“My goal was to keep their lives normal” (Part 1 of a 4-part Sept. 11 anniversary series)
By James Fuller
NEW YORK – Marc Wieman is not a man who likes to look back. The last time he did, he watched his wife die.
Now, with his new life as a widower and a single parent, he faces economic uncertainty and the unmapped journey of becoming whole again.
From his Manhattan office at insurance giant American International Group Inc., Marc Wieman has a view common to many New Yorkers, that of another office. But strewn with pictures of his wife, brothers, children and pin-up artwork that only a child’s hands could create, his 8-foot-square space has the unmistakable touch of a family man.
He used to be able to take a short elevator trip up to the executive floor to see the World Trade Center and spy the tiny window that marked the office where his wife, Mary, worked. Home was never far away.
On the morning of Sept. 11, he and Mary talked on the phone to catch up. Mary Lenz Wieman was a 43-year-old insurance marketing executive with Aon Corp and an Arlington Heights native. She had stayed in Manhattan overnight to prepare for an early business meeting on the 105th floor of the South Tower.
Marc went back to the couple’s Long Island home to be with the kids, Chris, 13; Allison, 9, and Mary Julia, 7. Mary had a late dinner with clients and was at the office early to prepare the conference room, right down to dusting the furniture, as she was wont to do.
Mary Wieman was a busy executive, but she fit the gym, her job and her family into most every day. She was bright and social, loved parties, dancing and cranking the music up.
This morning, the phone call was just a quick catch-up. Good morning. How did the kids behave? What’s on our calendars? As Marc remembers, nothing specific or important came up. They hung up in anticipation of seeing each other that night.
The work day had just begun in Manhattan when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. As word spread, Marc and his co-workers scrambled out in front of his building where the smoking tower could be viewed from an alleyway.
He could see it was not Mary’s building. Nor was it the first time the World Trade Center had been rocked with explosions and fire. Still, it was close, too close, and Marc Wieman hustled back to his desk to call his wife.
There was no answer at Mary’s office. He tried her cell phone. If people were evacuating, it was possible she didn’t hear her husband’s call. Or, maybe it was off because she was conducting her meeting just then.
At that moment, in fact, Mary Lenz Wieman was making her way down the stairs of the South Tower. It was easily a 50-minute journey from the height she began from, hindered by the sheer number of people and the confusion of the moment.
At the 78th floor, her co-workers told Marc later, Mary Wieman got impatient with the slow journey and decided to take the elevator. That was the last time anyone can say for sure that they saw her.
As Marc was leaving his message, New York shook a second time. It was 9:03 a.m. The South Tower had been hit by United Airlines Flight 175, which plowed a course between the 78th and 87th floors. Outside the World Trade Center, New York was waking up to the fact this was not a fluke accident, but a planned holocaust.
The city, along with American International Group, began the clumsy process of evacuating. But not before Marc made one last call to Mary’s cell phone. No answer.
Driving was out of the question, and public transportation was non-existent. Marc Wieman began the long walk home, joining the streaming masses in a diaspora across the Brooklyn Bridge. He would walk all the way to Brooklyn, to the Long Island Rail Road that would take him to a cab and eventually bring him home.
Wieman didn’t say much during the walk. As a pedestrian crossing that storied bridge, he could have turned and had a magnificent view of the Manhattan skyline and the East River in a fashion not available to people for more than a century. With nothing but water below and sun above, the Brooklyn Bridge offered an unobstructed view of the wounded towers. But Marc Wieman’s thoughts were elsewhere.
“It’s going to take a miracle now,” Wieman said aloud, marching along with his co-workers. They knew what he meant, and offered words of comfort, but nothing could stop the smoke from billowing out of the towers.
At 9:59 a.m., less than an hour after the Boeing 767 missile blew through Mary’s tower, a wave of gasps and screams shot through the escapees on the bridge.
Marc Wieman turned just in time for a last look at the giant falling to the pavement in thunder and ash.
“I could hear people screaming, and I turned and saw Tower Two collapse,” Marc Wieman said. “It was a horrifying moment. It still is.”
