On Sept. 11, 2001, Betty Ann McCarthy lost her only child, Justin, a Cantor Fitzgerald trader just shy of 30. In the days and months after, she gained a daughter, a grandson, and a life.
The new relationship between McCarthy and Justin's fiancee, Megan Cromer, was one of numerous new ties forged in the overwhelming grief that followed 9/11. New families were formed, friendships were forged, as those who lost loved ones found ways to get on with their lives. McCarthy and Cromer turned to each other for comfort. And over time, they've become family.
"We'll be together, being part of each other's life, till one of us is gone," Cromer said.
Early on, people would carefully ask McCarthy: "Do you still hear from Megan?" McCarthy's answer was, "Oh, you mean my daughter?"
And Megan's son Matthew, who Justin had intended to adopt? "He's my grandson, absolutely, absolutely," said the retired teacher who lives a block and a half from the ocean in Point Lookout.
"We both just felt Justin so much for such a long time," said McCarthy, 64. "I think it seemed like she was the only person in the world who understood my grief, and I understood hers."
Cromer agreed. "Honestly, there's no one else that understands," said Cromer, now 38. "People say, 'Oh my God, you're still part of her life.' They're amazed at our bond. But I don't understand not being part of her life."
An enduring bond
Justin McCarthy and Cromer both grew up in Baldwin. They began dating when they were in high school. They broke up but reconnected as adults and became engaged on Dec. 31, 2000, New Year's Eve. They were to be married in August 2002. The year they lived together in Port Washington, along with Matthew, was, Cromer said, the happiest of her life.
Today, Cromer is still single. She is a social worker who lives with her now 12-year-old son in Pennsylvania. She speaks to McCarthy every week and visits her on Long Island every month or two. Like best friends, they have fun. As with any mother with her daughter, McCarthy doesn't hesitate to tell her when she doesn't like one of her decisions.
"I say I was her daughter in a past life," Cromer laughs.
McCarthy found solace in a bereavement group for parents of 9/11 victims and still lunches every two weeks with several of the women. But it is her role as mother and grandmother that sustains her.
"I would have had a very hard time going on," said McCarthy, who was divorced from Justin's father, Dennis, when the boy was 7. "I would have felt like I didn't have a family, especially because there's a child, a grandson . . . It's a feeling of normalcy, as best as it can be."
'Saved my sister's life'
Jack Keating, 69, McCarthy's brother who lives nearby, said Megan and Matthew "pretty much saved my sister's life, the fact that she has them. Her whole life is pretty much Megan and Matthew."
Cromer said that Keating, too, is part of their family, and the only consistent male figure in her son's life.
Matthew, a lively and bright-eyed boy, doesn't remember Justin, but said he sometimes feels his presence in a room. A few years ago, he said he wanted a current photo of himself with Justin. In a composite picture, he sits with his mother, next to Justin and McCarthy. It is an eerie image, but Matthew likes it.
"It makes me feel good," he said. "I pretend at times that it's real."
McCarthy recalled how at the time of Justin's death, the then 2-year-old Matthew would stand on a chair at 6 every night and wait at the door.
"You don't think a 2-year-old grieves, but he was grieving and it was difficult to watch," McCarthy said. "He's been in my life since he was 15 months old . . . I'm his grandmother, absolutely, absolutely."
Cromer said she would now like to find someone special in her life, and McCarthy said she would love for that to happen. But no matter what, they have each other.