Maybe I Was in Denial. It Worked for Me.
As much as I have been looking forward to 2021 and putting 2020 in the rearview mirror, I have also been dreading this year — and not because I thought the first week would have been so terrible. 2021 will bring the twentieth anniversary of my father’s death at the World Trade Center. 2021 will also mark the twentieth anniversary of my journey to Robin Hood — my current employer and a place I have called home (among other things) off and on since November 2001. This post isn’t about my dad but it’s a bit about my journey after we lost him.
I can’t quite remember if it was the first time my mom and I ate a proper dinner together at the kitchen table after September 11th but it was definitely one of the first. The house had been filled with people for so long that we hadn’t sat down for dinner in a long time. Although it was already the beginning of October, it still felt like summer and I remember the wooden chair squeaking against the linoleum as I pushed away from the table to answer the phone. It was my friend Elzy with a question for me.
I had talked to Elzy a bit after September 11th but I don’t remember if she told me about her new job at Robin Hood. Robin Hood is a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 by three successful Wall Street traders, with a mission to fight poverty in NYC. After the World Trade Center was attacked, they received donations from their core base of donors earmarked for September 11th related grants. As the donations grew, they set up a separate fund to help victims of the attacks who were most vulnerable — the poorest survivors, such as those without access to all the benefits we had as a fireman’s family.
I had heard of Robin Hood. The organization was producing a huge concert at Madison Square Garden to raise money for this new relief fund and many active duty firemen and cops were invited, along with all the families of rescue workers who had died on September 11th. My family had tickets to the event on October 20th, two days after my birthday.
Robin Hood planned to hire a grantmaking team to distribute the relief money and Elzy asked if I’d be interested in the work. She thought of me because of my previous work at non-profits and my graduate studies in public administration. And, obviously, because of my dad. Although I wasn’t sure if it would be right for me, I said I was tentatively interested and forwarded my resume.
When I told my mom about the relief fund and the potential job, she echoed the same sentiments I was feeling. It could be an opportunity for healing as I would have a chance to help people who were also affected by the tragedy. Because of my personal loss, we agreed I could also bring a vital perspective to the team. We were both concerned it could be very difficult to deal with the aftermath of September 11th as a professional and put personal feelings aside. Still, my mom encouraged me. Like my father, she thought it was good to try new things and to take opportunities to grow personally and professionally.
I was a full time graduate student at NYU but after 9/11, I had dropped a class and could take on a full-time job and still finish the degree on time. Over the previous few weeks, I hadn’t thought much about what I would do for full-time work when I graduated. I was in such a state of limbo and disinterest about my future — still going through the motions of life and processing each day as it unfolded, I thought maybe Elzy’s call was the universe sending me a message about a new path. Elzy’s recommendation also gave me a boost of confidence. Though we had been friends for several years, we hadn’t worked together and she couldn’t personally vouch for my work. Yet she was willing to recommend me to her brand new employer and that made me sit up straighter.
The next day, I spoke with Emary, the managing director of the relief fund at Robin Hood. When she offered her condolences, it was the first time I’d heard that from someone completely outside of my circle. While not exactly jarring, it did make me pause. I didn’t expect to have a stranger know about my personal circumstances. I was used to revealing personal details as I saw fit, not having others know personal details about me before we even met. Emary and I set up an appointment for an interview the following Thursday, October 18th, my twenty-sixth birthday.
October 18th was thirty-seven days after the World Trade Center had been attacked. Thirty-seven days — a little more than five weeks — since my father had been seen alive. The memorial service was over and my mother had bought a cemetery plot but all evidence to the contrary, I hadn’t given up on him yet. I still wasn’t sure he was gone forever. There was no evidence indicating he was dead (aside from the obvious) and I believed he could still be alive in that pile of rubble waiting to be rescued. In those ensuing thirty-seven days, I’d heard many unbelievable stories of survival and I knew water was the main thing he needed to survive. If he had water, life was sustainable — at least for the short term. He was lean to begin with but he was also really tough. If anyone could survive for five weeks under rubble, it was my dad.
