Mothers United

By Lynn Tierney, Contributor
June / July 2004

Tara Stackpole read Football for Dummies from cover to cover. She needed to know the difference between a fullback and a halfback. Her husband, Timmy, had been a football player on the FDNY team, a coach for the kids’ league and a huge sports fan. Tara wanted to get up to speed on the intricacies of the game so that she could be more than just a fan at her kids’ games, and just maybe, be able to fill the silence that settles in sometimes when they watch the games on TV. “I want to be able to talk about it with some knowledge and answer their questions like their Dad did. Besides,” she smiles, “it made the Super Bowl much more enjoyable this year.”

This is just one of the hundreds of adjustments that Tara and many other women are making as they cope with losing their husbands and take over all of the parenting duties.

Timmy Stackpole, an FDNY captain, was killed at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He had just returned to work after a period of recovery from a major burn injury he received while fighting a fire in 1998. Mary Fahey, Denise Ford and Anne Downing lost their husbands in the Father’s Day Fire of June, 2001.

How do these women face each day? They all have very strong faith, good family support systems and they find great strength in each other. Denise says, “People are amazed I believe in God. I’m amazed they don’t.”

Together they have faced incredible pain and sorrow. And like many other women in their situation, they have summoned up the courage to go on and create a life for themselves and their families.

Between them, they have twelve children — three girls and nine boys. Tara’s oldest son, Kevin, made her a grandmother at 39, when Mia was born last year.

“People say, `How can you do it? Five kids — four of them boys?’ The funny thing is,” Tara says, “I don’t know what the alternative is. I’d like to know what the choice is. How don’t you go on?”

When word of the Father’s Day fire and explosion first came in on that fine day in June of 2001, Tara and Timmy left their Brooklyn home and made their way to the Burn Center at New York Hospital in Manhattan where some of the victims were being taken. Having spent many months at the Center when Timmy was burned, they knew what the families were in for and they wanted to lend comfort and help prepare them for what was to come. Unfortunately, Harry Ford, Brian Fahey and John Downing never made it to the Burn Center. They were killed at the fire scene in Queens, and although all three wives were at the hospital, they didn’t meet that day.

Denise Ford and Mary Fahey met on the steps of St. Sebastian’s Church in Queens at John Downing’s funeral. They had both buried their husbands the day before at back-to-back funerals on Long Island. After the Mass, Denise quietly approached Mary while the crowd milled about and the television cameras focused in. Denise expressed her sympathy. Mary did the same and then asked Denise how she was doing. Denise said she was okay, but felt like she didn’t know how she was going to get through it. Mary leaned in and said, “You know, they tell me that because things are so crazy at this moment, we can get away with anything…do you want to run screaming across the parking lot?” Denise cracked up laughing, and Mary said, “Do you think those TV cameras can read our lips?” Denise said, “You better hope not,” and at that very moment, she realized she was going to love this woman.

In the tradition of the Department, the FDNY — including Tara and Timmy — rallied around Denise, Mary and Anne after the Father’s Day Fire had claimed the lives of their husbands.

Harry Ford, Denise’s husband, had been a legend in the department. He was a feisty, squarely-built, determined man who was a union delegate and never had an opinion that was not worth fighting for. He was a very strong presence and very close to his children: Denise’s daughter, Janna O’Brien, 24 at the time, and the couple’s two sons, Harry, 12, and Gerard, 10. He and Denise had built a relationship founded on trust and independence that worked perfectly for two strong-willed individuals.

Harry and Brian Fahey had worked together in the elite Rescue Company 4.

Mary and Brian fell in love the first time they met. “The minute I saw him, I knew,” she recalls. “Some friends and I went out one night and he was bartending. I left the club, called him from a payphone and told him I’d like a take-out order and he was part of it.” She smiles, remembering. “He laughed and said, `come back here right now,’ and I did. That was it.”

Mary and Brian went on to have three sons: Brendan, who was 8 when his Dad died; and the twins, James and Patrick, who were 3. Brian had been an instructor at the Nassau County Fire Academy, as well as a member of the FDNY. And as such, he had trained hundreds of firefighters, many of whom now flooded his family with offers of help. One firefighter in particular, Durrell “Bronco” Pearsall — a huge bull of a man with the heart of a kid — spent hours with the boys, talking, playing and giving them much-needed support.

