By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008
On Monday nights, the two groups met in the classrooms of Messiah United Methodist Church on Rolling Road in Springfield, pushing the chairs into a circle. The men and women who came were not there to cope with addiction or bankruptcy, but to seek the company of the few others who knew their extraordinary misfortune. Once husbands and wives, they had become widows and widowers on the same day.
Ben Salamone in one group, Donna Teepe in the other.
Salamone was a broken shell of himself. He would come home to Springfield from his job as a veterinarian for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and sit in the same chair he sat in when Marjorie was alive, crushed by the stillness of the room. In the family photos, the furniture and the travel mementos that decorated their home, she was everywhere and so completely absent. They were married 31 years.
"I'd just sit there in that chair, constantly rehashing everything, every little event in our lives," Salamone, 62, said. "I was so lonesome."
He and Marjorie met at Auburn University in Alabama, where Salamone grew up, and they were married soon after graduation. They raised two daughters, weathering frequent relocations for Salamone's 30-year career in the Army Veterinary Corps. Work and family were everything for him, and with his daughters grown and Marjorie gone, Salamone spent his nights and weekends alone.
Monday nights were his escape.
Teepe, 63, was living the same loneliness, her home in Centreville empty without Karl. Like Salamone's daughters, her two children were adults, the youngest finishing college in the spring of 2001, just before Sept. 11. She viewed everything in her life that way, through the prism of that severe demarcation: before Sept. 11, after Sept. 11.
After Sept. 11, Teepe would come home from her job as the director of a nearby preschool to the house where she and Karl had raised their children, seeing his hand in everything. The deck he had built out back, the wooden cabinets he had crafted, the shelving system he had fashioned for her scrapbooking hobby. They were married 34 years.
When the Monday night sessions were over, the two support groups would linger in the hallways of the church. Often the conversation would continue next door over coffee at McDonald's. Many, like Salamone and Teepe, were in no hurry to go home.
The McDonald's gatherings led to other group activities and outings, concerts and movies and card games. Then one day in October 2002, Salamone asked Teepe if he could take her to dinner.
He was tall, soft-spoken and exceedingly polite, a Southern gentleman. She was blonde and quiet, too, with soft, caring eyes.
They went to a Ruby Tuesday that night and met the next day for lunch. They were nearly the same age and similar in so many other ways. Donna and Karl had been married for about same amount of time as Ben and Marjorie. Both men had long careers in the Army. Both couples had two children, and their daughters belonged to the same sorority at the College of William and Mary, separated by four years. They began to spend more time together and less time alone.
Then came the guilt. Was this new life a betrayal?Sept. 11
The love story of Donna Teepe and Ben Salamone is not wrapped in golden bows or ringed with little red hearts. There were no smoldering glances or torrid weekend trysts. Theirs has been a cautious courtship and an imperfect embrace, formed from the ruin and wreckage of Sept. 11.
On that day, Karl was in his office at the Pentagon, watching the twin towers burn on TV, when the nose of American Airlines Flight 77 came through the wall. He and six of his colleagues were killed. After a 22-year career in the Army, he was working as a budget analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, waiting to be moved to an office elsewhere in the building.
Karl was compact and known for his neatness and organization. He and Donna grew up together in suburban St. Louis. They began dating when she was a sophomore in high school. "When he died," Teepe said, "I thought: How would I survive without this guy I have known since I was 11? I couldn't remember my life without him."
Karl had a zany, whimsical sense of humor. Once, when their children were younger, he took the family on "Crazy Trip Day," riding every line of the Metro until they had reached every last stop. He loved Washington and its rich culture of education and museums, taking Metro on his lunch break simply to eat his sandwich in the sculpture garden outside the National Gallery of Art.
He'd park at Vienna each morning to ride the train to work, so in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when he was officially "missing," Donna left his car there for days. She worried that if he were hurt or lost and disoriented, he'd find his way back to Vienna and want to drive home.
Salamone's Sept. 11 story is as familiar to Teepe now as her own. Marjorie was a budget program analyst for the Army, working not far from Karl's office that day though the two did not know each other. Ben and Marjorie's youngest daughter, Amanda, called her mother from midtown Manhattan after the towers were struck to say she was okay.
