A life without fear

After her husband was killed in the north tower, Cindy Barkway decided to prove good is better than evil

A life without fear

Photographs by Cole Garside

On the morning of May 2, having just returned from a family cruise along Canada’s east coast, Cindy Barkway waited in the kitchen of her Etobicoke, Ont., home with a piece of momentous news. “They’ve killed Osama bin Laden,” she told her nine-year-old son David as he descended, bleary-eyed, from his upstairs room. She scanned his face for reaction: when he laughs or frowns, the boy can look hauntingly like the father he never knew. This time she got an uncomprehending stare.

“Who?” he asked.

“The guy who killed Daddy,” said David’s older brother Jamie, exasperated, and with that the younger boy brightened. Since they were toddlers, Cindy has been conditioning her sons with early-years style accounts of their father’s death in the north tower of the World Trade Center—how David Sr., a trader with BMO Nesbitt-Burns, had gone to a meeting in New York; how an angry man had sent airplanes to fly into the tall building; how their dad and a lot of other blameless people died in a tragedy that changed the world.

Cindy was six months pregnant on Sept. 11, 2001, with the boy she’d name after her late husband. She had joined David Sr. on his fateful trip to New York to do a bit of shopping, so she bore witness to the smoke billowing from the towers before she knew what caused it (a drugstore clerk told her that the buildings had been struck by hijacked airliners). This cascade of misfortune would bring uninvited celebrity: as the loved one of a Canadian victim who was actually in New York at the time, she became the focus of intense interest to her own country’s media. She also counted among the so-called “9/11 moms” featured on Oprah Winfrey and Primetime with Diane Sawyer.

Yet the trauma of the moment also triggered her resolve to build a life for her boys far removed from the fear and anguish al-Qaeda intended to sow. Ten years on, Barkway can safely declare victory. Seated in the screened-in porch of her family cottage near Parry Sound, Ont., she smiles at the memory of her husband, even as her eyes fill with tears. Nearby, Jamie and David loll on couches in a cedar-lined great room, drawing pictures and playing games on their mother’s iPhone. A newscast rolls silently on the television above, and the thrum of the outside world is all but inaudible.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Barkway possessed the clarity of a mother who knows her children need her. Having survived the initial wave of grief, she spent much of that fall working to ensure Christmas lived up to the expectation of Jamie, then two. David was born in January, and after that, she started to decompress. “I remember just crying when I got some downtime afterward,” she recalls. “The whole period was so emotional.”

From there, Barkway was able to establish the routines under which children tend to thrive. Generous payouts from David Sr.’s life insurance policy and a U.S. compensation fund saved her from having to go to work to support the boys. So she threw them headlong into activities, and it turns out they both inherited their father’s love of sport. Next year, both will play for travelling hockey teams, and that’s just the start. “If I can’t be a hockey player when I grow up, then I want to be a lacrosse player,” says Jamie. “If I can’t be a lacrosse player, then I want to be a soccer player. If not a soccer player, well, then I’ll be a mechanical engineer.”

Barkway credits a supportive circle of family and friends who help keep her going, not least David’s parents, Peter and Mary. But no one can stand in for a husband, says Cindy, who remains a single mother. “There are a lot of moments where I stress about decisions, whether it’s school or hockey. I have lots of wonderful people around me but it’s not the same as having a partner who has a vested interest in the boys’ future.” She works hard to keep David Sr. alive in their minds. Pictures adorn the cottage showing him in moments of happiness—in a paddleboat with his mother; mugging for the camera during a family barbecue. A few weeks ago, she chided David Jr. when he wished aloud that he had his mother’s blue eyes. “I said, no, your dad had brown eyes and I loved his eyes. Even though he’s not part of your life, he’s part of who you are.”

Such moments are rewarding—and painful. Jamie has no memory of his dad, while David Jr. was not yet born when his father died. Barkway sees traces of him in the boys all the time, but pointing them out sometimes evokes her own sorrow. David Sr., she explains, was the sort of man who grabbed life with both hands, parlaying a bachelor’s degree in economics into a job on BMO’s trading floor. He revelled in the conviviality that comes with life on Bay Street. Or, as Barkway puts it, “the activity and hubbub.” Yet he was first and foremost a family man. In the middle of the day, he’d phone his wife to tell her a joke he’d heard, then quickly ring off. “I can see him in Jamie’s devilish little smile and in his sense of humour,” Cindy says. “Dave was always smiling.”

Explaining his death to the boys has been, oddly enough, the easier task. Most years, Barkway takes them to anniversary memorials at Ground Zero, so the historic meaning of the occasion has begun to sink in. On one of those trips, she met a Canadian woman named Maureen Basnicki, whose husband was also killed in the north tower of the World Trade Center. The two quickly formed a bond, sharing a determination not to succumb to the hostility the terrorists sought to inspire. Basnicki has been lobbying the federal government to make Sept. 11 a national day of community service, as a way of remembering the victims while repudiating the terrorists’ indictment of Western society. “What better message can we give, than goodness is stronger than evil?” she says. “Our way of life in Canada really is the best way. It’s about going back to our values as a society.”

Barkway agrees, but frames her views in less political terms. For her, the task is neutralizing the bitterness her boys might understandably feel toward al-Qaeda, or Islamists, because she believes it would be wasted. “I don’t live surrounded by hatred,” she explains. “It’s just not the reality that I know. I’m glad they got bin Laden, but it doesn’t change our lives that much. I still don’t have Dave, and the boys don’t have their father.”

For now, at least, she has two well-mannered, even-tempered youngsters to show for her efforts. Basnicki, who has become a kind of aunt to the boys (she even purchased a cottage on the same lake), describes Jamie as the entertainer—the kid telling stories while gobbling s’mores around the campfire. David is quieter, she says, but quick with a smile. “They’re really model kids. There will come a day when they fully comprehend what happened to their dad. But I don’t think they’ll have a sense of anger or revenge. This has been Cindy’s own way of fighting back, by showing her strength as a mother. I think she’s done an amazing job.”

Indeed, Barkway has been so successful she sometimes forgets the boys feel their dad’s absence as keenly as she does. This past Father’s Day, as Jamie agonized over the blank pages of a school-assigned writer’s journal, Cindy suggested he write about not having a dad, encouraging him to describe his feelings. Jamie was aghast. “I can’t write about that. It’s way too sad,” he said. She tried to delve deeper, but just then, David came into the room. On hearing what they were talking about, he burst into tears.

Barkway was caught off guard by the sudden wave of sentiment. “Generally, they’re happy children,” she says. “When we talk about their father they don’t get emotional.” But she can certainly relate. She graphs the past decade as a series of crests and troughs she was able to navigate only with the help of a psychologist and family members who are good at listening. As pleased as she is with the progress of her sons, the senselessness of her loss cannot be reconciled. “Mad? Yes, I get mad,” she admits. “I mean, they killed my husband for no good reason.”

Still, with each anniversary, those moments grow less frequent and less harrowing—for the boys as well as for her. “Awesome,” is how David Jr. described his feelings after hearing bin Laden was dead. But that’s only because he just learned the word, which he deploys in relation to pretty much everything. He uses it, for example, to describe the life his mom has built for him and his brother—a happy cycle of school, summer camps, cottage trips and visits with grandparents. That the name of his father’s killer briefly slipped his mind speaks well of the man David will someday become. It’s as good an indication as any that the terrorists’ mission failed.

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