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A love note is a lasting goodbye

Geraldine O’Sullivan found the note from her husband in the morning. Before the towers fell. Before her world collapsed.

“Beloved Geraldine,” it began in her husband’s slanting script. “Fact: I loved you from first sight. Fact: I have always loved you. Fact: I will love thee through time and eternity.”

It wasn’t unusual for Timothy O’Sullivan, 68, to write a love note to his wife of 43 years before leaving their Albrightsville home to catch a bus into New York City, where he worked as a consultant for Cultural Institutions Retirement System.

He scrawled the messages on 3-by-5 index cards and left them on the coffee table in the living room where she could easily find them.

His words that particular morning made her smile, but their gravity seemed odd from a man who planned to be home by supper.

“I thought to myself that this is a real serious one,” she said. “I was going to really talk to him about it when he came home. It seemed like he was going away for two weeks on a trip, as opposed to the city. That struck me. I was going to ask him why he felt like he was going to be gone for a long time.”

Those questions still linger as she struggles to cope with the loss of her husband, dwindling finances and major surgery.

In the past year, Geraldine, 64, has had two knee replacements to ease the arthritis that left her partially paralyzed and unable to walk without a cane. She’s still recovering from the last one in June, and simple tasks like gathering the mail and making the bed are difficult to do alone.

“He helped me in ways I wasn’t even aware of,” she said. “With all that’s happened, my stamina has really taken a shot. I’m trying to hold it together.”

Geraldine has found comfort from the searing grief through her Catholic faith and by focusing on the happy times she shared with the man who filled her life since she was 18.

“When I concentrated on what I had, rather than what I lost, things started to turn around,” she said. “Of course, we had rough times, ups and downs like any married couple. He was really a great guy, and it’s not just his wife that says that. He was very loving. I just realized how much I had been given; so many people don’t even have that.”

The pair met at a Veterans of Foreign Wars tea dance in White Plains, N.Y., and Timothy was immediately smitten by the blue-eyed blonde who sat demurely at a table against a wall, sipping cola. A few months later he proposed, but Geraldine shot him down, wanting to wait until she was older to marry.

Undaunted, he proposed again, and again, and again. Finally, after umpteen times — Geraldine said she lost count; Timothy liked to tell their three children it was at least a thousand — she agreed to marry him.

“I realized he was too good to let get away,” she said.

She never regretted that decision.

“I loved my husband so much,” she said between sobs. “I miss him so terribly.”

A personnel manager and specialist in labor relations for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, for 17 years, Timothy was something of a labor-management guru. There was never a strike during his tenure, and his success as a negotiator stemmed from his deep respect and concern for the little guy.

“He liked to say he took care of the people who took care of the animals,” Geraldine said. “That involved anything from personnel to keeping everybody happy and dealing with new restrictions and laws.”

During a trip to Italy for the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary, Geraldine remembered, she was standing in a hotel lobby when a voice boomed, “Is that you Mrs. O? Where’s the big guy?”

She didn’t recognize the man, but he explained it was her husband’s fight to expand the company’s retirement plan that financed his family’s trip to Italy.

“I couldn’t be doing this except for your husband,” he said.

It was an experience she was used to.

“He was always helping people,” Geraldine said. “It was second nature to him.”

That could explain why he was the only one from his company who didn’t make it out of the World Trade Center. If someone had fallen, she surmised, Timothy wouldn’t think twice about lending a hand.

He began working for Cultural Institutions Retirement System, the largest multi-employee pension plan among New York cultural institutions, after retiring from the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1996. The company had offices on the 39th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, and Timothy visited once every two months.

On Sept. 11, he had a board meeting there and was anxious to get an early start. Not wanting to disturb his sleeping wife, he left without saying goodbye, and she didn’t hear him gently close the door.

It was 5:30 a.m. when he strode into the darkness.

An hour later, Geraldine found the note next to a small plastic container Timothy had filled with her daily vitamins. She dropped the note in a bowl, boiled water for tea and turned on the news.

At 8:30 a.m. she was watching the “Today Show” when Timothy called to say he had arrived safely. They chatted briefly and hung up. Fifteen minutes later the phone rang again.

“Something’s happened here, but everyone’s OK,” he said, his baritone voice steady. “They’re evacuating the building.”

“What do you mean?” Geraldine asked. “What’s happened?”

She turned toward the television to see live coverage of flames shooting from the north tower.

“It looks like an explosion, Timothy. Get out of there!”

“We are. They’re having us take the stairs. They have everything under control.”

Unaware of the danger and possibly hoping to ease his wife’s mind, he changed the subject.

“Tell me about the meeting later,” she begged. “Go, please go.”

The next several days were an excruciating blur as Geraldine, bent over by arthritis, waited by the phone while her oldest daughter, Denise, 43, coordinated family efforts to find her father from Hannah’s Lava Lounge on Eighth Avenue and 55th Street, where she was manager.

Denise, who lived in the city, had planned to meet her father later that day, and after learning planes had hit the twin towers, ran to the scene in time to see them collapse. As a child, she and her father had watched the towers go up. Now they were going down with her father inside.

“It was awful, awful,” she said.

For the next several days, she and her friends searched the area hospitals and the 69th Regiment Armory for Timothy. They carried photos of a towering Irishman with a thatch of white hair, shaggy black eyebrows and dark smiling eyes.

Her father was beloved, Denise said, and even old friends from grade school offered their help. The search effort was so massive that months later Denise found a picture of her father someone had hung in a taxi.

