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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE VICTIMS

A Big Day Amid a Huge Absence

Recovery: Ten weeks after the attacks, a widow returns to work, a quiet yet significant step forward.

November 21, 2001|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANHASSET, N.Y. — She was on the job at the stroke of 9, a hot cup of tea in her hand, a brave smile on her face. He was standing in his playpen, wobbling on his chubby legs, smiling too.

"Ready, guy?" she said.

She made her first phone call of the day. He chewed his toy and watched. She put a piece of paper into a file folder. He put a fist into his mouth.

"Peekaboo," she said to him, while she was on hold.

He giggled, and wobbled, and also held on.

Her 11-month-old son was about to start walking, and at 34 years old she was taking her first step too. They were both a little shaky, but they were going forward, and that was the point. That was their quiet triumph.

Monday was just another Monday for millions of Americans, but it was a big day for Michelle Lunden and her son, Matthew. It was the First Monday since the Worst Tuesday of their lives. It was her first day back to work. Ten weeks after her husband, Mike, died in the World Trade Center, Michelle felt the time had come to return to her job at American Express, where she is responsible for signing up new merchants.

"Everyone grieves in their own way," she said. "For me, it helps to be busy, to be distracted."

Her job was waiting for her. Her desk was not. Nor her office, nor her building. The American Express Tower was badly damaged in the collapse of the World Trade Center, so Michelle will work from home.

Home, however, was damaged too, in a different way. Michelle and Mike and Matthew once lived in a cozy L-shaped apartment on New York's east side. Michelle couldn't face going there again, so she moved back to her parents' house, in this small town on Long Island, where she was raised.

The decision was easy, she said. Her parents provide the love, support and company that she and Matthew need. They watch Matthew when they can, and when they're not available, a nanny comes, and when the nanny can't come, Michelle's older brother and his family are just around the corner.

Also, Michelle added softly, Matthew might find solace growing up in Manhasset, where so many other children lost parents in the World Trade Center. In Michelle's church alone, up the block, 40 parishioners died.

Michelle started her first day of work in the den, surrounded by papers. She called the phone company first, to complain about the delay in installing her new line. Matthew crawled at her feet, grasping her legs, struggling to walk, while his grandmother looked on from the living room.

Michelle finished with the phone company, then left messages for several co-workers. "Hey Debbie, it's Michelle, it's my first day back at work." Then she took her new computer out of its box and read the instructions carefully. "This isn't going to be easy," she said, but with each thing crossed off her list, her breathing seemed easier.

In between work tasks, Michelle rummaged through her Mike Box, a portable file that holds the bureaucracy of death--dozens of forms that must be filled out and photocopied and notarized and mailed. The grim labels on the folders summed up Michelle's life of the last two months: Affidavits. Medical benefits. FEMA. Red Cross. Obituaries. Cantor Fitzgerald.

Matthew crawled over to the box and peered inside at the forms that now represent his father.

"Please don't spit up in that box," Michelle told him. "That would be a disaster."

Mike, a 37-year-old energy broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, had his son's round face and every boy's love of pleasure. He loved to eat and drink and travel and golf and play. He wore bright Brooks Brothers shirts and loud bow ties, and he disdained socks. He collected fine wines and found room in their tiny apartment for his collection of 600 bottles. He took great pride in having been a member of 26 different wedding parties, and he never forgot a friend's birthday. He kept a master sheet of all his friends and their birth dates and consulted it every day.

"He had more friends than anyone I've ever known," Michelle said. "He was generous to a fault. Honest. Fun-loving. He loved life."

More than anything, he loved his son.

"He loved that baby," Michelle said. "He did everything. He got up in the middle of the night, he fed him, he changed him."

Michelle met Mike at a cocktail party five years ago. For their first date, he was 20 minutes late. For their next date, he was 20 minutes late. She told him that if he was late once more, they were finished. "He was never late again," she said, beaming, "for three months."

Two memorials were held for Mike. One was in Chicago, where he lived as a boy and attended college. (Mayor Richard M. Daley sent a car for Michelle and her family.) One was in Manhattan, where 700 mourners wore bow ties--and no hosiery. "Outside the door of the church," Michelle said, laughing, "there was this huge pile of socks."

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