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.

Managing differing expectations on a family trip

Believe it or not, this was fun.

Believe it or not, this was fun.

Growing up on the north shore of Long Island, in New York, I spent most of my free time on the beach. As often as possible, I’d ride my dirt bike there from my house, park the bike and walk up and down the beach, ogling marine mammals, hunting for shells, wading in the waves, and more. I enjoyed this ritual so much, there were entire days when I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Naturally, then, when I became a father, I wanted to share this experience with my daughters. The only problem: They wanted to create beach experiences of their own.

The first time I learned this lesson was this past winter; on a visit with L to our favorite local beach to see some seal pups, all she wanted to do was walk in the nearby river and toss rocks (at birds and whitecaps) in the surf.

I was reminded of the same lesson again earlier this week, on a trip to the very same beach with R.

My plan was modest at best—in one hour, I was hoping we’d walk along the shoreline, check out some kelp and look for whale blows in the distance. The baby had other designs: All she wanted to do was sit on her bottom and sift through handfuls of sand for shards of beach glass.

At first, the discrepancy between expectations was adorable: R is so wonderfully independent, it was a pleasure to see her exerting free will so demonstratively. But when it became clear that my little girl wasn’t willing to budge ONE BIT, I started wondering about the degree to which I should be driving the day.

The questions came quickly. What’s wrong with this kid? Is she ill? Why the hell doesn’t she want to explore more of this place? Could she *hate* the beach?

Self-doubt crept in next. Is it too hands-on to drag her on a stroll down the beach? Will forcing her to look for whales prompt her to hate whales (or the beach, for that matter) forever? Am I a terrible father if I make her do something she obviously want to do?

I gave myself a few minutes to think over these questions. Then I made up my mind. And I did nothing.

Against all instincts, I let R experience the beach the way she wanted to, scratching at the sand like cat in a litter box. After a few minutes, R looked up at me and invited me to stop staring out at the ocean and join her. So I did.

I’ll be honest, it took me a while to accept that this was the way my kid and I were going to spend our day at the beach. Ultimately, I had no choice but to accept it. And I’m glad I did.

If I’ve learned anything in five years as a father, it’s that family travel often forces us to balance our kids’ expectations and our own. Most of the time, we parents know best. Sometimes, however, it’s important for us to recognize that our kids simply may not want what we want for them, and adjust accordingly.

Next time I take my kids to the beach, I hope they are willing to give me even five minutes to experience the place the way I’d like to. If they do, great. If they don’t, in the scheme of things, that’s great too. So long as we’re there together, so long as my kids recognize what a special spot the beach can be, I’ll be happy with however the day plays out. More than anything, that’s my job as their Dad.

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