September 06, 2006

Reporter's Notebook

9/11: Heroes Among Us

I last saw him the Saturday before 9/11. We passed outside the library after signing up our sons for soccer and said hello in the hurried way that parents do when their kids are chomping at the bit, eager to get moving, on to the movies, the video arcade, 7-Eleven for a Slurpee.

I asked him how his wife, who was expecting her fourth child any day, was feeling. "She's nesting," he said, a huge smile on his face; she'd had him busy painting, readying their home for their new arrival. When I asked if they knew, yet, whether the baby was a boy or a girl, his smile widened. "No," he said. "We want it to be a surprise."

I sent my love to his wife and we moved on, down the street to embark upon our busy days and all manner of back-to-school errands.

I never saw him again.

He was a New York City firefighter, lost, as were so many of his brothers, in the raging inferno of hatred that engulfed the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

When we first moved to the East End, his son was the first to invite my son, Billy, over for a playdate. And, when we got to their house, he patiently showed my son his fireman's uniform, complete with big, heavy boots – boots he let my son try on for size.

The Tuesday morning of 9/11 dawned a blissfully beautiful day marked by blue skies and seemingly endless sunshine. My son was in fourth grade, and I'd just gotten home with the dog after walking him to the bright yellow school bus.

Settling back with the newspaper to check the travel section – a friend and I had flirted with the idea of booking our families on flights to Mexico during winter break – I turned on the television for background noise.

I wasn't listening to the news reports, not really, when the announcers stopped talking about primary day and the polls and announced with urgency that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Although I was working for a New York-based publishing company at the time, it was my day to work from home, so my only thoughts were those of relief that I didn't have to face a commute marred by any delays the accident might have sparked.

Even when the phone rang and I greeted a colleague frantic with worry and fear, I didn't understand – not yet. Didn't realize that life as we knew it had ended forever.

But then I turned up the volume on the TV and saw the Twin Towers, those familiar beacons of light, hope, and prosperity, collapse in a cloud, bringing down with them the lives of thousands whose hopes and dreams and futures spiraled into that achingly blue September sky.

We didn't learn until later that he had been there that day. Not scheduled to work on 9/11, he'd gone in to cover another shift. And, when the planes struck, he'd donned those big fireman's boots and set about doing what he and so many others did naturally, heading into the heat of the moment with their huge hearts and heroes' bravery to fight for all that is good about the human spirit.

In the bleak, gray days after 9/11, his wife carried on, giving birth and going on to raise her children with love, dignity, and infinite grace. Faced with such unthinkable tragedy, I would have crawled under the covers, crippled by grief and anger. But she is at every soccer game, every school awards ceremony. She is there, for her children – for her husband. And her unerring strength is steadfast testimony to the love they shared. A love that not even the monsters who masterminded 9/11 could destroy.

I have never told her this, but while her husband is lauded for bravery, the man whose face flashes across the screen during every memorial tribute, she, too, is my hero. When he lost his life on that grim day five years ago, he left behind those big fireman's boots to fill. And, just as my son stepped into those boots so long ago, she has stepped into the path of her husband's footsteps and carried on his legacy of love, lighting the way for her children and protecting their path.

Somewhere, he must be so proud.

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