The Long Goodbye

By Eileen McNamara | Boston Magazine |

Amy’s art hangs on the Gonskis’ living room wall in Natick, just as Tom’s photograph hangs on the refrigerator of the Toyen home in Avon, Connecticut, the Hartford suburb on the Farmington River where Amy grew up and her dad gave an elated Tom his first-ever tractor ride this summer.

Theirs is a small circle of grace to emerge from a day of unspeakable horror, a quiet band of survivors stumbling forward out of the public spotlight, holding on and letting go in equal measure, year by relentless year.  

It has not always been easy.

For a long time, Jeff Gonski and Martin and Dorine Toyen were too consumed by their own grief to see one another’s pain clearly. To her parents, Amy was the little girl memorialized in bronze outside the Avon Free Public Library, clutching a book in one hand and a teddy bear in the other. To Jeff, she was the emerging businesswoman memorialized in a scholarship for promising young women at Bentley.

She was both, of course, but it was hard, in the face of sudden, devastating pain, for either side to fully acknowledge what the other had lost. “Everyone was holding on to ‘their’ Amy,” Jeff recalls. “It took time, but we both got to stake our claim to our own Amy without hurting each other. I think we came to
understand that we both loved her and that she could live in all our hearts.”

Just how widely those hearts had opened to one another became clear at a Bentley dinner a few years later. That was when Jeff established the scholarship in Amy’s name, which he started with the insurance settlement he received for the engagement ring she was wearing on the day of the attacks.

At that dinner, Jeff introduced the Toyens to Stephanie, the Wayland Middle School teacher his mom had helped set him up with on a hunch — their quirky tastes in humor both bending toward Monty Python. If the moment was awkward for anyone, Stephanie did not feel it then and has never felt it since. Regular visits have evolved into a rich relationship with the parents of the young woman her husband had first planned to marry.

“I know it might seem strange, but to me, it is a gift to have the Toyens in our lives,” Stephanie says. “Amy is part of Jeff, so she is part of Tom and me, too.”

The man who married Stephanie in a small ceremony on St. Thomas in 2005 is not the same man who would have married Amy in a lavish wedding in Connecticut in 2002. That younger Jeff was singularly focused on his life plan — his career, his impending nuptials, the family and home he would build on that foundation. The older Jeff does not put as much stock in plans. He works hard, saves for his son’s education and a comfortable retirement for himself and Stephanie, but these days he acts more and plans less.

Blacksmithing, improvisation, creative writing, cooking, and photography are a few recent avocations. His cameras, especially, have allowed a verbally reticent man to express the joy that Stephanie and Tom have helped him rediscover in a life forever altered 10 years ago.

Not that it will be easy when he heads to New York this month. He stayed away from Ground Zero ceremonies for so long, he says, because he recoils at what he calls “professional 9/11 mourners,” those whose lives froze the moment the planes hit the towers, the Pentagon, or the soft earth of the Pennsylvania countryside. “I’ve often struggled with the public perception as to how someone who lost someone that day should act,” he says. “I feel as though it is healthy to miss someone, and I do miss Amy. The events surrounding that day were horrific, but we can’t live in that moment forever. We, as humans, aren’t meant to live in a perpetual state of grief.”

Jeff still has “the dream” occasionally, the one in which Amy returns to Boston from New York, unharmed, to ask how he could have gone on without her. It doesn’t upset him as much as it once did. “I think it’s because I didn’t go on without her,” he says. “I took her with me.”