The moment is worsened by not having anyone to say goodbye to. Mary Lenz Wieman never was recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center.
Since the attacks, Wieman has mustered enough strength to go to the site a couple times – once with his children because they wanted to see what was left, once for the final day of the cleanup, and once at lunch, by himself for his own personal moment.
“That was a huge mistake,” Wieman said. “I went up to the viewing platform and when I came down, all the names were there. Once you see those names, you just start going down the alphabet until I got to the W’s. It was just a huge mistake.”
Now Marc Wieman slowly finds himself having to become his wife, take over her role and be two parents, one person with two full-time jobs.
The main task is to keep his children going, and, in losing himself in their lives, he’s kept himself going.
That meant going back to work and sending the children to school the very next day. It meant doing all the paperwork to get the charity money that might help sustain them for several years, to help fill in for Mary’s missing breadwinner share of the household income.
“From day one, my goal was to keep their lives normal,” Wieman said of his children. “We don’t spend a lot of time sitting around the house crying. It’s a very adult lesson for them to learn that there are no answers to this.”
The answers Wieman seeks involve dealing with loss. He’s talked to priests, family and consulted books, but nothing takes the pain away completely. For some things, out of sight, out of mind is the only answer.
Wieman has decided to trade in his wife’s car because it’s a constant reminder every time he pulls into the driveway that she’s not coming home.
“It’s a piece of her,” he said. “That’s Mommy’s car. I was crying in the driveway last night cleaning it out.”
Wieman now wears a silver bracelet on his left wrist in memory of Mary. The jewelry replaces his wedding ring, an item he removed for the last time in October. The couple celebrated 20 years of marriage Sept. 5.
“I don’t know if that was the right thing to do,” Wieman said of taking off the ring. “I have to get used to the fact that she’s not around. You have two choices. Either you can get on with your life, or you can wallow in it. I know plenty of people who wallow in it, but what sort of example does that show your kids? You get up in the morning, you gotta look in the mirror. You still have to be Dad.”
Wieman struggles to make the decisions that he and his wife used to make together. Should Chris get braces? Can I risk keeping the girls in Catholic school?
It’s the last item, the issue of finances, that hardens his face for a moment. Wieman received some money from the Red Cross, but since he earns “a lot less” than his wife did, he’s not certain how far the money will go.
It adds further uncertainty to his life. And there is perhaps a touch of anger toward the people who murdered his wife. He takes his children to church every Sunday, but it’s hard to turn the other cheek.
“You read these articles about these prisoners in Guantanamo not being treated right,” he said. “Big deal. I don’t care what happens to the people over there.”
As his city debates what should become of the World Trade Center footprint, Wieman, like many who lost family, wants the land treated with reverence. He’ll accept some commercial development because the businessman in him recognizes the economic realities. It’s been reported that the gross national product created by that one stricken area of Manhattan equals the entire output from St. Louis. But ignoring the souls there would be sacrilege.
“Like Mary, there are people who’ve never been recovered,” Wieman said. “There are body parts somewhere in there. Whatever you do, it’s a cemetery.”
The loss has brought him closer to his wife’s parents even as they grieve 800 miles away in Arlington Heights. The relationship with his father-in-law, Lionel, is softer, more loving. Lionel’s Republican ideals no longer clash with Marc’s Democratic values.
What happens now to the Wiemans is unknown. Marc has no thoughts of leaving New York. Seeing his wife reflected in each of his children as they grow will be a haunting pleasure the rest of this life. He works from home one day a week now to be closer to his family and assist in the adjustment.
There’s a faint smile battling against the weariness on his face as he relives it all. Wieman doesn’t let himself cry when he speaks of his wife. He looks at her picture and those of his children even as he speaks of what life will be like from here on out.
Different but the same. In her memory, Wieman said life will go on, not looking back at what could have been, but how she would want it to be.
“She was a dynamo,” he said. “I live my life everyday. I go to work everyday. I go home and I take care of the kids. That’s my life. I miss her. I miss her everyday.”