For the job interview, I wore a brand-new red suit, I’d purchased it over the summer while backpacking in Australia. I couldn’t believe the reason for the suit’s debut in my wardrobe. While I was happy for a job opportunity, the circumstances — a job related to helping families, including my own, after the most horrific domestic terror attack our country had ever endured — were still unfathomable to me. I contemplated not wearing it as a red suit seemed a bit bold for this interview. If my dad was there, he probably would have said to wear a black suit for a good first impression. I considered what his advice would have been but it was my birthday and I decided if I wanted to wear a red suit, I would. To honor my dad, I pinned his twenty-five-year FDNY pin on my lapel.
I walked down the hill from our house in Piermont to the bus stop where I boarded a Port Authority bound bus. As I walked, I thought about how if my father was around, he probably would have given me a lift to the train station. Without him, the only option for getting to the city was to drive or take the bus. Not many people commute from Piermont to Manhattan by bus because the service is so terrible and I began to wonder what I was getting myself into. If I got this job, did I want to take this bus twice a day? The commute part of the potential job I’d yet to interview for was already unappealing.
When I got off the bus at Port Authority, I was freezing. The season had changed and I managed to miss it entirely. I looked at those around me and saw most were wearing coats and even scarves. I had nothing. How did this happen? The last I noticed I was sitting outside in shorts and a T-shirt in warm weather. More time had passed than I realized and I was momentarily surprised to find myself walking up Sixth Avenue, freezing, on my birthday, to go to a job interview. The streets in midtown were crowded with people going to work and I still hadn’t quite wrapped my head around how everyone was getting on with their daily lives, even though I was going through my routine as well.
The Robin Hood staff was working out of temporary space; the permanent office was across from the World Trade Center and no one could get back there. I walked into the lobby and found an overworked security desk and guards who were serious about who they let through. I waited while they called for permission to send me up and a Robin Hood employee who happened to be walking by took pity on me and brought me upstairs.
I learned later the chaos was probably due to an anthrax scare. The day after my interview, an employee in the same building who worked at the NY Post was sick with anthrax. Not knowing any of this at the time, I took in the crowd of people trying to get through security and hoped if I got the job, I would breeze by with an ID and not have to deal with more turmoil on my way in and out of work.
At the interview, Emary offered her condolences again. I thanked her but in the back of my mind, I thought, this is an act. I’m thanking you as if I agree he’s dead. But on the inside, I haven’t given up.
During the interview, we talked about the relief work and what she thought the new team members would contribute. I tried to talk about my experience and what I would bring but it was more of a casual conversation than an interview. Emary asked if I had any reservations about the job. I was frank with her and told her I worried it would be difficult for me to handle September 11th as a professional and also deal with it on such a personal level. Emary suggested I think about it over the weekend and call her when I had made up my mind about continuing the interview process.
Two days after my interview was the Robin Hood September 11th relief fundraiser at Madison Square Garden. My mom had suggested I invite my friend Amy to join us and we all rode the subway together from my sister’s apartment in the Upper East Side to the Garden. On the subway, we chatted and likely appeared light-hearted. Although it may have seemed like we were in high spirits, they were only on the surface. Those high spirits didn’t originate deep within. The smiles were on our faces, but our hearts were heavy.
As we walked up the subway stairs and onto 34th Street, we found firemen — hundreds of firemen in uniform. It was surreal. How strange to be in the midst of a sea of firemen, in uniform, and not be with my dad. Whenever we’d been around masses of firemen in the past — the St. Patrick’s Day parade, promotion ceremonies — my father had been with us and he’d be stopped every few steps by someone who wanted to chat.
On the night of the concert, we walked into the Garden with a different chief, and firemen greeted him. That part hurt. I didn’t want to walk through the Garden with this other chief — even though he was a perfectly lovely person. I wanted to walk with my dad. I wanted to follow him around as firemen stopped to shake his hand, like they did when he was alive. I wanted to see my dad’s smile and hear his quick jokes with the guys.
I was also struck by the sheer number of firemen who attended the concert. They were all in uniform, mostly drunk, and seemed to be enjoying the emotional release. But I wondered, with so many firemen at the Garden, was anyone left to work at the firehouses? I also wondered about the other families who were there — families like mine. I saw a lot of civilians (not firemen in uniform) wearing FDNY gear and figured they were people who had a fireman family member missing at the World Trade Center. I also started to notice a sense of entitlement among fire department families. To me, it seemed they thought they deserved special treatment. Over the next several months, I noticed department families members who wore the FDNY gear to every event or meeting, carried photos of their loved ones, dropped names and ranks as if everyone around them should show deference. I was confused by this attitude. My family definitely got a lot of attention after September 11th but I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. My father sacrificed his life and I was living with his loss, but he chose his line of work. I didn’t choose to be his daughter — these were the circumstances I was born into. I was glad for the outpouring of appreciation for my father’s sacrifice, but a lot of people made the ultimate sacrifice that day and their families aren’t treated with deference, are they? I didn’t think they were.
