit, she called him from her office, crying. He told her to hang on, that he would drive straight to the city to pick her up. Before she hung up, she said, "I love you." He told her, for the last time, that he loved her too.
He made his way into the city, where he found himself in chaos. Smoke and flames filled the sky and emergency vehicles raced through the streets. Thousands of people were on searches like his. All day, Mr. James walked the streets of Manhattan, shouldering through the crowds, driven by the idea of finding Gricelda.
Day after day, he retained his composure, his emotions held back by the need to complete his mission. He put up posters with her picture, and asked anyone who would listen whether they had seen her. He kept thinking that she was trying to find her way home, and he worried that she might be cold or hungry. He carried a bag that he had packed with some of her clothes, her toothbrush and her favourite shampoo, so she could have them when he found her. He felt his hope was an armour that protected them both.
Then, at the end of the first week, his hope vanished. "All of a sudden, I just knew," he says. "I knew she was gone, and that I'd never hold her or make breakfast for her again."
He still cries every day. He never knows what will trigger it. Almost every time he watches a movie, he breaks down during any emotional scene -- "now I know how they feel," he says.
The payout from Gricelda's life insurance wiped out the mortgage and the bills, but Mr. James's newfound financial freedom is meaningless to him.
After teaching at the same school in Brooklyn for years, he had switched to one nearer his house just three weeks before the attacks. He returned to work on Nov. 12, but was unable to cope. He asked for a leave.
In January, he quit, realizing that he is emotionally incapable of being the kind of teacher he wants to be right now: "With kids, you have to be 100 per cent, and I can't be."
Almost every weekend, he goes into New York to spend time with his children and with Gricelda's. "We both raised nice kids," he says. "We both got lucky."
He says he's not angry over the attack that killed Gricelda.
"I don't really know who to be angry at. If someone stabs your wife to death, you can go to court and see who did it. You see him. With this, there's no one."
Lately he's been wondering whether he should go to Afghanistan.
"I keep thinking about all the people who died. There has to be reason. I need some answers. My wife was an innocent. I need to know why she was taken away."
He has avoided narrowing his attention to individual players, like Osama bin Laden, or Mohamed Atta, the terrorist who piloted the plane that crashed into his wife's building.
"If you start focusing on that, you'll be angry. You do that, and you'll want to pick up a weapon and kill those people. I can't get into that. I have to focus on moving on. I focus on Gricelda. I will never forget Gricelda, because she showed me love. How could I forget that?"
No trace of Gricelda has ever been found. Mr. James has accepted that he will probably never know exactly what happened to her. Instead, he has devoted himself to his grief. He doubts that he will ever marry again.
Still, he knows that some day his mourning period will have to end. He will take Gricelda's clothes out of the dressers, sell her bicycle and move on. He just doesn't know when.
"Some day, I'll pack all of this up, and it will be over," he says. "But I'm not there yet."
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