Another September 11 Without a Dad

A woman and her daughters, defined by the World Trade Center attacks

The youngest September 11 kids are now 12 and 13. Many of these children, like my daughters, have made friends with others whose fathers or mothers were killed on September 11 through Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit group. At this time of year, they often compare notes: Does everyone stare at you on the anniversary? Do you go to school that day? Don’t you hate it when someone talks about the Towers exploding, or posts a video of the crash?

A unique aspect of having a parent die on September 11 is that it is a major American historical event; everyone remembers and mourns on that day. It’s on the news—which my two daughters and I avoid watching because of the videos and pictures—and it’s commemorated in solemn ceremonies, especially in the Northeast, where we live. The three of us are grateful to know that others remember the events that killed my husband, Jeffrey R. Smith, and we like people to acknowledge his death. But it’s not easy to face this public day of grieving. It’s difficult as an adult, certainly, but for the September 11 kids, it’s even more troubling. My daughters want their friends and teachers to recognize their loss, but they don’t want to be stared at, and they don’t necessarily want to meet with the school counselor. They just want the day to be over. They want their dad to be alive.

In The Great Gatsby, Daisy breaks down and cries over Gatsby’s many colorful shirts. She appears to be moved by their beauty, but readers are supposed to know she is crying over the past and all she has left behind.

Her lacrosse team decided to wear men’s shirts to school to get pumped for a game. It sounds like fun, unless your father is dead and you don’t have a man’s shirt in your house.

A few months ago, I found myself in my attic at 11 p.m., tearing through boxes marked with Jeff’s initials, looking for a button-down shirt and tie for my 15-year-old daughter, Maggie. Her lacrosse team had decided to wear men’s shirts and ties to school the next day to get pumped for a game. It sounds like fun, unless your father is dead and you don’t have a man’s shirt and tie in your house. I had not planned to open boxes that had been closed for almost 13 years on that particular night, but that’s what I was doing. I knew I saved at least one monogrammed shirt, but where was it? I could hear Maggie in her room crying tears for her father, who was killed in the World Trade Center when she was not yet 3 years old.

It’s a small-seeming thing, but these are the moments that loom large in my house. It’s those moments of sudden realization that Jeff should be here—and they always give me pause.

After his death, I saved some of Jeff’s clothes because I did not know what the girls would want. Maggie was so little, and Charlotte wasn’t even a year old. One day, I figured, they would either laugh at me for saving his favorite T-shirts, or they would be happy to have them. Turns out I was right to save what I did; they wear their father’s Miami Hurricanes and Rochester football shirts to school on spirit days. This summer, they found all his sweatshirts, and now they fight over them.

The other day I waved to a neighbor who was in his Jeep with his youngest son, a boy Charlotte’s age, 13. “Where are you two off to?” I asked. “We’re going to get a quick round of golf in,” the dad replied cheerfully. “Have fun!” I yelled as they headed off in their little topless Rambler. When terrorists hijacked four planes on September 11, 2001, they wiped out a large group of fathers and mothers—good, hard-working men and women; soccer coaches, past, present, and future; parents who wanted to raise their sons and daughters—leaving 3,051 children with only one living parent. These men destroyed many families, and the evidence still shows up in ways that might seem small and inconsequential, unless you’re looking from the inside out.

I thought, “Jeff would do that. If Jeff were alive, he would suddenly get up and announce ‘Hey let’s go play golf,’ to one or both of our girls, and off they would go.” But my daughters never get to play a round of golf with their father. My girls do not get to do anything with their father—throw a lacrosse ball, waltz in the living room, show him the As on their report cards—and I ache for them.

Although I have fully recreated our lives without Jeff, he would have made my daughters’ worlds better. He would have scooped up our girls and influenced them in ways I can only imagine. I often wonder what my daughters would be like if their father were alive.

As the anniversary rushes toward us, I cannot help but think of all the big and little things my daughters miss out on, and I yearn to make it better, just like I tried to do when I tore apart the attic to find that shirt. It’s a small-seeming thing, but I’ve just promised my daughters that I will take them to a driving range this fall. It’s been 13 years since I’ve hit a golf ball, but if they want to play a quick round of golf, we can do that, too.