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.

Gone but not forgotten

The four of us. Circa 1980.

The four of us. Circa 1980.

They meant so much to so many. Symbols of financial prowess. Pillars of modern engineering. Giant quote marks. Some New Yorkers even saw the two twin towers of the World Trade Center as two huge middle fingers to the rest of the world. “Fuck all of youz, New York is the best!” they seemed to say.

To me, however, 9- and 12- and 15-year old me, they were Daddy’s office. The coolest place on earth to go for the day.

Back then my father was the press secretary for Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, whose downstate office was on the 57th Floor of Tower 2, the one with Windows on the World at the top. Dad commuted from our house on Long Island—a round-trip of nearly three hours each day. Admittedly, I was puzzled as to why anyone would spend so much damn time just getting to and from work. But when I saw how much he loved it, when I saw how much he lived it, I wasn’t angry at all. I just wanted to experience the place for myself.

And I did. Dad took me into work with him regularly, usually when the Governor wasn’t around. Sometimes he even pulled me out of school. It was educational, he told my teachers. And it was.

I’d always bring homework, and Dad would set me up in the press conference room for a few hours while he did work of his own. People would come in to say hi to me, Steve’s son. Sometimes I’d even get up on the podium and pretend I was the governor myself.

There were other memorable parts of the ritual. Like bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches from a deli that delivered (this was an incredible luxury for impressionable moi). And the chance to steal office supplies (which I still do at every opportunity). When I finished my schoolwork each day, I’d sit on the HVAC system in the window bay of dad’s office and peer out the windows, looking out on the harbor and down on the city below. Sometimes I’d just stare for hours. It never got old.

Perhaps this is why, for me, the World Trade Center was so great. Yes, it was my father’s place of work—a place where he spent far more time than he did in our house. And, yes, it was bigger and taller and more grownup than anything I ever could imagine at the time. But it also was a place of excitement. A place of import. A place where I always seemed to feel a lot older than I was. And a place where I could steal a few solo moments with Dad.

Put simply, even though only one of us was on vacation there, the Twin Towers represented one of the greatest family travel destinations ever.

I was in Manhattan the day they fell, 14 years ago. I breathed the dust. I felt the ground shake. I experienced the apocalypse. The day changed everything—how I felt about the world, how I felt about New York, how I feel about being alive, really. But nothing ever truly will take away what those Towers gave to me all those years. Or what they represent in my heart.

%d bloggers like this: