Image by Selani Thomas/Jopwell.
“Look what 15 years has done. Look at you. Your mother would be so proud of you.”
This message, written by a former colleague of my mother’s, appeared in my LinkedIn inbox a few weeks ago. I quickly replied.
“She would. She is. I feel it every day.”
In August 2001, I was 24 and living in California, where I’d moved five years earlier to be with a boy. My mother and I spoke every day, but that month, I finally flew home for a visit. She took the day off from work, and we went shopping at the Cherry Hill Mall. There, we talked relationships and had what was probably our first adult-to-adult conversation. I admitted that while my boyfriend fit the description of the sort of guy I thought I should love — tall, Black, dark-skinned with a goatee and a bald head — I’d doubted whether I actually loved him.
A month later, on September 10, my mother and I were catching up on the phone. I was 3,000 miles away again, and she had just arrived back home in New Jersey from a cruise with my dad celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary.
We picked up our conversation about the lousy relationship I was too prideful to end. Her final words to me were, “If you don’t love him, don’t marry him.” I didn’t think too much of it. We’d talk tomorrow.
But then it was September 11, 2001, and my mother was dead.
Her name was Joan Donna Griffith — or “Donna” to family and friends. An assistant vice president and office manager at Fiduciary Trust, she worked on the 97th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
It was 6 a.m. on the West Coast when my boyfriend and I heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I parked myself in front of our new 60-inch TV and watched my mom’s office become Ground Zero.
Back home, my dad had briefly gotten through to my mom after the first tower went down. She was crying, scared, and still inside — and then she hung up.
I kept calmly dialing her number expecting her to eventually answer. I thought back to when the World Trade Center was hit in ‘93. I was in boarding school then, and my mother walked out unscathed. I convinced myself that everything would be OK now, too. I finished getting dressed and drove to my job as a sales rep at a software company. Sitting at my desk, I kept looking at the news and thinking, ‘Wow. This is horrible for everyone else it’s happening to.’
I remember very little of the next two weeks except that everything was shut down, the footage and headlines kept coming, and my mother was nowhere to be found. My aunts and their husbands drove from Florida to New York. My family made missing person fliers with my mother’s stats and pictures of her from a recent cruise. They scoured New York City looking for her, and I waited. Once the airports reopened, my company kindly bought me a one-way ticket home.
I hadn't told my dad that I was flying home – he was already dealing with enough grief and anxiety, and my 16-year-old sister wasn’t doing any better. Everyone was in question-mark mode. It was as though we were expecting my mother to come tell us what to do. She was the person in our lives who would get us through this horrific, unthinkable thing.
We didn’t have a body or a death certificate — just a household full of family and friends who needed Donna. That’s when I realized that she was gone — and that I needed to step up and take care of everyone as she always had. I felt and almost heard her there with me: “Do what I taught you, Paula. Which of these things are you going to handle first?”
I went into business mode and never came out of it. Finding information about affairs; closing credit cards; going through belongings; and making decisions — I started going down the list of those awful logistical tasks you don’t think about until someone in your family is gone.
I also started growing up. I would admit my mistakes, end my questionable relationship, and begin channeling my ambition into impact.
The youngest of six kids, my mother was born in Jamaica and raised in Florida by her sisters following the death of their mom. She came to New York City as a teenager and took desk jobs, ultimately working her way up the ranks. She was the first professional I knew, and she dressed the part. She had a wardrobe full of colorful, well-tailored skirt suits.
She was also warm, selfless, and everything a mother should be.
She wasn’t actually my biological mother — Mommy and Daddy started dating when I was two and married shortly after. (I was a flower girl in their wedding.) But if anyone referred to her as my “stepmom,” she would start reciting all of the shots she’d taken me for, sicknesses she’d nursed me through, and the details of my likes and dislikes. She was my mother, and she taught me everything from how to sew a hem to why I should always take pride in my work. When she was around, it was impossible to feel unvalued or unloved.
I remember how soft her hands were. I remember her dancing and singing as she cleaned. She went all out decorating the house each holiday season, and we’d bake cookies together the night before Christmas. Our family spent Saturdays at museums and weeknight evenings in our living room watching The Cosby Show. We took in neighborhood kids who didn’t have anywhere to stay. Friends would comment that my parents were the only married couple they knew who publicly showed their affection for one another.
My mother also set a very clear example of what it looks like to work hard, see results, and give back. After she and my dad moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey, she commuted two hours each way to lower Manhattan. She stockpiled books — everything from Harlequin romance novels to mysteries — sometimes reading two a day on her bus ride to the World Trade Center.