When I expressed these sentiments, someone would always respond, “Your father was running into the building while everyone else was running out.” Yes, I understand that. I know what happened. That was his job — to protect people. He knew what he signed up for. I really didn’t think my loss was any more profound than the loss another daughter felt because her civilian father was killed at the World Trade Center. My father was humble in every possible way, right down to describing himself as a fireman and not a chief. His attitude had rubbed off on me and I tried to stay cognizant of the fact that many other families were also suffering and they hadn’t been given free tickets to a blow-out concert in Madison Square Garden.
The concert itself also seemed like an out of body experience compared to the previous six weeks. I had been going through the emotions of daily life and to an outsider it may have appeared my life was back to normal with work and school. As I sat in the Garden, surrounded by grieving families, firemen, cops, and people who paid to be there, I couldn’t help think it was all wrong. What were we doing listening to music? Life wasn’t the same and I wasn’t ready to celebrate these artists. It was still too soon.
I also got a glimpse into exactly what Robin Hood was capable of. Five weeks after the World Trade Center was attacked, they’d managed to put together a massive fundraiser that included major political figures, actors, comedians, and big names in music — David Bowie, Elton John, Bon Jovi, the Who, Billy Joel and Melissa Etheridge all performed. I may not have ever heard of this organization long before I got invited to the concert but clearly they had a great deal of clout and powerful people were involved. I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it or understand how it would impact me but I was starting to understand this wasn’t a rinkydink non-profit with a budget so tight they couldn’t buy Post-its with lines, which was the case with the last non-profit where I worked.
As unsettled as I felt, I was pleased to see my mom singing along to songs she knew and having a bit of fun. Then I found her in tears. A fireman had stopped by to tell her how much he loved my dad and his words set her off on an emotional spiral, heading downward. As yet another testament to my mother’s strength and resilience, she recovered quickly but I knew her evening had been tainted. As if it wasn’t hard enough to have a good time in a sea of blue uniforms and constant reminders of why we were there, there was this. I wanted to strangle that guy for making my mother upset. Everyone wanted to tell us how they felt about my dad, on their terms. How about, just once, thinking about our loss on our terms? Anyway, that was how I felt in the moment.
A couple of days after the concert, I went back to see Emary and she offered me the job. I accepted it with trepidation. This was uncharted territory for me. I had never lived through the disappearance and possible death of my father. I had never worked for a foundation. Terrorists hadn’t flown planes into the World Trade Center before. It was a time of firsts — mostly negative firsts. Maybe this would be a positive first. I’d give it a shot. What was the worst that could happen?
Before the World Trade Center was attacked, I had been on a path, a deliberate one. After I graduated from college, I’d moved to Los Angeles as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, where I worked at an organization on Skid Row helping homeless people find jobs. In Los Angeles, I lived with other volunteers in a wonderful community in East Los Angeles. After my commitment ended, I’d spent a year living on my own in Boston, working in human resources at a non-profit providing residential substance abuse treatment. I’d carefully selected my course of study for graduate school and prudently moved back in with my parents to save money while I studied. I’d backpacked in Australia for a month on my own. I had been spreading my wings and moving into full-fledged adulthood with purpose. I loved the path I chose.
As we entered the fall of 2001 and the weather turned cold and the days became shorter, I felt myself heading into a tunnel and I couldn’t see the light at the end. I didn’t care about my silly part time job. I didn’t care about the content of my graduate classes. I didn’t know if I’d even care about the work at my new job at Robin Hood. It was disconcerting but I didn’t know what to do about it. Looking back, maybe there wasn’t anything I could have done. Maybe what I did was the right thing — I tried to trust myself and relied on my friends to help me through. They never failed to invite me to meet them at bars, to parties, to see movies and just hang out. My mother, sisters and I relied on each other. We lifted each other’s spirits when we could but also hugged each other tight when we needed to feel safe. I stepped into the tunnel with caution, but what choice did I have? I was still alive and had to keep going. This was a new path being presented to me, borne out of this tragedy, and I was going down it.