NEW YORK - Their community was created by cataclysm, then bound together by a vocabulary of grief and the stamp of history. But a year later, the families of Sept. 11 - a small city's worth of widows, parents and other relatives touched by terror - say that what defines them most is their sense of separation from other Americans.
As a nation that wept together resumes its hectic, distracted course, family members and outsiders say, September's bereaved have become a lost legion, left to find their own way.
For Joan Parker, whose husband, Philip, was working on the 99th floor at the World Trade Center on the morning of the attacks, the realization of that growing fissure began with a telephone call last fall. The voice on the other end was one she had not heard in 25 years, since high school. Over the following weeks, Parker and her friend reconnected amid the sorrow and horror. But then a different tone began to creep in. The friend began to ask about money.
"She started getting into questions about what kind of house I lived in and what kind of job my husband had," Parker said.
How much would the Parkers collect from the charities and compensation funds? Was paying the families of the victims really a good idea? Parker gradually became uncomfortable and stopped calling back. Then the calls themselves stopped. So, by increments, the gap widened.
Who are the families, anyway? Into what category of American experience should they be filed? Are they crime victims? War refugees? Heroes? Will an image of greed that attached itself to the few outweigh the nation's empathy for the many?
History provides only a flimsy guide. Like Holocaust survivors, scholars say, many of the families bear intimate witness to evil; like Vietnam War veterans, they have clung to one another through the crisis, forging an identity.
Generalizing about 10,000 to 15,000 turbulent souls - and even more if extended relations and friends are counted - is a dangerous thing. Some family members have forsaken contact. Some who leaped into action last fall have withdrawn, while others have begun to reach out in the last few months.
Only a small vanguard is directly involved with political issues like a Manhattan memorial; most families have been silent, their stories still untold. On many issues they are deeply divided, as are all Americans.
But through more than 100 interviews with family members, therapists, academics and politicians - focusing on the relatives of the office workers, who constituted the majority of those killed - some signposts to their journey have emerged.
Maria Ragonese thought last fall that she might drown in the pool of pain that surrounded her after the death of her sister-in-law and friend, Laura Marie Ragonese-Snik.
"And yet ultimately I learned to swim," she said. "I'm involved with and doing things I never thought possible in the name of justice and in the honor of my dearest friend. I have become interconnected with so many people through this one event that it's now as if I have this huge extended family, all fighting the same fight."
The thousands of children, many too young to remember lost parents, provide another spark. Some family leaders say their passion about a memorial is driven by the thought of young people who will need such markers to absorb the enormity of what happened. Other parents worry that an alienated, lost generation, angry at the world and at their government - a thousand Timothy McVeighs, as one mother put it - could emerge if the years of recovery are bungled.
Gayle Regan, who lost her husband, Thomas, thinks her 3-year-old twins, Allai-star and Connor, have already been altered. When she hung an American flag outside her garage, the children wouldn't stop hugging it. She thinks that for them, the flag somehow represents the father they have been told is in heaven.
Americans may have said they wanted to hear the truth about Sept. 11, but what they really wanted, anthropologists and media critics say, was a good story - a narrative that would pull together the threads and themes people wanted and needed to believe. The government needed symbols to build public support for a war. The news media, focusing on institutions like the police and fire departments, sketched a portrait of noble sacrifice and courage.
And so the victims and their families became icons, two-dimensional figures that could represent the face of what happened - stand-ins, as the sociologist and author James Jasper puts it, for the nationally shared emotions of vulnerability and loss.
"They came to be seen as representatives of an event, rather than as individuals," Jasper said. "It's pretty unusual for a group to be used that way."
One small circle
The families have no illusion their small union will change the world or undo any of the damage to their hearts. But the 12 pictures that Tom and JoAnn Meehan have assembled on a collage in their home in Carteret, N.J., do tell a tale: A new family has emerged here, spread across five states and two continents.
"We've bonded with strangers who have stepped into our lives," said Meehan, whose daughter, Colleen Barkow, is at 11 o'clock on the collage.
The big, formal family organizations - the kind with fancy Web sites and leaders who testify in Washington and City Hall - have received most of the headlines. But it is through private, informal groups like this one that the community of Sept. 11 is given its texture and definition.
Technology created the means. The Internet became a personal salvation for people like Meehan, who spent whole days last fall staring into his computer screen. Discussion groups formed, withered and formed again, therapists say, as people reached different stages of healing.
The serpentine twists of the Meehan group mirror the chaos after Sept. 11. Joe and Adele Milanowycz, for example (their son Greg, is at 8 p.m. on the collage), who also live in New Jersey, attended a meeting held by their county prosecutor's office and met a woman who said she knew someone named Russo who was looking to contact other fathers.
The Russo and Milanowycz families met for lunch and bonded. The Russos then met the Meehans at a parents support group.
The Meehans, like operators on an old-fashioned switchboard, pushed and pulled the wires to connect them all.
"It made you realize that it was a smaller world than you thought," Milanowycz said.
A year ago, Mary Ellen Salamone, who lost her husband, John, did not even know the names of her two senators from New Jersey. In the wonderfully ordinary whirl of raising three young children, she said, politics was just background noise. But seven months after the attacks, she found herself in Washington in front of a bristling bank of microphones, testifying before Congress about the need for improved border security.
For many family members, grief has become a steppingstone to a deeper personal journey. Some people who never worked outside the home have taken jobs, others have quit the jobs they had, either to care for children or because their former careers suddenly had no meaning. Some became more radical in their politics, and some were filled with new faith and hope.
Patricia Reilly, who lost her sister Lorraine Lee, has become deeply cynical about politics over her months of work on the issue of a Manhattan memorial. Again and again, she saw economic and political leaders trying to isolate the families and minimize their voices by suggesting that they were overwrought and traumatized - people to be pitied but not listened to.
But that feeling was countered, she said, by the realization that the family members have a responsibility to go forward - questioning and challenging authority - because not doing so would be a betrayal of the nation.