Almost every week for the past nine years, four women have met in a house in Huntington to play bridge and spend three hours together as if they were people like anyone else.
Their game of bridge is just that: a bridge, to the lost grace of ordinary life. They lost that on Sept. 11, 2001, when all four lost sons in the attack on the World Trade Center.
They bond over shared tragedy, they meet to give each other comfort and they play, if just for those three hours, to forget.
"In all of us meeting and getting together, there are no coincidences, none at all," said Marilynda Vianna. "In my heart, I feel that our sons are up there, and they brought us together because we get along so well."
Vianna's son Matthew was only 23, and living at home in Manhasset. He was excited the morning of Sept. 11. He'd be making his first sales call for Cantor Fitzgerald, to a client in Connecticut. But first he had to stop at his office high in the trade center's north tower. His mother said, "You look so beautiful today!" He kissed her and his 15-year-old sister Christine goodbye and was gone.
Linda Cavalier, of Huntington, last saw her son Judson, 26, on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2001. He had come out to Long Island intending to play golf, but his Manhattan roommate and childhood friend Joseph Anchundia -- who was also his co-worker at Sandler O'Neill and Partners in the south tower of the trade center -- called to tell him about something fun going on in the city. His parents walked Judd out to the car, and he squeezed his mother in one of his big hugs. And he was gone. Anchundia, 26, also died in the attacks.
Julia Lizzul, of Dix Hills, saw her recently married son Martin, 31, a week before Sept. 11 at a dinner with relatives at a Manhattan restaurant. He worked for a computer software company, Kestrel Technologies, with an assignment at Cantor Fitzgerald's offices. The Lizzuls parted outside the restaurant. For some reason, she turned, and at that moment, her son turned too. They said "I love you," and then he was gone.
Barbara Duffy, of Northport, was busy helping her son Michael's girlfriend plan a surprise party for his 30th birthday on Sept. 18. On Sept. 11, he went to his job as a bond salesman at Keefe Bruyette & Woods in the south tower. And he was gone.
They perished, on a day of bright blue skies. It had poured rain the night before, "but that day was so beautiful," Cavalier said. "Those crisp, clear, perfect days. I hate those days."
The month after was a blur of hospital searches, of frantic inquiries, of fading hope, of fruit baskets and mums. "I don't want to remember that," Lizzul said.
"And then we met each other," Duffy said."
An unendurable pain
They met in the support groups they all quickly turned to for relief from an unendurable pain. They didn't find that relief in groups for all bereaved parents or in groups with 9/11 widows. Their pain felt not necessarily worse, but different. Then they found the group for 9/11 parents at St. Patrick's Church in Huntington and met weekly, alone or with their husbands, for almost a year.
"It saved our lives," Duffy said.
They first traveled together in 2002 to Cavalier's house on Sanibel Island on Florida's Gulf Coast. On a sunset cruise, as the sky turned vivid, they stood at the boat's rail and wept, and held each other as they watched the beauty that their sons would never see again.
It was on that trip that Lizzul asked if anyone played poker. No, they said, we play bridge. She said she would learn. And ever since, for the past nine years, they've played bridge for three hours almost every week, usually on a Monday, and almost always at Cavalier's home, where a card table with a view of a lovely wooded cul-de-sac seats four.
"As time went on, we couldn't just get together and talk about this misery," Lizzul said. "We needed a diversion. When you are playing bridge, you're not thinking about anything but the game."
They met over shared tragedy, but would have liked each other anyway, they say.
"Nobody knows our pain like we know it," Duffy said.
"That's why it's such a comfort to be together," Lizzul said.
"We play bridge, we cry, we laugh," Duffy said.
All but Vianna regularly attend theater together in Northport; they've had a girls' weekend in Washington, D.C.; gone on a river cruise in Germany; joined a larger group of their friends on a trip to Italy. Lizzul and Cavalier went on a safari in Africa last year. "These other two are sissies," Cavalier said.
But it's their bond that makes it most likely they'll call each other on a particularly bad day, that makes them feel like they've known each other since childhood.
"As close as I am to other friends, if it's about Matthew, I would call someone in this group," said Vianna, whose husband, Dennis, has also become close friends with Linda's husband, Gerard.
"Only we know how we feel, only we know," said Lizzul, who, like Duffy, is a widow.
They've retained loyal and supportive friends from before the tragedy, but they've also lost other friends because of it.
"I think people who were not your close friends, social acquaintances, you don't have time for them anymore," Cavalier said. "They just don't get it. I lost a lot of friends over this."
Vianna said, "I call them 'lasagna friends'; they came to my house with mums and lasagna, and said, 'call me if you need anything,' and then I never heard from them."
For the first few years after 9/11, they were numb. By the time of their 2006 trip to Italy, "enough time had gone by and we were starting to feel like we could live again, I guess," Cavalier said.
Added Lizzul: "It wasn't a demarcation -- on this side we were dead, on the other alive -- but it just sort of evolved."
Cavalier said they didn't start meeting on their own to extend the support group. They met to play cards.
"It was a release, just to know we're going to play cards and not talk about it," Vianna said. "It gives us a sense of sanity."
"Of normalcy," Lizzul said.
They can see when someone is down, and anyone can say, "I've had a terrible day."
They talk about it. And then, for three hours at a card table with a view of a lovely wooded cul-de-sac, they play cards.