Remembering a tragedy with kids in tow

20160613_145801I remember every horrible moment of Sept. 11, 2001—planes crashing into buildings, buildings falling and shaking the ground, my city changing forever. I left New York for California shortly after the attack. Today, since we’re back in the Big Apple for the week, Powerwoman and I took the kids near the World Trade Center site.

We didn’t go to the museum because we didn’t think that was a good idea with three kids. We didn’t go to the memorial because two of those kids were a bit crazier than we had hoped. So we improvised. And we headed to meet friends at a playground in Battery Park City, giving the girls history along the way.

I was the one sharing details. I started with the Freedom Tower, talking about how tall it is and when it was built and all sorts of basic stuff like that. Next I described the buildings that used to be there—how they were identical twins and how they scraped higher into the sky than any other building in the city. I told them about how my father spent a decade working on the 57th floor of one of the towers, and how I loved going to work with him so I could look down on the Big City and marvel about how small it was. I even told them about the restaurant at the top, and about the observation deck, and about how from anywhere up there you could see for miles.

L listened passively, probably more focused on what kind of monkey bars awaited us at West Thames Park. R, on the other, hand, wanted answers.

“What happened to the other buildings that were there?” she asked.

I told her they fell down.

“Why?” she asked, because she’s 4.5 and because she’s my kid.

After a few measured breaths, I told her they fell down because bad men wanted to hurt people and made them fall.

We were walking and talking during the conversation to this point, but when I said “made them fall,” my middle daughter stopped and fixed her gaze on the Freedom Tower. In the seconds that followed, all sorts of things went through my head. Was she scared by the notion of bad men? Should I have used more euphemisms? Should I have used fewer of them? I heard lines from Springsteen’s “You’re Missing.” I saw people on the subway, crying, covered in dust. I prepared myself to answer follow-ups about how the bad men made the towers fall, or what happened to the people in the towers when they fell.

But she went in a completely different direction: “Daddy, were you here when the Towers fell? Did you see them fall?”

And I simply couldn’t respond.

Every time I tried to open my mouth, my throat closed up and I couldn’t speak. Every time I tried to breathe deeply, I couldn’t get the air through my nose. R asked the question again, looking up at me this time with those big, brown eyes.

That’s when I lost it completely, mercifully stuffing my face into my shirtsleeve before my daughter saw the tears streaming down my face.

I never mustered an answer. Matt Villano, the dad with all the answers, the dude who incessantly harps on bottom lines so everything contributes to life experience, had NOTHING. I had visualized a similar exchange hundreds of times before today, and never imagined coming up empty.

And yet, oddly, I don’t regret it one bit.

Someday, the kids will learn the story. Someday, they’ll know what I know. Someday, they’ll know what I saw. What R did learn today was that whatever happened to those towers 15 years ago was something that made Daddy (and a lot of other people) really sad. I think that’s enough of a lesson for now.

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