Unspoken Heroes: What It's Like To Grow Up With A Parent Who Survived 9/11
Thirteen years ago, my family, alongside all of America, fell to the feet of the traumatic events of September 11. On September 11, 2001, my dad went off to do some business downtown; my father had been in law enforcement for just about 25 years at this time, and had recently retired.
On this day, he had papers to drop off at various points in Manhattan. His first stop that morning was the Twin Towers and his appointment was at 8:30 am. Naturally, my father was right on time, which made it easier for him to chat with his buddy.
He left the towers just minutes before American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. The events of what happened after that — what my father truly did and saw — are things I don’t think he’ll ever let me know.
What I do know is that from that point on, my dad had changed.
I also know that he took his pain and turned it into strength to help 70 families. He helped them receive funds from the Knights of Columbus to cover various, unplanned costs that 9/11 caused. He was even featured in a book called, "By Their Works," for his dedication.
However, my dad still doesn’t understand why: Why did he lose so many friends? Why couldn’t he help his friends? Why wasn’t it him? For the past 13 years, he has been trying to figure it out.
What my father doesn’t realize is that even though I’m now 26 and my sister is 31, he is still our hero — not because he’s our dad, but because he’s the hero to 70 families. He’s our hero because he fights every day to understand that unspeakable day and because he has never once asked for sympathy or something in return for what he went through.
When I look in my dad’s eyes, I see sadness — especially when 9/11 annually approaches. I see confusion, but more than anything, I see him fighting; I see his strengths even when he thinks they are weaknesses. My family wishes he could see what we see in him.
To think that there was a chance that I could have lost my father that day is an unbearable thought — but to see him feel remorseful for surviving makes me feel insane. Here's what I wish to say to him:
How do I put in words how much you mean to our family? How do we show you just how proud we are of you and all that you've accomplished? We need to know how we can show you that it’s okay that YOU survived. Well, to be honest, this is the only way I know how:
Thirteen years ago seems like yesterday. I walked outside of my intermediate school to pure chaos. Normally, I was used to the chaos, but that day, for the first time, I felt panic. No one would tell us what was happening or why there was so much commotion.
Everyone was going so fast and I was standing still. Mommy picked me up and tried her best to stay calm for me and Gina, and Gina was trying to explain to me what was happening. The only thing that consistently went through my head was: “Where is my dad?” I blocked out a lot of that day — I don’t even know how long it took you to get home. All I know is that you did. You were one of the lucky ones.
If there is anything about you I know to be true, it's that I know you HATE being considered “a lucky one.” If there is something else I know about you, it’s how paranoid you are about being on time (I get that from you). You had other places to be on that beautiful day. You had other duties.
Daddy, you dropped the papers off and started off to your next destination. You weren't destined to be in the towers for longer than you needed to be.
I need for you to stop trying to figure out why you couldn’t save more people or why you couldn’t meet your friend outside to drop off the papers. I need you to stop trying to figure out why you survived. I need you to STOP feeling guilty for surviving.
There is not one thing any of us can change about that day. As much as you feel you could have done more, you did all you could do. You were a hero.
When will you realize that you helped 70 families with your work with the Knights of Columbus? Dad, 70 families with which you still keep in contact; 70 families that you helped to get through this horrific event; 70 families that still rely on YOU. Do you remember what you said to the man conducting your interview for "By Their Works?" I do. You said,
It was part of the calling for some reason. Knowing many of the men that were killed, it hit home. It hit home big time.
I wish you could remember that this is why you survived.
Always remember that you have gone above and beyond in everything you have done. You taught me how to fight just by being you, by being strong.
I love you, Daddy, forever and a day, around the world and back again.
We tend to forget the strength of the survivors of 9/11. They have more going through their heads than the rest of us could ever imagine. It’s something we can never figure out, but family members must be a source of strength for survivors since the survivors were the strength for so many.
I went to many memorials that year and watched family friends remember their loved ones. I watched families cry on my dad’s shoulder. He remained their strength — and I will continuously remain his.
Photo Courtesy: Teresa Valerio