Bronco was killed at the Trade Center on September 11, as were many of the other firefighters who had given their time to the families. The kids, who lost their dads just three months before, would learn from their mothers that Bronco and the other firefighters weren’t coming back.

Anne Downing met her husband when she was supposed to be on a blind date with someone else. “My date never showed up and all of a sudden, there was John,” she remembers.

“It just took off from there.” They married and when the kids, Joanna and Michael, came along, John was a full partner in raising them. Right from the start, he mixed formula, made bottles and set them in the fridge. “It was a great love story; he was thrilled with the children,” Anne says.

Just before John’s death, the family had planned a trip to Ireland so that he and the kids could meet the rest of Anne’s relatives. He had a second job working as a tile setter at Kennedy Airport. “He was so proud that we would see his work when we left for our trip,” Anne recalls, adding, “I only just saw it at Christmastime last year when I finally made the trip to Ireland.”

Exactly one year after John died, Michael, then 3 1/2, began complaining of back pain. Initially, Anne thought he had outgrown his car seat. But to be sure, she brought him to the doctor. He was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare, aggressive cancer that affects the nervous system. This news sent Anne reeling. She, Joanne, 8, and Michael had been struggling to cope with John’s loss, and now this. She quickly rallied. Putting all other thoughts from her mind, she sought out the best medical treatment and began the fight to save her son. It was a battle she would lose. Michael died in October, 2003.

Tara and Timmy Stackpole were together for more than 20 years. They were active in the church, led couples in pre-marriage conferences, and raised Kevin, Kaitlyn, Brian, Brendan and Terance with their large Irish families on both sides.

From the first, Tara was a true partner in every sense. She is as consumed with the traditions of the Fire Department as her husband was. Firefighters say she knows so much about the job that she’d do better on promotion tests than they would. She put this knowledge to the test recently while away with a group at a ski lodge. She saw footage of a roaring blaze on TV and calmly identified the fire as being a “multiple alarm, H type building; Emmons Avenue, Brooklyn.”

On another occasion, Tara was dining with friends when the breadbasket caught fire. She calmly flipped the basket over, smothered the flames all in one motion, and then casually said, “I didn’t live with him all those years and not learn a few tricks.”

Tara was by Timmy’s side throughout his three-year recovery. She watched him fight through the pain to make it back to work. During his medical leave, he toured all the firehouses in New York City, giving motivational speeches to the firefighters and helping them understand the need for training, proper equipment and accountability. “He was on a mission,” she recalls.

On September 6, 2001, Timmy was promoted to Captain. On September 11, he was killed while leading a search company when the Towers fell. Tara said at the time that she thought he was probably supposed to have been lost in the earlier fire but that God had given her three more years with him, and she was thankful for that.

These strong, bright, compassionate and sometimes outrageously funny women have formed a bond that is so strong it seems to others as if they’ve always known each other. Often seen together and in the company of other recent widows at social functions and services, they have become inseparable.

Anne Downing says she’s been able to pull through in part because of the support she’s gotten from “The Girls,” as she calls Denise, Mary and Tara. “I’ll tell you,” she says with her thick brogue, “if you have a sad note, they’ll not be long changing the tune.”

There are tears, anger and frustration, but somehow all have found it’s a little easier if they try to get through it together.

“When I get wistful and miss my husband, I think how much he would have loved these women and how great it is that we’ve become so close,” says Denise. “Then I realize I never would have met them if not for the tragedy.

“After 9/11, I hadn’t attended too many wakes for firefighters outside of the ones for Rescue 4, but I think Harry sent me to Timmy Stackpole’s so that I could become friends with Tara. Sometimes I think God put these people in my path. I am so thankful that they are helping me get on with my life, and thankful they are so nutty,” she says with a laugh.

Firefighters feel it, too. After spending time at events with “The Girls,” one firefighter said that seeing them summon up the strength and determination to get on with life had inspired him. He had been wallowing, not knowing how to push through the grief and anguish of 9/11. Watching these mothers respond to the needs of their kids and the responsibilities that have been thrust upon them made him realize that he could get on with it too.

But the sadness is always lurking around the edges, and the women say they can never tell when it will hit.

