Fighting Spirit

updated 01/14/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

On their first trip to Walt Disney World in November, Connor and Caitlyn Murphy did what most kids do: met Cinderella, took the "It's a Small World" ride and stuffed themselves with chicken fingers and popcorn. But when they saw Mickey Mouse do battle with some bad guys in a live-action stage show, their reaction was anything but ordinary. Afterward, Connor, 7, and Caitlyn, 4, spent two hours talking with their mother, Beth, about the nature of evil. "I know it's a Disney fantasy, but it helped me counsel my kids," explains Beth, 37. "It was a wonderful message for them to see that goodness will prevail—that they won't always have to worry about evil."

It's a reminder their mother may have needed most of all. Beth's husband, Kevin, a 40-year-old assistant vice president of claims consulting at Marsh & McLennan insurers, was killed along with 294 of his colleagues in the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11. Consumed with grief herself, Beth is struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy in her children's lives, a task made vastly more difficult by the fact that she too may be prematurely lost to them. Diagnosed with melanoma 15 years ago, she had a recurrence in March 2000; though she is currently cancer-free, doctors say the chances of another recurrence are 50-50. The kids are acutely aware of her illness and of the awful fragility of their world. "Connor asks, 'Mommy, are you going to die too?' " Murphy says. "What do I tell him? There are things I just can't answer."

What she can do is keep going, and she does so with a fortitude that astounds those who know her. Every morning Beth gets her children ready for school (Connor is in second grade, Caitlyn in preschool) at the family's cozily appointed Northport, N.Y., home. On leave since Sept. 11 from her job as a guidance counselor at Northport Middle School, she spends the rest of most days meeting with lawyers and accountants and filling out paperwork for the raft of organizations aiding Trade Center victims' loved ones. "There's no central processing place for victims' families to find assistance," she says. "You have to research everything, and it's hard. I have four filing boxes."

And once a month she drives to nearby Huntington Hospital for blood work to see if her cancer has returned. Walking can be a chore. Since the surgery that removed 25 lymph nodes (one of them cancerous) from her right thigh 19 months ago, she suffers from chronic, painful swelling. "It's a daily reminder of the cancer," she says.

Her kids are the daily reminder that she can't let it win. "Connor cries over steak now," Beth says. "He says, 'I want to eat steak with my dad, because Dad made the best steak.' Caitlyn says, 'Am I still Daddy's little girl?' " Every night Beth lets both children sleep in her bed. "I'm a guidance counselor and I know better, but I have to repair them," she says. Says her hematologist-oncologist Birjis Akhund: "Beth is full of promise and hope. Even now she has a lot of strength in her."

Before Sept. 11 she would have told you it was her husband who possessed the strength. Beth and Kevin grew up on Long Island near her current home—she in Wantagh, he in Smithtown. Beth is the youngest of three children of Diane Ryan, 64 and a retired school secretary, and Ronald, 71, a retired police detective; Kevin was the third of five kids of Sally, 65, a real estate agent, and Tim, 67, who owned a cleaning-products company. The couple met in a bar in Melville on Sept. 1, 1988—Kevin's 27th birthday—when Beth sneezed and Kevin said, "God bless you." Less than two years later they were married. "They're soulmates—or they were," says Kevin's sister Marybeth, 39, a teacher for the blind. Adds his brother Tim, 42, an investor-communications director: "They'd wear the same jeans and sweater with the same pattern everywhere they went."

Beth couldn't believe her luck. While advancing steadily in his career, Kevin proved to be an unusually involved father. "Changing diapers," says Marybeth, "was something he'd glow about." Remembers Beth: "Other women wanted to rent him."

