Widow's long journey back

Putting life back together for sake of daughter, 2


The year that has passed since Regan Grice-Vega's husband, Peter, was killed at the World Trade Center can be measured in the growth of their daughter.

No longer a chubby toddler, Ruby Mae Vega turned 2 last month, a pretty little girl starting to speak in full sentences.

One of her first took Regan's breath away:

"Where's my daddy?" Ruby wanted to know.

"I told her, 'Your daddy died,'" Regan said, recalling the conversation as she made a cup of tea in her parents' kitchen in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.

"I said, 'There was a terrible disaster, but he saved thousands of lives.'"

Peter was one of 343 members of the Fire Department killed at the World Trade Center.

Regan has had to move forward, inevitably swept up in the daily minutiae of her family: aging parents, a pregnant sister, Ruby's questions.

The phases of grief and healing continue, though not always in predictable or dramatic ways.

"I have longer and longer periods of feeling better," Regan said. "But I don't kid myself that on Sept. 12, I'm going to feel dramatically better."

Painful memories

There are always emotional bumps to endure - like the entire month of June: their wedding anniversary, Peter's birthday and Father's Day.

After a summer at her family's beach house, Regan looks rested and healthy. Her red hair is lighter, her color is good. She has gained some weight.

Regan and Ruby spent most summer days at a wading pool where Regan would sometimes talk to other young mothers who were alone with their children during the week until their husbands arrived Friday night.

"What does your husband do?" the conversation would begin. "He was a firefighter," she would reply.

Sometimes she needed to repeat the story. "To get it in my head," she said. No matter how painful, it was Ruby's needs that brought her there.

"She needs to be at the pool," Regan said.

On some days, she and Ruby jumped the ocean waves, but only at the shoreline, because Peter was a better swimmer than she. It had been his job to take Ruby farther out into the sea.

Often, she would find herself unexpectedly struck by memories of her last summer with Peter. She walked into a restaurant and realized it was the last one they ate at, on Labor Day 2001. She remembered him laying the stone path in front of the beach house.

"I have to steel myself," she said.

Peter was one of six men from Ladder 118 in Brooklyn Heights who died at the Trade Center.

Their truck was photographed racing over the Brooklyn Bridge with the towers burning in the distance, six firefighters heading to their deaths. The haunting photograph ran on the cover of the Oct. 5 Daily News.

'I've got to go'

In a story accompanying the photograph, Regan recounted Peter's phone call moments before boarding the rig:

"Babe, I don't know if you're watching the news, but there's been an attack on the World Trade Center. Hon, it's a big job. I've got to go. I love you."

"I love you too," Regan said.

"At least I got a chance to tell him that," she would add later.

Regan will go to Ground Zero today with the firefighters from Peter's fire house.

"It's been a massive project to figure out how to mark the day," she said. "I want to be with the guys," she said of Peter's colleagues.

It will be her first time at the site since the families of fallen firefighters were taken there a few days after the attack.

"I'm going to limit my exposure," she said. "I'm going to shut off the TV."

She had learned that life can be fragile, and with that knowledge, she has lost some of her self-confidence.

"I used to make a million decisions in 10 seconds," said Regan, who is on leave from her job as a teacher at Public School 372 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. "It's fear. I'm tired. Before, I didn't worry about stuff. Now I'm not as naive."

Asked what she misses most about Peter a year later, Regan doesn't hesitate. "Hugs," she said, crying. "Physical contact, the pressure of his body."

She works to keep Peter's memory alive for Ruby, mentioning him when she can. Like one day on the beach, when Ruby began to climb on a beach chair and Regan scolded her, saying she could get hurt.

"Last year you climbed on a beach chair and cut yourself," Regan told her. "You got a big boo-boo. Daddy was upset."

Ruby looked at her mother quizzically. Regan knew what was coming.

"Daddy go bye-bye?" Ruby asked, trying again to make sense of her family.

"No," Regan said carefully, considering her answer. She did not want Ruby to ever feel abandoned by Peter, but she hesitated at repeating the awful truth.

Finally she said, "Your daddy died."

She took Ruby's hand and guided her to the shoreline where mother and daughter jumped the waves.