At 9:37 a.m., when the plane hit Marjorie's office at 550 mph, Salamone was at the USDA, in a presentation she had helped him prepare the night before. News of the attack interrupted the meeting. Salamone began to call, receiving no answer, and quickly calculated the odds, comforted by the improbability that she was wounded or killed. There are 25,000 people working there, he told himself.
He was one of the last to remain in the office that day. When he walked into L'Enfant Plaza about 2 p.m., the streets were so deserted, he said, "it looked like a Sunday morning." He still hadn't heard from Marjorie.
On the Metrorail ride back to Virginia, Salamone overheard two riders talking about the attack. The plane had hit the building on the western side, they said, the newly renovated section. Salamone interrupted them.
"My wife works there," he said as much to the other passengers as himself. The car fell silent.Starting Over, Holding On
Salamone asked Teepe to marry him Christmas Eve 2006. That night at Teepe's home, as they sat together at a table, Salamone asked her to open a Christmas present. Inside was an ornament, an elaborately painted angel, bearing a diamond ring.
"Will you marry me?" he asked, and after a short pause, Teepe said yes.
It had taken years for them to reach that point. Both worried about what their children, friends and family members would think. A milestone came for Salamone four years after they began dating, when he took Teepe to meet Marjorie's parents in Georgia. They embraced her, and a great burden was lifted for him.
But it also took time for Salamone and Teepe to make the relationship all right with themselves, to not wake up in the middle of the night and feel guilty. "In your mind, you think, 'Am I being disloyal?' " Salamone said.
At every step, therapists assured them that they weren't. "Our counselors explained that if you had a good marriage, you want that again," Teepe said. "You want what you had."
Little by little, they have eased into their lives together, a process that continues. Almost two years after getting engaged, they have not set a wedding date. One reason, they said, is that they are preoccupied with the marriage of Salamone's youngest daughter and the birth of his first grandchild.
Salamone and Teepe have not decided whether to live together, either. This is partly a result of convenience: They live close to their jobs -- Teepe minutes from the preschool, Salamone near the commuter slug line and its informal carpool system he uses to get to work.
There are other reasons that are not so easy to explain. At Salamone's home in Springfield, Marjorie's clothes remain untouched in the closet, just as they were seven years ago. "My place is basically the same way she left it," said Salamone, who still refers to Marjorie as "my wife."
"If my wife came back today, she'd see her house the way it was," he said. "I try to keep everything the way it was. The thought of having to move just floors me."
At Teepe's home in Centreville, where she has lived since 1981, the family photographs in the bedroom of her with Karl are exactly as he hung them, in identical wood frames and perfect rows.
They've discussed selling their homes and getting a place together. But, Teepe said, "we can't quite get it together to get rid of our houses."
As she explains it, "love is different the second time around." The pressures they once knew -- children, careers, finances -- are not there anymore, so the pace is different. Sometimes during the week they meet for dinner, and every Friday, Salamone drives to Centreville to spend the weekend at Teepe's.
"We just enjoy being with each other," she said. "You need someone who's going through the same thing you're going through."
They are different people now, too, their lives changed by Sept. 11 but also by their new relationship. They travel often, attending plays and concerts. Recently, they began to take ballroom dancing classes together, Salamone dancing for the first time in his life.
"I'm so glad he has Donna," said Ann Marie Santillo, 31, Salamone's eldest daughter, who lives in suburban Philadelphia. "We didn't want him to be alone in life. For them to fall in love is absolutely amazing."
Teepe's son, Adam, a 29-year-old environmental consultant in Denver, said his mother's relationship with Salamone has brought "a sense of normalcy" to her. "Things will never be the same as they were, but having Ben in her life makes things a little easier," he said.
The pain of Sept. 11 is different now, Salamone said, but it doesn't go away. "Even today, it's there," he said. "It's an emotional roller coaster." There are weddings, birthdays and other milestones that serve as reminders of Sept. 11 in their indirect way. "At all those pivotal events in your life, you know there's a loss," Salamone said. "There's an emptiness about it."
Together they are trying to create new memories, a new history, filling their homes with photographs of them as a couple or with each other's children. He and Teepe recently returned from an annual summer retreat in Maine for those who lost family members on Sept. 11. Before that, they spent a week together in Hilton Head, S.C. The Pentagon Memorial would be opening soon, and they would visit it together as well.
"I think we've made a nice situation out of a bad situation," Salamone said.
"I think we both got lucky," Teepe added.
That night, Salamone would go home to Springfield alone, but he would call Teepe when he got there.