Then, in the winter of 2000, Beth found a lump in her groin. Because a mole that had been removed from her right thigh in 1986 was Stage 1 melanoma, with only a small chance of recurrence, she assumed the new lump was unrelated until her doctor suggested a biopsy. The pathology report hit her hard. "The surgeon said, 'It's melanoma, Beth,' " she recalls. "I hadn't heard that word in 14 years." Kevin, she says, became "my cheerleader. " After her lymph nodes were removed, "I'd ask him every day, 'How's my leg look?' He'd say, 'Beautiful. But no one's looking at your leg. They're looking at what an amazing person you are.' "

Urged by her husband, she managed to run a local 10-kilometer race that September, even as she was starting a six-month experimental vaccine program intended to jump-start the immune system and prevent the melanoma from spreading. By last June she felt healthy—and hopeful—enough to appear in Killer Tan, News 12 Long Island's two-part series on the dangers of sun exposure. "Don't take life for granted," she says in the film. "My life was turned upside down in one day."

Two months later, on Aug. 18, Beth began experiencing abdominal pain so severe that she checked herself into Huntington Hospital. "It felt like someone stabbing me," she says. Instead of cancer, it was a rare, nonlethal virus commonly referred to as the Devil's Grip. But an MRI performed during her eight-day hospitalization showed something more ominous: a tiny black spot on her right lung. Suspecting that the melanoma had spread, doctors decided to wait to see if the spot grew before operating. Both Beth and Kevin, who had recently-started working for Marsh & McLennan on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center, were terrified. "He was a wreck," says his brother Jack, 35, a vice president at J.R Morgan Chase. "But when he was with Beth he was an inspiration. He'd say, 'You can't die because we love you and need you so much.' "

Beth's greatest comfort, she says, was that Kevin would be "an unbelievable dad" if she died. Soon, however, that possibility was brutally foreclosed. On Sept. 8, a week after his 40th birthday, Kevin's company held an off-site party for workers and their spouses. Beth forced herself to go. The group took a sunset cruise around Manhattan, then stayed at the Marriott Hotel at Three World Trade Center. The next day she visited Kevin's office. "He was so proud," she says. "He loved what he did."

Two days later Beth was at her school when the principal pulled her into the hall and told her a plane had hit the Trade Center. "I just kept redialing Kevin's cell phone," she says. The plane's impact, she now thinks, killed everyone in his office instantly. The image, she says, "plays in my mind 60 times a day."

Unlike many of the attack victims' hundreds of widows (exact numbers are unknown), Beth decided to hold a memorial service for her husband soon afterward, even though no remains had been found. It was, she thought, a way to begin healing. "This anger could ruin your life if you don't start putting it in a positive direction," she says. Some 2,000 people attended the two-day ceremony in late September, and the support of friends, family members and complete strangers has continued to buoy Beth. Her brothers—Richard, 40, an e-commerce executive in Simsbury, Conn., and Ronald, 43, a New York City police lieutenant who is working at Ground Zero—visit regularly, as do Kevin's siblings and Father Peter Garry, priest of the Catholic church she attends. The Lutheran church where Caitlyn goes to preschool arranged to pay for two years of snow removal and lawn service. Home-cooked dinners still arrive on her doorstep three times a week, and the con do her family stayed in during their recent visit to Florida was a loan from a woman moved by her plight. "It's unbelievable," Beth says. "I'm overwhelmed with love."

And with the strangeness of fate. In November Beth had a CAT scan. The result: the spot on her lung was gone, suggesting it may have been only a blood vessel in the first place. "Kevin left this earth worrying about me," she says. "Sometimes I think he knew I couldn't take one more ounce, so he just came and took the spot away."

She still must decide who will care for her children if the reprieve is temporary—a question she remains unready to face. "I haven't discussed it with my brothers or anyone else," she says. Meanwhile she is focusing on a more immediate project. "You see my kids' faces, and there's no spark anymore," she says. "I just want them to get those smiles back."

Not that they're gone completely. Before bed one night during their Disney trip, Caitlyn said, "Thanks, Daddy, we finally made it to Disney World." And then she looked up, smiled and kissed the sky.

Kim Hubbard
Mark Dagostino in Northport and Gary McKechnie in Orlando

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