Facing their Fears

Forty grown-ups are sitting with their knees squeezed against their chests, their adult frames tucked into elementary-school lunch tables. These are the moms and dads of some of the kids who fled P.S. 234 in TriBeCa on September 11. They’re inside the cafeteria at P.S. 41 in the West Village on a brisk Wednesday morning. The lunch tables are arranged in a U, suggesting a big hug. At the open end of the hug, perched on a tiny chair, is Dr. Bruce Arnold, a psychologist.

At first, Arnold tries to steer the group into a discussion about the emotional pros and cons of returning to the cleaned-up TriBeCa building. The 650 displaced students have been squeezed into their substitute surroundings at P.S. 41 for more than two weeks now. But there are too many raw fears to channel the conversation for long. Questions come so fast, and from so many emotional angles, that it feels as if Arnold is defending a dissertation.

“My daughter … ” a tall woman says tentatively. “The questions just suddenly pop out: ‘Did those people who jumped land on a trampoline?’ How do I answer that?”

There’s a collective deep breath. A second mom interjects, “My son thinks they skateboarded down to safety.”

My pen stops moving. Several days ago, my 5-year-old son, Jack, looked up from his breakfast bagel. We’d been talking about the slugs in our Brooklyn backyard when Jack asked why people jumped out of the World Trade Center, even though my wife, Lisa, and I had flipped the TV channel when there’d been any hint of those scenes, even though I’d immediately tossed out the newspapers with photos of jumpers. So now I’m paying attention to Arnold’s answer – as a reporter and a father.

“You don’t want to be overly reassuring, especially if you have a daughter who’s almost 12 and has a good b.s. detector.”

“Right now it’s not about facts,” Arnold says. “Kids want to know if people can survive, if people can be okay when something bad happens. And we need to reinforce that. People did escape from the building. It is possible to be okay. Listen for the piece of the thing where they want to be reassured. If your child is really into skateboards, tell them that some people found a way to use a piece of the building to skate down to the ground. Or, sure, tell them they landed on a trampoline.”

Trampolines? Skateboards? I don’t want a 5-year-old thinking he can jump out a window any time he wants. I’d told Jack that those people were very, very scared because they were on fire and they thought jumping was the only way to get away from the flames. I asked him, “What happens if a person jumps out a window?” Jack chewed some bagel.

“You get hurt,” he said. My heart resumed beating.

But now Arnold’s advice has my doubts churning again: Had I reassured Jack enough?

Several dozen questions later, an energetic mother named Linda Lakhdhir raises her hand. “Our difficult time has always been when my son is going to sleep,” she says. “Daniel is 9, and he’d occasionally ask if we were safe, if anything could happen to us. And I’d always tell him, ‘Yes, we’re protecting you.’ “

Lakhdhir isn’t naïve – she was a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn – but she’s always been optimistic. “The only time I didn’t feel sure I could say everything would be all right was that Tuesday night,” she says. “The question went away for a while. Now Daniel is back to ‘Can anything happen to us? Could this happen again?’ I’m back to saying, ‘No, we’re fine, we’re safe.’ “

She pauses. Then she sums up the terror that’s haunting parental minds. “But in my own heart,” she says, “I know that’s not true.”

We all start with a disclaimer. We are lucky. Those of us who have not suffered a direct, tragic loss know that none of our problems comes close to the awful pain inflicted on the families of those who died or were injured at the World Trade Center. In his book Hiroshima, John Hersey describes how the Japanese who lived through the World War II atomic bombings were careful not to refer to themselves as “survivors,” because its emphasis on being alive could slight the sacred dead. Instead, they called themselves hibakusha, which translates into the clinical-sounding “explosion-affected persons.”

Affected we are. New York families are confronting disturbing, impossible questions over dinner. We want to take comfort in the resilience of children. And if the worst was over on September 11, the short-term perspective that’s characteristic of childhood will help them bounce back fine. But we’re nagged by an adult understanding of time, and the fear that the days ahead hold dark surprises.

Daily anthrax alerts raise the tension. “My husband and I are trying really hard not to show our stress in front of our sons, and I think I’ve been doing well at that,” says Liz Willen, an education reporter at Bloomberg News whose 6-year-old, Damon, was evacuated from P.S. 150, on Greenwich Street, when the planes hit; Damon took refuge in the SoHo loft of his uncle, Murray Reich, and immediately began drawing pictures of the attack. “But on Friday,” Willen says, “when I found out Damon was stuck at his school because the subways were shut down and the baby-sitter couldn’t make it in from Brooklyn, I burst into tears in the middle of the office. I tried to think about the hundreds and hundreds of 6-year-olds and younger who’ve lost their parents in this. Damon is actually doing quite well, but I need to hold it together a little better.”