“I was in the grocery store shopping for Easter dinner,” Tara says, “and I noticed a really musty, smoky smell that I immediately recognized as firefighters’ bunker gear. I then saw the members of a truck company coming towards me. They were doing their shopping for dinner. The smell pulled me right back and, of course, I totally lost it right there in the vegetable aisle. I thought to myself, `Oh God, what has happened to our lives?’ Then I realized how lucky I am. I have people I can call on the spot who will totally understand what I’m feeling.”

Mary Fahey feels Brian all around them. She was driving the twins to their first Little League practice, and she knew he was with them. “It’s a great comfort because he’s here with us and I know he knows we are doing okay. He’d be so proud, but it’s so painful that he’s so close and I can’t share it all with him,” she says.

As the mothers have joined forces to move ahead, so have the kids. As Mary Fahey says, they have “blended together like peanut butter and jelly.” It has naturally evolved that the older ones adopted a protective attitude towards the younger ones, watching them on the ski slopes and at functions. That they all lost their fathers is not the coalescing force. It has more to do with running, baseball, football, video games and other common interests. They’re just kids who like each other. After a recent ski trip, Brendan Fahey asked when they could all get together again. His Mom told him they were all going to go to a memorial Mass for Timmy Stackpole to commemorate his birthday — a tradition Tara started two years ago. Brendan asked, “What do you mean?” and Mary told him that the Stackpoles and Harry and Gerard Ford had lost their fathers, too. She could see the news register and his face light up in recognition.

Trying to fill roles as both mother and father has its challenging moments.

Early this spring, Mary Fahey was trying to understand the game at her kids’ first lacrosse practice. She had a conversation with a dad that went like this:

“I don’t really get lacrosse.”

“It’s easy, a lot like soccer.”

“I don’t really know soccer.”

“That’s okay, it’s just like hockey,”

“I don’t really get hockey.”

“Just cheer when I do.”

At first, Mary was really concerned about how her boys would learn all that secret stuff men seem to know, such as standing up when a woman walks into a room and shaking hands as a greeting. She’s watched as they have grown and found that they seem to develop these skills naturally. Brendan has assumed the role of man of the house and does major chores. The twins are growing into very good athletes, and last Christmas James became the mechanic and put together toys well beyond his years. “I’m proud of them,” Mary says.

Tara Stackpole’s son Kevin, 21, is in the Navy in San Diego. Kaitlyn, 17, represented the family last year by being honored for her civic and cultural contributions at the Great Irish Fair in Brooklyn, where her father had been the proud honoree the year before. Brian, 13, is a quiet athlete. Brendan, 11, is definitely the actor/comedian, and Terance, the youngest at 9, has the big cheeks and sleepy eyes of his Dad.

Harry and Gerard Ford spar with each other and their mother as 13 and 15 year-olds commonly do. They are angry a lot and really miss their father. He used to carve out time just for them, and they bitterly miss that. Denise was recently elected to the Nassau County Legislature. She took on the campaign in an effort to fill a void she saw in the community, but also to satisfy a drive she felt in herself.

“I think, in part, I was looking for something to fill the void. I felt my life was out of control. I was procrastinating and looking elsewhere for satisfaction,” she said. “When I got elected, it gave me back some kind of validation, a sense of who I am.”

Denise admits that the legislature was a little overwhelming at first, but, she says, “I got my Irish up and said, `I’ll be damned if I let this get the better of me.’ And actually the work restored order in my life. Time is so precious that I need to do well organizing it. I’m back to what I used to be — a mother running the house, making time for the boys and doing my job.”

The Ford and Fahey boys spend time with the men at Rescue 4, while Tara’s children are often collected and brought to Rescue 2 — one of Timmy’s companies. The firefighters drill, exercise, and feed them until they can’t hold another bite. Mary’s boys do the same with both Rescue 4 and the Hempstead Fire Department. John’s company, Ladder 163, has stuck close to Anne and Joanne, making sure that anything that needs doing gets done.

The women know how lucky they are to have these men, their friends and families around to help. And since their husbands were such fixtures in the Fire Department, they feel an obligation to keep the FDNY tradition alive with the kids.

While the mothers are gaining a foothold, their children are also. “We are picking up our lives, and so are they,” says Tara. “They are back to being normal, which means out of the fog and arguing, pushing, testing limits like all kids do. There is no free pass. This is real life. What’s different now is there is no partner to share it with or to bounce things off.

