Elba Cedeno and Cathy Smith would often compare themselves to Pepé Le Pew and Penelope from the Looney Tunes cartoon: Smith pursued Cedeno at a Rockland County bar they both frequented, but Cedeno played hard-to-get — at least until they couldn’t help but fall in love.
They went on cruises together. They dreamed of traveling the world. They had an unofficial marriage ceremony at a time when marriage equality was not yet a reality.
Their love story, however, took a tragic turn on Sept. 11, 2001, when Smith was working on the 97th floor in one of the Twin Towers as a vice president at Marsh & McLennan. Cedeno feared the worst when she learned about the attacks that morning.
“In the moment, when I got the news, I was at my job — I thought it was a joke,” Cedeno recalled during an emotional phone interview. “When I got home, I walked in the house and the TV was on and I kept looking at it in disbelief.”
Smith died in the attacks at the age of 44, leaving Cedeno with a broken heart and a feeling of shock that rattled her to her core. Cedeno’s life — and the couple’s relationship — disappeared in the blink of an eye.
“I could not function,” Cedeno said. “Thank god I had beautiful friends and family and had the support, because I could barely eat, barely talk, and barely walk. It was awful.”
Cedeno met up with Smith’s family following the attacks and they made their way down to a destroyed lower Manhattan, which was blanketed with memorials and engulfed with silence. They could “hear a pin drop,” Cedeno remembered, as the hustling, bustling city went quiet.
To this day, Cedeno still speaks with raw emotion when she invokes her late wife. She recalls Smith as an avid football fan who loved watching Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins, and she especially enjoyed spending time together with loved ones. Cedeno continues to stay in touch with Smith’s family today.
“Cathy meant the world to me,” said Cedeno, who owned a house with Smith in West Haverstraw, New York. “She was smart, beautiful, and made me so happy. I was proud to be her wife. We had planned to spend a long life together. We were going to spend the weekend in New York and she was going to show me her office. She never got to do that.”
Instead, Cedeno found herself saddled with the hardship of losing her life partner at a time when LGBTQ couples did not have the same marriage rights as straight couples. Cedeno encountered roadblocks when she sought assistance through the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which set out to provide financial help for victims and their families.
Cedeno said she was initially denied benefits and further faced anti-LGBTQ discrimination from the Salvation Army, which was one of the agencies providing relief in the wake of the attacks.
Thankfully, though, Cedeno had the unwavering support of Smith’s family members, who stood alongside her as she sought benefits and conveyed to officials that Smith and Cedeno were just like any other married couple. Cedeno said she received legal assistance at the time from from Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ litigation group, and she wound up receiving the benefits in the end.
“It was rough,” Cedeno said. “The pain of going through that was just unbearable. I was happy that we had Lambda step in and I was happy that everybody was able to recognize us and get it together. The family was there to vouch for us as if we were married. It was more than enough proof.”
Smith was one of nearly 3,000 people who were killed during the attacks on September 11, 2001, and many of those who did survive wound up experiencing severe health consequences that have lingered to this day. Countless others who initially survived the attacks later died from 9/11-related cancer, respiratory illnesses, and other health issues stemming from the effects of the dust that spread through the air around Ground Zero.
Many of the surviving victims and families of victims are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Cedeno, who now lives in Florida, has since returned to Ground Zero to pay tribute to Smith — including at the 10-year anniversary in 2011 — but the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted her wishes to return to New York City this year.
“I would have loved to be there,” she said. “All I can say is ‘I miss you, Cathy. I wish we could have spent our lives together. I wish that never happened.’”