As Tom leaned over the bed to kiss me good-bye, I reached up and sleepily wrapped my arms around his neck.
“Have a good trip,” I whispered.
“I’ll call you tonight,” he said with a smile.
It was the morning of September 11, 2001—a morning like hundreds of other mornings in our eighteen years of marriage. As a copilot with American Airlines, Tom routinely got up in the predawn hours on the days he was flying and kissed me good-bye before heading off to work.
A few hours later, I crawled out of bed as usual, drove the kids to school, then returned home and settled down in a lawn chair on our backyard deck. The late summer day in our hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was brisk and already beautiful. The trees surrounding our house cradled the deck in quiet peacefulness, and rays of sunlight peeked through the branches, giving the promise of a sunny day ahead. I wrapped a quilt around me and opened my Bible.
Just as I finished praying, the phone rang.
“Cheryl, is Tom home?” asked Chris, one of our good friends.
“No, he left this morning on a trip.”
The other phone line started ringing. I put Chris on hold and answered the second call.
It was Bob, another good friend.
“Cheryl, is Tom home?”
I went back and forth between Chris and Bob for a few minutes, trying to understand why both men sounded so anxious yet weren’t saying anything specific.
“Do you have the television on?” one of them asked.
“No, I don’t watch television in the morning.”
The silence on the line was deafening.
My hand shaking, I grabbed the remote and waved it toward the television. “What’s going on, Chris?” I cried into the phone.
“A plane has been hijacked, Cheryl. I’m coming right over.”
As I stared at the confusing images on the television screen, I tried to reach Tom on his pager and cell phone. I didn’t know where he was flying that day, but not knowing was normal. He traveled so much, to so many places. He always called from his cell phone later in the day, and I’d hear all the details of his trip.
Where was he now? I was sure I could find out just by calling him.
I dialed his cell phone again.
I was nervous but not panicked. After all, dozens of flights had left Boston that morning. Tom could have been on any of a number of them. Surely he had nothing to do with the nightmare that was unfolding on the television screen.
I tried the number again. Still no answer. He always answers his cell phone, I thought.
My apprehension rising, I called a few other American Airlines pilots to see if they knew what flight Tom was on. No one would give me a concrete answer. I had never called American’s emergency crew-tracking number before, but now I looked up the number and dialed it. When I finally got through, the airline personnel wouldn’t tell me anything over the phone.
My calm September morning was rapidly erupting in chaos.
People began showing up at the house with concerned looks on their faces. Several women came up to me, took my hands in theirs, and began praying. Our kids, Jennifer and Tommy, ages sixteen and fourteen, called from school wanting to know if Dad was OK.
Then our pastor walked in.
This is really bad, I thought.
“Why are you here, Fred?” I asked him.
Before he could answer, I saw the car.
I knew immediately what it meant. After all, I had been a navy wife for years. As the big black car pulled up at the end of our driveway and three or four men in dark suits got out, followed by a priest, I suddenly understood why I hadn’t been able to get any information over the phone.
They don’t call. They come. The men in the big black car come to the door. They look grim, and you see their ties moving in and out as deep breaths prepare them for the words they will have to utter. They are silent as they move closer to the door, their footsteps echoing off the cold concrete.
It could have been a scene in a movie—but it was my life. I was center stage. I was the waiting wife of the man who would never come home again.
“No, no, no, God! Please don’t call him home!” I screamed. I beat on Fred’s chest as I cried out the same words again and again. Fred just held me. Finally I stopped and sank into his arms.
I knew that one of the men who had gotten out of the black car must be the chief pilot for American Airlines—the one whose job it was to make this kind of call, the one who had the ominous duty of personally informing family members of the death of a loved one.
I looked up at him now. “Do you have something official to say to me?” I asked.
I saw the pain in his face as he told me that American Airlines Flight 11 had been hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. There were no survivors. Tom had been the copilot on that flight.