“Sometimes,” she says, “When I reach my limit with them and feel like lashing out, I find myself cursing the terrorists who destroyed our lives.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, the FDNY assigned a network of counselors and therapists to help people deal with the tragedy. Some families have taken advantage of counseling, some have sought out private services on their own and some haven’t asked for help at all.

These mothers have found solace in counseling. They periodically attend group sessions with other recent widows. They also each meet alone with a counselor, whom they all describe as wonderful. Many of the issues that come up are universal: self-image, working through grief, management of the kids, gaining control of finances and redefining family.

They all say the counseling is a great experience. It provides the opportunity for them to see that people handle things very differently, and that there is no right or wrong in how you do it. All four have had great moments of doubt about how they are doing. It’s so easy to be knocked back down into a funk by the slightest thing. But by working together, they are able to see where they are in the process and where they will be in a matter of time.

They also now realize that there are stages to recovery. For some, those stages come faster than for others. Some have moved homes in the process. Some were in the middle of renovations when their husbands died and had to finish the projects themselves. Some have built new houses. Others haven’t begun to make such changes. Anne Downing still has her husband, John’s clothes in her closet — not to mention that she has all of her son, Michael’s clothes and toys throughout the house, including the den where he spent his last weeks on the couch. “I’m not there yet to deal with any of that,” she says.

Tara said their counselor, Gwen, recently made an analogy for their situation. “She told us that at first we were all in a lifeboat together, fleeing from an incredible horror. In that lifeboat, we cling to each other for survival. Soon, we are drifting and we see land on the horizon. As we get closer to land, we make different choices about how to reach it. Some jump from the lifeboat and swim, some use the life preservers to stay afloat as they swim, some slowly float. Some need the security of the boat until we get there. There is no right or wrong way, no judgment, no time limit. It’s different for each of us, but there is hope in knowing we will all get there.”

Tara finished the dream house she and Timmy had planned. It’s near the beach, where they grew up. One of Timmy’s best friends, another firefighter, teared-up when he came to see it, recognizing that it was exactly as Timmy had envisioned. “Timmy would have been proud of Tara for making it happen,” he said.

Tara spends time walking on the beach when she needs to sort things out. “I think, and I talk things over with him, all the time keeping an eye out for sea glass,” she says. “That last summer he was alive we went to Long Beach Island and came home with a whole jar [of sea glass] from our walks. Now, the kids go out and they never find any, but when I go for my walks, I always find great pieces. The kids say, `How did you do that,’ and I just tell them, `Daddy gave it to me.'”

Anne and Joanne finally took the long-delayed trip to Ireland this year. Anne saw her mother for the first time in four years and even traveled to Belfast to hear the Irish Tenors sing. Ronan Tynan — who had visited the house when Michael was sick and sung so beautifully at his funeral — sent the tickets. “Hearing Ronan sing `In the Arms of an Angel’ at Michael’s funeral gave me a bit of comfort, and for the first time, I had the feeling that I might make it through,” Anne recalls. Joanne recently went to see the movie, Scooby-Doo2. Michael loved Scooby-Doo, and Joanne felt it was her duty to see it for him. She also launched a mini acting career by being featured in a Fire Safety Education commercial.

Denise and the boys will go to Ireland this summer. They are going to tour the West and then wind up in Dublin. It will give them a chance to spend time together and build some new experiences.

One of the things Mary Fahey can’t believe is how she feels that she knows Timmy, Harry and John. She was in a conversation with some firefighters recently who said something about Harry Ford. “Oh, Harry was always like that,” she told them.. “It’s because we all talk about them so much, and talk about our relationships. We all have the sense that we knew and loved them.” Denise, Tara and Anne feel the same way.

The next adventure for this group is a weekend trip to a spa in the Caskills.

When Anne was in the midst of her trials and physically worn out, the girls made the pact to visit a spa. The guiding factor in choosing the right one was that there be no required spa cuisine, but that there would be forceful masseuses to twist the strain away. All agree that a massage, a glass of wine, a good meal with dessert, and the chance to spend a few days together laughing, crying and talking all night is what they need. The most important thing is that they do it together… just “The Girls.” ♦

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