My dad is flawed like we all are, and I can’t say that I fully understood who he was until I became a father. My dad was rough when I was a kid. He yelled a lot and showed very little emotion, which was hard for me because I was a very emotional kid. In all honesty, I am still a very emotional kid, now I’m just bigger. My dad worked hard for a living and he always expected us to help him when he worked on our house. Working with him was usually unpleasant, especially when all I wanted to do was go outside and play with my friends. Not until I was older did I realize that he demanded a lot of himself and he worked best alone, although at times he needed my help, which made for some unpleasant working conditions. The expectations he had for himself, and the level of stress he put on his body while working seemed unrealistic and unnecessary. He rarely took breaks and he could not rest until he had accomplished his goal. Unfortunately I too work in a similar manner, which makes me also very unpleasant to be around while working on my house (something I am actively working on). I always prefer to work alone and I cannot stand when I have to ask for help, which I acknowledge is self-destructive and just stupid.
Even though working with my dad was so unpleasant, some of my fondest memories of my dad were when we worked together because we were building something together. Every time I visit my parents and climb the stairs in their house I am reminded that I helped my dad build those stairs. A memory that stands out in my mind was when I was around 8 years old and he was repairing the ceiling of the bathroom in the store he owned. He was standing on the top rung of an old shaky wood ladder with a mouthful of black screws. He was also holding up a 4 foot by 5 foot piece of drywall with one hand so that he could screw the board into place using the stainless steel screw gun that he had in his other hand. This was a terrifying sight, but also amazing because my dad looked like a monster. My father is barely 5’ 5’’ and is fairly small in stature so the fact that he was able to do this astonished me. His arms were shaking furiously and he was yelling for me to untangle the extension cord as he put a single screw in the board to temporarily hold it in place. I remember wondering why he didn’t ask for any help holding the board up, although I really don’t know what I could have done at 8 years old.
Seeing my dad constantly pushing himself to these extremes removed my governor and increased my threshold for physical stress. After having grown tired of being the chubby kid in middle school I took a great interest in my health and my physique in high school. I loved running and lifting weights all throughout high school and college, but I had zero interest in organized sports. When I was a kid I was short, fat and the butt of people’s jokes, especially when cute girls were around. I wore sweatpants, easily got out breath and I was a complete marshmallow. I was the kid who instantly got hit in the face with a dodge ball the second the gym teacher blew the whistle. I hated sports because I had zero desire to compete with other people, and I never felt the need to be part of a team. I much preferred to challenge myself even in the smallest of ways and I attribute this to my dad always pushing me. When I was in the 8th grade I used to walk to my friend David’s house every morning so that we could walk together to catch the bus for school. I used to time myself every single day and I constantly tried to improve on my time. Thinking back on this I probably looked nuts. I was a 12 year old kid staring intently into a Casio watch while speed walking through the neighborhood without lifting my head. After a while I even had the street lights timed so I didn’t have to stop at the cross walks. I remember one night I came home from school and I told my dad that I walked to David’s house in less than 8 minutes and I was completely overjoyed. I don’t think my dad even said anything when I told him. This was the norm.
Looking back on it now, it was definitely hard growing up with a dad who was emotionally disconnected. I used to think it was me and that I was doing something wrong. I thought that I was too emotional and that I had to repress certain emotions, which became something I had to deal with later on in life. Not until my mid twenties did I realize that it’s not good to bottle up your emotions. I learned that I should work on dealing with them in a positive and constructive way, like meditation, therapy, or writing in a journal, which led me to discover my love for writing. Although my dad was not emotionally present, he was always there for me physically. My dad would be there for me no matter what in any type of situation, but unfortunately at the time I did not see the value in this because he was so emotionally distant. I couldn’t rely on him to console me over a failed test, a broken heart, or even just a bad day at school, but his physical presence was a guarantee. He was always there for sports games, camping trips and he always spent time with me at home. I think subconsciously he knew he couldn’t be there for me emotionally, so he always tried to be there for me physically, which I realized later in life was his way of showing me how much he loved me.
On the morning September 11th 2001, I went to school like any other day. The school year had just started and I was a 16 year old Sophomore in high school. Like most days, I did not want to go. I got off of the R train at Union Square that morning and made my way to school. Shortly after arriving at school I found myself sitting in second period English class reviewing vocabulary. My English teacher was going over vocabulary words for our upcoming PSAT exam. He was lecturing us on the importance of reading and practicing the material for the exam, which no one really seemed to care about. I could not have been less interested in learning words that I would never use, but I was terrified that he was going to notice that the spine of my book had not cracked. For sure he would know that I didn’t do the assignment. I forgot we had an assignment due and I didn’t want to get into trouble. During my momentary fear of being yelled at by a Jesuit Brother, all hell broke loose and in a moment the world seemed like it was ending. In comparison to what happened that morning, missing my homework suddenly didn’t seem all that important.
I don’t think I have to get much further into detail about the rest of that morning.