Shock overwhelmed every nerve in my body. I felt as if my heart had been ripped out. Nothing seemed real—and yet everything was so real. I gripped Fred’s arms to keep from collapsing.
It had been such a beautiful morning, such a normal day. I had opened my Bible and then . . . Tom was gone. How could this be? Through my shaking and tears, I could see many of my close friends standing around me. They were in the entryway of the house, spilling over into the family room, the dining room. No one said a word. But their faces revealed the compassion and sorrow each one felt for me and my children.
Just when I thought I couldn’t feel pain any deeper, I realized that I had to tell Jennifer and Tommy what had happened. I had to give them the news that would do to them what it was now doing to me. How could I do that? What words could I say?
Our good friends Jeff and Vickie drove me to the school. I don’t remember the drive. I just remember walking into the principal’s office and seeing our church youth pastor already there. Jeff had called ahead to the school to tell them the news and to let them know I was on my way.
Tommy came running into the office, a look of abject fear on his face. I pulled him into my arms and said, “Jesus has called Daddy home.” Jennifer came in a moment later, and I repeated the same words to her. There I stood—a grieving mother delivering terrifying, heartbreaking news to her frightened children. We clung to each other and cried.
I reassured them that we would be okay and told them, “Daddy’s okay because he’s in heaven with Jesus.” I believed my words, but I couldn’t quite comprehend the reality of them. At that moment the pain was all consuming. Thinking of Tom being with Jesus was comforting. But how would we survive without him? I didn’t have a clue.
The ride back home was quiet. I sat between Jennifer and Tommy in the backseat, legs touching, hands held tight. We leaned on each other. We hugged. They both looked scared, and I admit I was too. My mind kept flipping back and forth between the comforting thought of Tom in heaven and the unsettling thought of the children and me on earth without him. I noticed Jennifer and Tommy occasionally peeking over at me and then looking straight ahead, as if trying to read my thoughts so they could digest them for themselves. I knew my response would be the barometer they would use to measure how safe we really were now that our husband, our father, our human protector was gone.
When we got back to the house, people were everywhere. The phone was ringing off the hook, the media were outside the door, food was arriving, flowers were being delivered. Our youth pastor was there with some of the kids from church. He hugged Jennifer and Tommy and stayed right by them in the hours that followed. Our back deck was full of teenagers from school, church, and the neighborhood. It became their gathering spot in a house teeming with people and activity.
My kitchen was full of women taking care of the cooking, making meal delivery charts, and distributing food to the growing crowd that continued to arrive all day. The family room buzzed with muted conversations as people watched the unfolding events of 9/11 on the television. Friends manned the phone in shifts and recorded the calls in a phone log.
Many of the big media organizations called—Oprah, Time, CNN, Good Morning America—but I didn’t talk to any of them. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to talk with me. I couldn’t bring myself to think about anything beyond the reality of Tom’s absence.
I crept up to my bedroom to make a few calls to family members. Tom’s mother answered the phone and said she had been trying to reach American Airlines. I confirmed her worst fears and heard the desperate cry of a mother receiving the news that her son was dead.
I called my sister Patty in Nevada. She, too, had heard the news and feared that the hijacked American flight was Tom’s.
“I’ll come right away and stay as long as you need me,” she said.
Other family members also heard the news in shocked disbelief. My sisters Ginny and Linda arrived at the house about the same time that Tom’s parents and his sister, Cathy, arrived. The scene they encountered was overwhelming. There were so many people bustling around! I felt devastated all over again seeing Tom’s parents sitting on the sofa in the middle of the family room, looking so stunned and lost.
As I moved through the whirlwind swirling around me, my mind drifted back to a conversation Tom and I had had not long before, when we’d gone out to dinner to celebrate our eighteenth wedding anniversary. He’d told me a tragic story about a navy friend of his whose wife was killed instantly in a car accident.
I couldn’t imagine such a loss. “I couldn’t live here without you,” I’d told Tom through tears. “I just couldn’t do it.”