Many agree their kids saw and heard too much in those first few chaotic days. Everyone wonders about the effects of those memories. Consulting America’s slim history of terrorism provides little relief. “For the first few days in Oklahoma City, there was nothing on television except bombing-related stuff,” says Ed Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture, who wrote The Unfinished Bombing, a book analyzing the extended impact of Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 attack. “Life was not normal, so lots of preschool kids were watching television by themselves,” Linenthal says. “Kids in Oklahoma City were seeing images over and over and over again of the Murrah building. And each time they saw it on television, they thought it was a different, separate building that had been blown up.” To this day, kids in Oklahoma City kick the sides of new buildings before they enter.

Parents are also reeling from a fundamental disorientation: Perhaps we’ve been preparing our kids for the wrong world. Back on September 10, the economy was stumbling, but that was surely temporary. There was still an ease to life, a psychic expansiveness, that for many people had little to do with money. A child’s future seemed limited only by imagination or effort. The pervasive dangers of the early nineties, that your 13-year-old might be mugged coming home from school, had been tamed, if not eliminated. There were superheroes and villains, sure, but they lived only in X-Men cartoons. Good liberal parents fed their children the enlightened mantra that there’s no such thing as bad people, only bad behavior. But evil – the stark, Old Testament kind – entered the house on September 11 and must be explained. Coping with fear now dwarfs all other parental worries.

“I had thought, up until now, that we lived in an idyllic time insulated from history,” says Bill Grueskin, 48, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Online and the father of three daughters who’ve lost their home. “Now it’s clear that we don’t and that it was silly to think that we did. I feel like we’re in one of those great historical periods, sort of like in World War II, when you literally don’t know how the world is going to end up a couple of years from now. You don’t want to be overly reassuring, especially if, like us, you have a daughter who’s almost 12 and has a pretty good b.s. detector. What we used to think of as adversity now seems very mundane and banal.”

Three weeks into the new reality, I’m talking with my friend Phil, a father of four. He’s also a high-ranking cop. Phil is no alarmist, but he’s thinking seriously of moving out of Queens. “What if in six months, you’re standing in your living room watching Jack on the couch bleed uncontrollably from both his ears because some terrorist has sprayed a germ on the city?” he says. “And you’d had it in your power to leave town – wouldn’t you hate yourself forever?”

Maybe my steps into Jack’s bedroom were faster that night, but I was still a long way from fright. I’d spent days attending firefighters’ wakes and hours devouring stories about Osama bin Laden, but all that was work, the sadness and uncertainty processed through a journalist’s practiced distance. It’s near midnight as I’m standing over Jack’s bed. My beautiful boy is sleeping in his dinosaur pajamas, guarded by his cowboy-print curtains and his elephant pillows. And these are the words that flash into my brain: He wants to kill you.

In April 1995, Brian and Fran Boyd lived in Tulsa. They had one child in diapers and another in preschool; neither had any firsthand experience of the atrocity 100 miles southwest in Oklahoma City. The family moved east in 2000 when Brian, an ebullient Seattle native, got a job with an Internet company near Wall Street. Fran, a fiery Long Islander of Sicilian heritage, did months of legwork to find a comfortable two-bedroom, on the forty-second floor of Tribeca Pointe in Battery Park City. The kids’ bedroom had one wall made entirely of windows, providing a perfect view of the Twin Towers.

Fran had just dropped off Sarah, 9, and Brian Jr., 7, at P.S. 89, at the corner of Chambers and West Streets. She was on her way to breakfast with a friend at the World Trade Center when the first plane roared overhead. Fran dashed to the school, scooped up her kids, called her husband, and headed north, fast. From the West Side Highway, the kids saw the second fireball.

After a sleepless first night in a friend’s apartment, the Boyds have been living in a one-bedroom in the Trump Hotel on Columbus Circle, the bill paid for by their renters’ insurance. It took a fair amount of coaxing to get Sarah to go up to the tenth floor, though lately she’s been finding the good points in being a latter-day Eloise. “There’s a pool!” she says breathlessly. “And they have these little things in the bathtubs – how do you say it?” “A Jacuzzi,” Fran says.

When Sarah is out of earshot, Fran says her daughter still has rough moments. “She’s been crying at night,” Fran says. “She’s afraid that a plane is going to come through the windows.”

Brian applies logic. “I told her, ‘President Bush has the aircraft carriers out here, they’ve got planes flying, they’re on high alert, they’re really checking everything that’s going on, and if they think anything is out of the ordinary, they’re gonna be on top of it right away.’ “

“Also, we rely on our faith,” adds Fran. “We say, ‘God protected us. He protected us from those two attacks. He will continue to protect us.’ “

There’s nothing but blue skies and sun on this first Saturday afternoon in October. The Boyds have come back downtown for only the second time since the attacks, at the suggestion of a flier posted in the lobby of their old building informing them that Rockefeller Park, running south from Chambers Street along the Hudson River, has been cleaned up and reopened. “We’ll see all your park friends!” Fran says to her wary kids.

