The call came in about 9:15 on Wednesday morning, September 12. It was from a former client but for the moment I couldn’t find a face to match the name. There was a bad connection on her cell phone and she spoke quickly, saying we had helped her family so much in the past, she wondered could we help again now. I was having a hard time hearing her and I was preoccupied with my own thoughts, worrying about my older son who came back to our house with his girlfriend the previous night, too scared to stay in his apartment in the city. They were both in shock.
He had just witnessed the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Arriving early at work, he was playing basketball on the rooftop basketball court of the building where he worked. The building was just off the Hudson River with an unobstructed view of the World Trade Center. It was the second plane that flew low enough to look monstrously deadly. He and the other young staff had gasped and cried, reflexively ducking, thinking it was going to crash on them. He spent hours telling us what it was like in the city, the smell and the smoke, the panic in the street, the fear about bridges and tunnels closing, or worse, and the endless assault of rumors.
It was my son’s voice that I was still hearing when I asked this woman what the problem was. She said her family was worried about her sister-in-law, Mary*, and her children; a four year old, a two year old and a three week old. Mary’s husband was missing and presumed dead –that same second plane that hit the south tower of the World Trade Center had crashed directly into his office. She hoped we would be able to help the family as they coped with the tragedy and be available to work with the children. I assured her that we would do whatever we could and she said she would call back. The day brought more painful stories, sometimes with horror and miracles in equal measure. Later that afternoon we arranged an appointment for her relative and it was then that I finally thought to ask who it was that she lost– she answered that it was her brother who was missing, a fact I had never registered.
They came in the next morning. When I met Mary, her face and demeanor reflected the horror and strain of the past 48 hours. I am not sure I could even describe her features, so distorted were they from grief. She came wearing her husband’s clothing, not able to take them off, knowing they were as close to his touch as she would ever be again.
Mary told me, while crying, that she had told her husband to get out of the building, fast, but had not told him she loved him. I was lost with her, not knowing how to help. I knew she had a three week old baby and I asked her, as I would normally with parents of infants, to tell me what her baby was like. She sighed and talked about how hard her labor had been, sounding like every mother I had ever spoken with. Mary then said that while they had previously picked out a name for their son, in the delivery room she asked her husband if he would like to name this baby, his second son, after himself instead. Her husband, named after his own father, said that he would like that very much. I told Mary it seemed that she had remembered to tell her husband how much she loved him, and crying still, she agreed.
I saw Mary again three weeks later, when she came in with her four year old daughter. The post 9/11 world was just becoming real and Mary was exhausted and worried by her children’s endless questioning about where Daddy was. Charlotte, four years old, was an articulate and energetic little girl who wasted no time telling me that her daddy died in a fire and would I like to hear about the dream she had about a fire. She played with the toys and was full of imaginative play, charm and curiosity and told me she had a baby brother who got bigger every day. Mary knew that I was enchanted by her daughter and said, smiling, “She is pretty amazing and I have another one like that at home.” We spoke about her two year old son and his precocious language skills and the newborn who was nursing constantly. We talked about plans for the future, nursery school and dance lessons, and where to look for part time work. As we spoke I could see in Mary the outline of the person she had been before September 11th, and the strength she was reclaiming for herself and her children.
Every person I speak with, every parenting group I lead, every colleague who calls, every conversation this past month has been a stumbling attempt to make sense of the events around us. Each day there is a painful reminder that things will never be the same. And through it all, I have been struck by a selfish thought–in the work with families and their babies I am witness to, and the recipient of, the hope and promise that these young children bring.
In this unbearably frightening time, with so many families struck by sorrow and devastation, terrified and uncertain, the babies seem to lead us, to push us all, to be strong, to stay loving, to build a future. These miraculous little magicians will bring out the best that is possible in all of us.
*Names have been changed
A previous version of this article was published in Zero to Three, January: 2002.