“If anything ever happens to me, you have to trust God,” Tom had responded with a gentle smile. “God will get you through it. Just surround yourself with loving people. People who know Christ. People who will surround you in Christlike love.”
Little did either of us know that I would soon be living through what I feared most.
I do trust you, God, and I will trust you, I prayed silently, realizing that I was already surrounded by loving people. My house was full. Every need was being taken care of. People from the school, our church, the airline, and the neighborhood were there. A sense of gratitude seeped into my aching heart, helping to calm my fears.
That night as I tucked my children into bed, we held each other and cried. The pain was excruciating.
“Will we be okay?” they kept asking me over and over. I assured them that we would be, even as I prayed silently that I was telling them the truth.
Finally I went to my own room and lay down. It was the first time I had been alone since early that morning. I hugged my pillow and sobbed. In my anguish I sensed God whispering to my spirit, “I am with you and your children.” I cried and cried, begging God to keep Jennifer and Tommy close to him. I was so afraid that this loss would cause them to turn away from their faith. Over and over again I cried out, “God, help us!” Those three words dominated my vocabulary for days.
I must have finally fallen asleep, because I was awakened the next morning by the sounds of people banging and clanging around in my kitchen. I had given my door key to a neighbor and told her to come in whenever she wanted. She had let in a crew of women who were already organizing all the food, flowers, and notes that were beginning to arrive.
One of the associate pastors from our church, Pastor Dave, came over to talk with me about Tom’s memorial service. Dave had been a pastor at a church we had attended in California. Now he pastored at Bethany Church, our new church home in New Hampshire. Our two families had arrived in Portsmouth around the same time the year before. The fact that Dave had known Tom and me longer than anyone else in the area was a comfort as we sat down to make the plans for the memorial.
I was determined to set a celebratory tone. Years earlier my own father’s funeral had been terribly painful for me. I didn’t want my children to have the same kind of experience. Besides, Tom knew Jesus. He was in heaven with his Savior. We had great hope and reason to celebrate.
“I want the service to be a celebration of life,” I told Dave. “A celebration of Tom’s life and the life that Jesus offers all of us who believe in him.”
The next few days seemed to blur into one another. Our house continued to be full of people, and the help we received amazed me. As I dealt with my grief and made plans for the memorial service, friends, neighbors, and members of our church family took care of all the details of life. Someone did the laundry, the kitchen ran like a well-oiled machine, the phone was always manned and the log regularly updated, and my children were watched over and loved at all times.
We had been in Portsmouth only a year. Surely it should have taken longer to develop enough close relationships to receive such an outpouring of support! But amazingly, the community rallied around us as if we had been with them for decades.
The day before the memorial service, my sisters took me shopping to find a dress to wear. I had lost ten pounds in six days, and nothing in my closet fit well.
“I won’t wear black,” I told them. “It’s too sad, and this is a celebration of Tom’s life.”
In store after store, my sisters pulled dozens of dresses off the racks for me to try on. I went through the motions in a mental fog. I’m getting a dress for my husband’s memorial service, I kept thinking. It seemed so surreal.
With every black dress they brought to me, I protested. “I’m not happy about Tom being gone, but I am happy about him being in heaven. I want that to be the emphasis of the service. I don’t want to look sad,” I repeated.
In the end, however, I went home with a new black dress. My sisters convinced me that the style was good, and it needed no alterations. “Just get it,” they said.
So I wore black to the memorial service. But the tone of the day was anything but black. The children and I missed Tom. We suffered deeply from the pain of losing him. But God comforted our hearts as we prepared to join our friends and family at the church.
Several of Jennifer’s and Tommy’s friends rode with us in the limousine to the service. Along the way we sang praise songs at the top of our voices and worshiped the Lord with gusto. I thought my heart would burst as I looked and saw my children smiling.
When we arrived at the church, we noticed that the parking lot was full to overflowing. We stayed in the car for a few minutes and prayed for the strength and courage to face what was about to take place. “God help us,” I repeated again. A Scripture verse came to my mind: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). How amazing it was to experience the presence and comfort of the Lord in such a powerful way at that moment!