Teachers and kids were crying. There were the strongest athletes and bullies alike sobbing in the hallways. People were terrified. Teachers were anxiously consoling students while trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Students were hysterical, and for obvious reasons concerned about their families, just like I was. We were all reduced to mush and it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. An experience that I will absolutely never forget. When I was growing up I repeatedly heard stories from my family about tragedies like Pearl Harbor or the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These stories always began with anecdotes about where the people in my family were when these tragedies occurred. I could hear the passion in their voices and I could see sadness in their faces while they were talking about these events in history. I was fascinated by these stories, but I could not fully grasp the effect these events had on their lives. On 9/11, I unfortunately, like most people I know inherited a tragic story to tell also.
After that day, things were never the same. For the rest of my time at school I saw kids cry and have random outbursts over lost friends and family. There was a different tone set among my class and it still slightly haunts me to this day. We had all been brought down to our most vulnerable state and there was not a single person in my school who could say that they were not scared to death that day. Although I was scared I felt this sense of calm because I knew my dad worked in Manhattan, which thinking back on it now was kind of crazy of me. I knew he worked practically next door to the World Trade Center, but I thought my dad was tough as nails and that he could take care of himself. Initially none of the phones worked and people couldn’t get in touch with family. This made people even more uneasy as we sat in the library and waited. I remember some students tried to run out of the school and were stopped by faculty. No one knew exactly what was going on and bits and pieces of information were trickling into the school. After hours of trying, I somehow got in touch with my dad and it was the most comforting voice I could have heard. Thinking back on it now, it was the only voice I wanted to hear in that moment. Our conversation was brief and he said he would see me soon. He told me he had helped evacuate people from the second building and he was coming to get me so I should stay put.
Time that day was moving at warp speed and my head was swirling with confusion. I don’t think my mind was able to comprehend what was happening in that moment and even now it’s still so surreal. First off, I had no idea what a “terrorist attack” was. I remembered the first attack on the World Trade Center when I was a kid, but my understanding of the situation was minimal. Within a few hours after speaking to my dad I was called to the front of the school by security and my father was standing there covered from head to toe in dust and ash. His face was painted white with dust and he looked exhausted. He was wearing denim overalls and an orange hard hat. A funny thing I noticed was that he still had his wood folding rule in his side pocket, just in case he needed to measure something. When I saw him I felt my chest tighten and then release. I guess I did not realize how nervous I actually was.
He asked me if I was ready to leave and we were on our way. Our walk home was scary at times, but for the most part it was surprisingly peaceful. We talked a lot as we walked down a vacant Broadway. The scene was eerie, but even in chaos there was a calmness about it. There was no telling what was to come after the attack on the World Trade Center that morning, but it didn’t seem to matter to me because I was with my dad. We walked over 5 miles home and stopped along the way to get something to drink and we just talked and talked and talked. I have no idea what we talked about, but I remember people being so pleasant to one another as we wove our way through the boroughs. Never in my life had I seen so much good come of something to atrocious. People were holding hands and embracing in the street while they tried to digest this horrible tragedy which was still going on. That day had a profound impact on the way I viewed my dad. I saw that he did not speak with his words, he spoke with his actions. I realized that although he was limited in the emotional support he could give me, he always made me feel like someone had my back, because he always did.
I look back at that day and I think about how my view of my dad changed for the better as a result of something so horrible occurring. It initially concerned me that 9/11 was such a crucial point in my relationship with my dad because of all the loss and horrible things that came as a result to that day. It saddened me because I did not want positive memories of my dad to be tied to such a terrible tragedy, but I have learned that it defined who my father was for me and I have made peace with that. As a result of my discovery, I also realized that this is the way my dad shows love and affection for others as well. When we are kids I think that we think of our parents as existing only in a vacuum. Not until we are older do we realize that they have their own lives and that they are part of so many other people’s lives as well. I recently went to my dad’s retirement party and there was a man there who who was in tears. He told me that my father was always there for him, the same way that my dad was always there for me.
I currently work in lower Manhattan. My office is located not too far from where the World Trade Center was rebuilt and also my dad’s old job. I went for a walk during lunch a few weeks ago and I passed by where my dad used to work. As I walked by the front of the building a feeling of sadness and vulnerability came over me that I did not anticipate at all. These feelings struck me as odd. I am an adult now and I am more self reliant than I was when I 16, but in that moment I felt alone. I guess subconsciously knowing that he worked in the area all of those years brought me a sense of security without me even knowing it. I also often wonder if the experience of 9/11 had any residual effect on me. This is who my dad was for me my whole life even when I was unaware of it. Now having kids of my own, this is the type of person I want to be for my children. Some people have a guardian angel, but my kids will instead have a guardian bulldog, like I did growing up. I absolutely want to be much more emotionally supportive and present for my children as well, but I always want to bring them a sense of safety and security. I want my children to know that I would go to the end of the earth for them too, just like my dad always did for me.