But the perfect fall weather heightens the eeriness of the scene. The Boyds are the only family in the park. They’re four out of maybe seven people anywhere in sight. Green placards are tied to the fences: the sandboxes have all been changed and cleaned! have fun! Brian checks out a purple-and-white soccer ball from the lonely attendant and kicks it around a few times with his son and daughter. A minute later, Sarah is climbing into her mother’s lap. “Every time I kick the ball, I feel like I’m gonna cry,” she says.

Brian and Fran, both 35, gently nudge their kids toward the playground. Brian Jr. is soon swinging from the monkey bars; Sarah alternates climbing and exploring with snuggling in between her parents. The park is as quiet as a graveyard.

With P.S. 89 serving as a disaster headquarters, Sarah and Brian Jr. have been wedged into P.S. 3 with two other schools. The parents of displaced P.S. 89 students watched with a mixture of fury and envy as the better-connected P.S. 234 parents won control of the brightly refurbished, easily accessible former St. Bernard’s on West 13th Street. Now the Board of Ed has given P.S. 89 a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum: It can split space with a junior high school on Avenue D that’s at least a fifteen-minute walk from the nearest subway. For two hours this morning, the Boyds debated home schooling.

Brian thinks about what the strains have done to their marriage. “We fight more,” he says.

“No!” Fran protests. “Only the last week.”

Sarah comes over, thirsty. “Where’s the water fountain?” she asks.

Her parents answer in unison, and a little too quickly: “Mommy has water!”

Handed a half-full bottle, Sarah has another question. “Mom,” she demands, “are you backwashing?” Finally there’s some laughter in the deserted park.

The kids drift off again. Lately, Brian tells Fran, he’s heard that an anguished friend of Sarah’s has been plucking out her eyelashes. Their son also startled him while walking down the street.

“Brian asked me the other day, ‘Is this World War III?’ “

“He did?” Fran says, alarmed.

“Yeah, I forgot to tell you,” Brian says. “I said, ‘No, World War III hasn’t happened yet, and hopefully it won’t, honey.’ “

Brian thinks returning to their apartment might help settle their nerves; Fran is skeptical about moving back downtown just yet. Brian sneaks in some low-key lobbying, and at the end of the afternoon she seems to be acquiescing. We walk back to Chambers Street, pausing to chat with two National Guardsmen by the Stuyvesant High School footbridge. “Look at the cool Army men!” Brian Jr. says.

A city bus passes, but it has no passengers and a grayish-yellow powder billows ominously in its wake. “They’re supposed to be hosing this down!” Brian shouts, his rebuilt hopes taking another hit. Fran clutches the winter coats she’s retrieved from her abandoned apartment. By the time we reach the subway, three blocks later, my eyes, nose, and throat feel as if we’ve been swimming in an Olympic-size pool filled with chalk. “Do you have any answers for us? I was hoping you had answers for us,” Fran says to me. “I wish somebody could make the decision for us, and we’ll be sheep and follow.”

All I can manage is a stammer. Later, I recall something Ed Linenthal, the Oklahoma City expert, told me. “If we know anything about the impact on wider communities, it’s that there’s a new self to be built out of incorporating these events. There is no old self to go back to.”

Don Schuck has found solace in soccer. His boys played on a Battery Park City field that’s since been paved over for the use of emergency vehicles, so Schuck and other downtown parents threw themselves into finding three alternate locations for the 650 junior booters. “I don’t think any of the kids view the world with the same kind of doom and gloom that parents do,” he says. “All they want to do is hang out with their friends.” Nevertheless, Schuck bought his son Willie a cell phone and briefed him on what to do in case “something happens” while the 13-year-old is riding the subway to school. “It’s the kind of conversation you’d maybe have a little bit when they first start traveling by themselves,” Schuck says. “But not with the same kind of urgency you have now.”

Shino Tanikawa has found herself reviewing how she was raised. “In Japan, we all read books that are written for children but have some really graphic descriptions of what it was like to walk through the sea of dead and mutilated people after bombings,” says the 38-year-old marine scientist. She doesn’t expect her 6-year-old daughter, who attends a Hudson Street elementary school, to be exposed to the same bracing truth. “At home, my parents were straight without being too scary,” Tanikawa says. “I grew up hearing stories about how in the middle of the night, they had to get up and go underground to the shelter. They didn’t paint this pretty picture of the world. They knew just how much to give me, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

She’s also trying to steer her daughter, Cai, in her own pacifist direction. “I’m not as worried about what she saw and heard regarding the World Trade Center,” Tanikawa says. “The bigger influence might be what my husband and I do as a follow-up to the event. There was a peace march, and I took my daughter, so she had her first exposure to an antiwar march. If we continue to participate in those kinds of things, it will probably have an influence on who she’s going to be. At this one, she thought it was funny that people were chanting and singing.”