Stepping out of the limousine, we walked into a sanctuary filled with light, people, and an almost palpable sense of the presence of God. As we were escorted to the front row, we were more determined than ever to celebrate Tom’s life and God’s provision of heaven.
During the service Tommy and I both spoke about Tom, and Tommy read some thoughts Jennifer had written about her dad. Gazing out over the sea of faces, I was shocked to realize that I was actually standing and speaking in front of so many people. Church friends, neighbors, family, American Airline’s associates, navy buddies who had flown with Tom, government officials, and many other people I didn’t even know filled the church. I was nervous, but my desire to communicate our faith overrode my nervousness.
I shared with the audience that the night before Tom died, he and I had talked about our love and faith in God. I had told Tom how much I’d seen God change, shape, and mold him. I’d told him how excited I was about the great work the Creator had done in him, and how much I looked forward to sharing this life and the next with him. Looking back, I felt thankful that God had given me the opportunity to express my feelings of love and affection to Tom so clearly.
At the end of the service, I told the audience that anyone who wanted to take home one of the Bibles from the pews was welcome to do so. About four hundred Bibles were taken that day. (Sometime later, Zondervan Publishing House and the Willow Creek Association donated four hundred Bibles in Tom’s memory to Bethany Church to replace the ones that had been removed. The dedication in the front of each Bible reads, “A gift to Bethany Church in memory of Thomas F. McGuinness, Jr., your brother in Christ whose life was marked by his love of God’s Word.”)
I still hear stories about people who were deeply touched at the memorial service. Every Sunday at church and regularly as I speak throughout the country, people tell me how much Tom’s life impacted them, either directly or from hearing about him at the service. Their conversations give me great encouragement and strength. So does the thought that some of those people who took Bibles home with them have a better understanding now of who Jesus is and what he offers them in this life and in the life to come.
After the service the church had a reception, and I had an opportunity to greet many of the people who had come to the memorial. The numbers were overwhelming, but everyone I met was warm and consoling.
By the time the children and I got back to the house, it was aglow with a warmth of its own. A number of women had gone ahead of us and prepared a beautiful buffet. Family, friends, and neighbors were already arriving. The setting reminded me of an old Irish wake. Praise music played in the background, food was put out in abundance, and Tom’s navy buddies sat with a circle of people around them as they reminisced about Tom and the good old days. As a navy pilot, Tom had been deployed for months at a time, flying F-14s off aircraft carriers. These men who now spun their tales had spent many long weeks with Tom during those deployments. Their stories seemed to bring something of Tom’s positive, can-do spirit into that room of rapt listeners. And with each minute, each hour that passed, I thought, We are getting through this. One step at a time, we are doing it. We are surviving.
My sister Patty arrived from Nevada and stayed with us for three weeks. She did everything—cleaned, cooked, wrote notes, took care of Tommy’s and Jennifer’s needs. (After a while we started calling her Nanny, because she reminded us of Fran Drescher’s character on the TV show, The Nanny.) Patty’s upbeat personality and boundless energy were just what we needed during those first few days and weeks of transition, as we moved from throbbing shock and pain to acceptance of our new life.
The children and I quickly realized that everything about the way we lived our lives was now subject to change. Each day brought a new realization of just that: Dad’s not here. He isn’t coming home. We aren’t going to be with him . . . not here on earth anyway. Life will never be the same again. Those were difficult days, but Patty’s presence helped to soften their harshness.
At some point Jennifer, Tommy, and I came up with the idea of planting a “tree of life” in our backyard as a personal, living memorial to Tom that we would be able to enjoy for years to come. We chose a beautiful Crimson King Norway maple tree, set it in the ground in just the right spot, and planted four smaller plants around it. We named the four plants I Love You, Forget Me Not, Sweetheart, and Little Buddy. To us, they represent new life. In the future we may add other touches to this special place.