O’Sullivan’s son, Tim, 32, who lives in Westchester County, N.Y., was stuck at home unable to get into the city. He had no idea his father was in Manhattan until he called his mother.

“Then I freaked,” he said.

Tim stood just one inch under his father’s 6-foot-7-inch frame, but still considered him larger than life.

“He was my buddy. I revered my father,” he said. “My father is the greatest man I ever met. If I could be half the man he is, I would consider myself blessed.”

When Tim was a teen and asked for advice on resisting peer pressure, his father had an easy answer. “Tell your friends that your father is nuts and if you do this, he’ll kill you,” O’Sullivan told his son. “That way, no one will think you’re chicken. It will be that you’re afraid of your father.”

Alone at home, Geraldine paced the floors in a state of disbelief. She tried to watch the news, but couldn’t focus on the fiery images and the horror that the United States had been attacked by terrorists.

“One moment I’d be up thinking of all the positives, that he’d be OK. Then you go right back down thinking of all the terrible things that might have happened. I had never gone into those buildings, but Timothy knew them like the back of his hand.”

On special occasions, Timothy would suggest dinner at Windows on the World, a restaurant atop the World Trade Center known for its spectacular view.

“He would give me all these pitches about how wonderful and beautiful it was, and you could stand out on the patio and see the city. I’d say, ‘Timothy, this is me you’re talking to, right? These buildings sway. Not in a million years could I put foot in a building that swayed while I was eating dinner.’ Then he’d give me all the reasons they were architecturally safe. He had tremendous faith in those buildings.”

His boss, Bob Fox, was one of the last to see him alive on the sixth floor, heading to the lobby.

“Bob thought Timothy was right behind him. He figured once they got to the lobby, they were sent in different directions and he’d catch up with him later,” Geraldine said.

On Sept. 14, three days after the attacks, Denise was at the armory when she saw her father’s name on a list of the deceased. He was identified through his driver’s license, found in his wallet. She was able to leave the armory with his wallet, wedding ring and a gold money clip, a Christmas gift from Geraldine.

One week later, the family held a funeral at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Gilbert.

The casket was closed, but Brodheadsville funeral director Don Gower asked Denise if she wanted to view her father’s body. It wasn’t as bad as he had thought, and being able to say goodbye might give her closure.

Gower didn’t think Geraldine should see the body, but Denise said it was a decision only her mother could make.

“Did it look like Daddy?” Geraldine asked.

“Yes,” Denise said, “but like he had been in a terrible fight.”

Prepared for the worst, but knowing she couldn’t rest without seeing him one last time, Geraldine peered at her husband. His face was bruised but familiar. She stroked his hand then turned away.

“I don’t know why it made such a difference, but it did,” she said. “The cause of death was blunt trauma to the head, but they call it murder.”

The mornings are the hardest, Geraldine said. Sometimes she forgets his side of the bed is empty, and reaches to touch his shoulder.

“Then it hits me,” she said. “Because of the way he was, he just managed everything. He took care of everything.”

Now it’s up to Geraldine to pay the bills, clean the house and repair the porch when it starts sagging from neglect. Still recovering from surgery, her only option is to hire a handyman. But that costs money, and her budget doesn’t always allow it. Her children help with the house, but she doesn’t want to be a burden.

The American Red Cross has provided some financial assistance, but mostly she’s received paperwork.

“The last one they sent is like the size of a telephone book,” she said. “There’s green pages and yellow pages and pink pages.”

A family friend who is a lawyer is helping fill out the forms, but the process is overwhelming.

“I’m still jumping through hoops,” she said. “Even my children have said, who are these people who are getting the money? How are we different? We lost Daddy.”

The family is taking “baby steps” forward, Denise said, but there isn’t a day she doesn’t miss him. Her father loved a good joke, and his smooth tongue could charm a leprechaun out of his pot of gold. The two had a running disagreement over who had the quickest wit.

“Sometimes I’ll hear a good joke, and for a split second forget and reach for the phone to tell him,” she said. “My friend said he’s probably heard it anyway.”

When Timothy’s red Taurus was claimed from the Effort Plaza Mall, where he parked it before catching the bus, “The Best of the Chieftains” was in the tape player. Denise said she plays it when she can’t find a convenient parking spot.

“I pop that tape in and say, ‘Daddy, can you give me a space?’ ” Denise said. “I’m telling you, it works every time.”

The O’Sullivans plan to observe the painful day together watching movies. They don’t need to be reminded of what they lost.

“We’re not good group people,” Tim said. “We want to keep it private.”

Geraldine views the anniversary not as a milestone, but as an opportunity for the terrorists to strike again.

“It’s so amazing how it can feel just like yesterday and all this time hasn’t really passed. I have this terrible feeling of the anniversary not being a memorial, but that it’s all going to happen again. Logically, it’s not the case, but I can’t wait until this day has passed.”

At some point, the awful memory of the day will fade, Geraldine knows, but there is no finality in the love she and her husband shared. That will continue as swift as a river’s flow, bridging the gulf to the other side.

A year after O’Sullivan’s death, his wife is still finding love notes, stuffed in drawers and falling from closets as if dropped by an angel. They leave her cold. They make her smile. They are more than a message. They are a tangible reminder of a life that made a difference.

She framed the last one he left, a small treasure in an avalanche of loss.

“I do believe I will see him again,” she said. “It was a journey we started on and he had to leave early. He was in the hospital one time and said if anything happened, we were to continue on. Life was a gift and we were to live it. He would prepare a place for us, and knowing him, we’d have to give him plenty of time.”

kathleen.parrish@mcall.com
610-820-6627

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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