In Maplewood, New Jersey, Abby Cotler still has her home; her 17-year-old son is still attending Columbia High School, where Cotler is co-president of the PTA. Cotler finds hope in the openness of parents who, like her, were raised in the fifties and sixties, often by adults who said “Everything’s fine” and left it at that. “This generation is much more open to discussing things,” Cotler says. “We make a point of it. And we want him to know we’re here to listen to what he thinks and feels, too.”

But the tentacles of the ongoing trauma have touched Cotler’s suburban family. “I was talking to my husband today about how the view of the world our kids are inheriting has changed. I feel bad for them; I always thought they were in a world where they felt completely safe. And I don’t even know if they realize how different it is. I always thought they could never comprehend the world we grew up in – with Vietnam, the civil-rights movement, air-raid drills, the fear when Kennedy was killed. If anything, it’s made them grow up a little. But I’d rather it hadn’t happened so fast.”

Cotler’s son Ezie has planned for years to attend West Point. “About a week before this happened, my mother was talking about how she was worried about going to war,” Ezie says. “I promised we wouldn’t get into a war. Part of me is afraid, but part is kinda psyched up about it.” He’s applying early-admission, with a goal of joining the Army’s Special Forces.

A friend of Sarah’s has been plucking out her own eyelashes. And Sarah’s younger brother asked, “Is this World War III?”

“Well,” Abby Cotler says, after a long, slow exhale, “I understand it and I respect him for it. It’s honorable and I’m proud of him for it. It made me nervous before. But now I’m also very scared. I mean, I’m his mother.”

She was ambitious and curious in all the ways you’d want your 16-year-old daughter to be. Michael Ruiz enjoyed tutoring the Manhasset High School junior for her SATs. So he was startled by the visible change. “She was very lethargic,” Ruiz says. “The subject of the tragedy came up, and she said, ‘What’s the difference? We’re going to die anyway, either from chemicals or nuclear war.’ You could see this girl meant it. She had no interest in doing SAT work.”

Dr. Robin Gurwitch is familiar with this scenario. A clinical psychologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Gurwitch, together with her colleague Dr. Betty Pfefferbaum, has spent six years studying children caught in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. “In the short term, particularly in adolescents, you see more high-risk-taking behaviors,” Gurwitch says, “whether that’s drinking or substance abuse or driving fast. Or there’s more concern that the future’s not going to be there, so why not just kill myself now?”

And the medium term? “Six years out, we still see kids with nightmares,” Gurwitch says. “The aftermath has been very protracted. And we were dealing with a discrete event in Oklahoma City, not the ongoing stuff you’ve got in New York.”

Given her expertise, surely Gurwitch feels capable of handling the future facing her 11-year-old daughter? She laughs. “You mean,” she says, “as I’m sitting here writing a proposal to study the effects of bioterrorism on children?”

So here I am on yet another bright-blue autumn afternoon, vibrating with nerves. I’m standing in an elementary-school courtyard waiting for dismissal. I’ve come here from the magazine’s offices, two blocks from NBC, where the mayor has just held a press conference announcing the anthrax infection of Tom Brokaw’s assistant. “You heard what’s going on at the Times?” asked a colleague rushing down the hallway. “Now the target is media companies?” asked another. At about this time, I’m not proud to admit, I called my doctor asking for a Cipro prescription. The last thing I heard before leaving the office: “The hospitals are supposed to be on alert for a sarin-gas attack in the subway.”

It was a long F-train ride to Windsor Terrace. I’m wondering how to phrase it: Should I tell Jack that “bad germs hurt some people today”? Because Jack, like all kids, is an emotional seismograph. They see us glancing up at passing planes. Jack will hear, somewhere – soon – about anthrax, and I want to minimize the confusion. I think about his friend Toby, who has somehow tangled up his grandfather’s death from cancer with the World Trade Center attack, telling Jack that Grandpa died in the fire at the towers.

Now Jack is hugging my legs and handing me his new collages. I open my briefcase to stash them inside. What does Jack spot amid the clump of papers and notebooks and tapes? A blue surgical mask. “In case I have to go write a story in a place where there’s dirty air,” I mumble.

Maybe this is my opening. I’ll explain away the anthrax in just the right casual tone. But Jack has other plans. It’s hot and bells are jingling across the street. An ice cream truck. “Sure,” I say. “Have whatever you want.”

Facing their Fears