It took me a long time to absorb the broader impact of the 9/11 tragedy. In those early weeks and months, I was consumed with my own grief and concern for my children. Life was so different from anything I had ever experienced before. It took all of my energy to focus on being the new head of our household.
I didn’t watch television. I’d catch the news only as I overheard people talking. All I knew for sure was that my husband had been killed, and now my country was at war. Only very slowly did I come to realize that Tom was an integral part of an international event that had devastating ramifications for thousands of people in the United States and around the world.
Many spiritual questions surfaced as I tried to grasp where God was on 9/11. Why did this devastation occur? Why did God allow this personal tragedy? But trying to make sense of it all was too much for me. I quickly realized that all I could do was focus on caring for Jennifer and Tommy. All I could do was trust God.
That’s still where I am today: trusting God. I am learning so much through this grief process and the experience of living a life I never anticipated. As I reflect back over all the years of my life, I can see that God was, in fact, working in unseen ways in my life long before I even knew much about him. He was preparing me for this road I’m now walking.
Since 9/11 I’ve had opportunities to speak to thousands of people individually and in groups of all sizes. Initially, the main interest of my audiences was the September tragedy. Since my family was affected in such a close and personal way by the terrorist attacks, people wanted to hear what I had to say about that tragic day.
But as I have shared more and more about God’s influence in my life before and after 9/11—how God wooed Tom and me, how he changed us both individually and as a couple, how we struggled to live for him in the midst of a fast-track lifestyle, and how my children and I have grown ever closer to God since Tom’s death—people have wanted to hear more. They’re intrigued with the part Tom’s untimely death played in my story, but they are also interested in God’s influence and involvement in my life from my earliest days to the present moment.
Admittedly, some of the particulars of my story are uniquely dramatic. But my emotions are universal. I’m really just like you. We all hurt and love, cry and laugh, and long for answers to the deep questions of life: Why are we here? Why does evil happen? What do we do when life unfolds in surprising ways? Where is God in the difficult times?
All of us suffered on September 11, 2001. My story is a very public one, but you have a story too. Thousands of people lost loved ones that day. People all over the world, and especially in the United States, experienced various levels of shock and pain. We endured a universal tragedy that pierced each of our lives in some degree.
Now we live in the aftermath of that day. Our lives are played out against the backdrop of a country familiar with terror. And the anxiety that this backdrop produces is integrally entwined in the comings and goings of our everyday lives.
But God is still alive. He still cares about the smallest detail of our lives. He still wants us to know him and to see his loving hand at work in our hearts and in our homes.
In the pages that follow, I want to share with you my story. I also want to share with you the principles that have guided me at every stage of my life. Each chapter will tell part of the story of my life and of Tom’s life too. From our early childhoods to the events of 9/11 and beyond, you’ll read about the journey we traveled and how God’s principles, spelled out in the Bible, changed us along the way. Since the catastrophe these same principles have continued to shape my life and the lives of Jennifer and Tommy.
The first part of each chapter will tell my story, and the second part will discuss the biblical principle involved so you can apply it to your own life. Our lives are the individual canvases upon which God reveals himself. But no matter how different our pictures may seem, they are all painted with the same brush. The same principles that apply to me apply to you too.
It is my prayer that as you read my story you will see yourself. Your details will be different and unique, but we have so much of the human experience in common: pain, sorrow, fear, confusion. We also have the same ability to enjoy the benefits of a relationship with God: joy, peace, comfort, guidance.
It is also my prayer that you will see Jesus in the pages of this book and that, if you don’t know him now, you will come to know him by the time you finish reading. If you already know Jesus, I pray that these pages will help you draw closer to him and trust him more fully.
As I’ve learned—and as I’m still learning—with Jesus there is always a way through even the most difficult circumstances. I pray that through the illustration of my life and the application of these few basic principles from God’s Word, you will come to know God better, see his hand at work more clearly, and learn how, with God’s help, you can overcome any and every challenge that comes your way.