My mom was serious about giving back. Because of her, my first job as a teenager was doing landscaping work as a volunteer at Prospect Park at 5 a.m. I grew up with this understanding that my ancestors had made a lot of sacrifices for us to be able to live our lives. There wasn’t room for complaining. She taught me that while you don’t have to be perfect, you do constantly need to try. You have to have a goal — a mission to make the world better. And that with the right finesse, you can make things happen.
My dad and I planned her memorial service in October 2001. I sang “Spoonful Of Sugar” from Mary Poppins (one of my mother's all-time favorite movies) and told everyone, “Let me give you a little bit of what she gave me.” She knew what we needed in life.
Fifteen years later, I see so very clearly how 9-11 set in motion the chain of events that made me Paula Edgar, Esq.; entrepreneur; speaker; career coach; community leader; wife to my middle-school boyfriend; and mother to two amazing kids.
Beyond seriously considering marrying someone I wasn’t all that into, 24-year-old-me (and let’s face it, 19-to-23-year-old me) was a bit of a mess. I sold Mary Kay makeup, helped a guy with his payroll, and temped as an office assistant at a training company. I knew things were wrong, but I wasn’t taking active steps to right them.
Losing my mother shook me awake. The message was clear: Don’t you dare live a life that’s small. Don’t lie to yourself. You have the opportunity to have an impact, and that’s something many people never get. Use it.
In the process of settling my mother’s affairs and dealing with the will she’d created but hadn’t signed, I met an estates lawyer named Angela who also helped me figure out my own affairs.
Working with Angela on my mother's estate inspired my to go to law school. I needed direction and wanted to have impact. My dad likes to claim that I used to say I wanted to be a lawyer. I tell him he’s misremembering — or that maybe he said he wanted me to be a lawyer, and I said I wanted to be Janet Jackson.
I applied to and enrolled at City University of New York School of Law. I knew the corporate lawyer track wasn’t for me — that it wouldn’t allow me the flexibility to sit down with the people I loved for dinner or be there for my kids the way my mom had been — and I appreciated that CUNY gave me the license to explore less traditional applications of a legal education. It wasn’t an easy road, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Meanwhile, a few weeks after 9-11, I received a call from a childhood friend who had seen my mother’s obituary in The New York Daily News. She sent her condolences and also relayed a message from her cousin Taj, whom I had briefly “dated” in middle school. I hadn’t seen or even talked to Taj since I was 14. A decade later, he held no grudges, instructing his cousin: “Tell Paula that if she needs somebody to talk to who’s not in this, she should reach out. I’m here.”
I did need someone. I’d been drinking too much and channeling everything I had into dealing with endless logistics. That was the exact thing I needed to hear.
After six months of dating, Taj recited a poem he’d written in which he asked me to marry him. He never met my mother, but at our wedding in October 2003 (which he planned in full as I plowed through my first semester of law school), he spoke about how proud she would be of me. I agree — I always say my mother gave him back to me.
Today Taj and I live in Brooklyn with our 11-year-old daughter and four-year-old son. I know that our kids will never need to wonder what real, pure love looks like. It’s important for us to show them that same example my parents set for me.
On September 11, 2016, I’ll be on a red-eye home from San Diego, where I am giving a lecture at a law firm partner retreat. That might sound crazy, but I think it’s actually fitting and a bit poetic.
I land back in New York at 5 a.m. I'm planning to use my family access to the 9-11 museum — not so much because I want to, but because I want my daughter to know more about her Grandma Donna.
There's no such thing as closure – I miss my mother every day and in those moments when I really need her, I find myself going to dial her number on the phone. She was the victim of a mass murder. That will never not be a thing. But it — and she — will continue to guide the way I strive to live. There are a whole lot of people trudging through life every day. We get too comfortable and think we’ll have time to do something another day or to pick that conversation back up later. Later might not come around. Do it now. Say it now.
I don’t know exactly what shape my future will take, but I’m confident it will tap into my commitment to education, coaching, interpersonal connections, and impacting my community. It will honor who my mother was, because if it weren’t for her death, I honestly don’t know if I would have the courage to be ambitious, impactful, unapologetic, and never, ever small.
My mother always said the minimum was only the beginning. You never just do the thing; you clean the floors like they’re never going to be cleaned again. You don’t just talk to the people you work with; you network with those outside of your division. You think about how every look, action, and decision impacts your brand. My mother gave me these lessons — she lived them – and now it’s up to me to do the same.
Images courtesy of Peter Griffith and Paula Edgar