Life goes on

On the second Father's Day since Sept. 11, 2001, those who lost a family member talk about their progress and the challenges that remain.

What a difference a year makes.

Last June, nine months after her husband boarded American Airlines Flight 11 in Bos-ton one brilliant September morning in 2001 and never returned, Susan Retik wondered how she and her three young children would get through Father's Day. She feared it could potentially be the most difficult day of the year for them.

Then she devised a plan. To honor her husband - a runner - and the other fathers lost on Sept. 11, 2001, she established the Dave Retik Father's Day 5K Fun Run. The charitable event drew more than 1,000 people.

It also raised $45,000 for the Retik Mello Foundation, which supports education and athletics.

"It was just an incredible event," Mrs. Retik says, sitting at her kitchen table as sunlight dances across the yellow- flowered tablecloth. "There was a buzz in the air. There was just this unbelievable feeling of community warmth. It was awesome."

So awesome, in fact, that she is repeating the run this year.

For families who lost fathers and husbands in the terrorist attacks, Father's Day brings a rush of emotions. Once an occasion for gifts and hugs, it is now defined by absence and memories.

Families measure progress

Yet as the second post-Sept. 11 Father's Day approaches on Sunday, some family members, like Retik, find themselves reflecting not just on loss, but also on the progress they've made.

"Last year I was a crazy maniac person," Retik says, explaining how she threw herself into a frenzy of activities to distract her from unyielding sorrow.

This year, life is calmer. Tears still flow, but she needs fewer boxes of tissues. Daughter Dina, born two months after the tragedy, is 18 months old, romping happily with 5-year-old Ben and 3-year-old Molly. Ben even designed the T-shirts for this year's run.

Marie Downey of Deer Park, N.Y., who lost her father, Deputy Fire Chief Raymond Downey, in the World Trade Center attack, offers a similar perspective. "Last year I was in a fog," she says in a phone conversation. "This year we're more focused."

Like Retik, Ms. Downey and her four siblings organized a Father's Day memorial 5K run last year, a tradition they are continuing this year. It serves as a tribute to their father and a way to thank the community for its support after Chief Downey died when the second tower collapsed. Ironically, he had written books on how to survive building collapses.

Downey expects Sunday's race, called "Forever Running," to draw an even larger crowd than it did last year, when nearly 1,000 people took part. Proceeds will benefit scholarship and charitable funds established in Chief Downey's name.

She speaks lovingly about the qualities her father expressed. "He worked three jobs to raise five kids. He didn't even get a chance to retire." Describing him as "very humble" and "very religious, very spiritual," she adds, "Everybody just loved him. He was the first person you'd call if you were in trouble. Neighborhood kids called him Uncle Ray. He always knew what to do."

After the run is finished, 19 members of their immediate family will gather at her mother's house. "We'll reminisce," Downey says. "We'll be together and know he's around us."

Some people who lost relatives may face unexpected challenges this Sunday, cautions Laurie Wurm, who leads a Sept. 11 support group at All Saints Episcopal Church in Hoboken, N.J.

"Last Father's Day, everything hadn't sunk in," she says. "Now it has." Denial has given way to reality and finality.

Memories can also appear unexpectedly. "You walk into a supermarket and you pass your partner's favorite kind of fruit," Ms. Wurm says. "Or their favorite song comes on the radio."

People outside the family, she finds, often expect those who are grieving to do so "in a linear way," growing steadily better each day. But Wurm sees grief as "kind of cyclical," explaining, "You have days where you feel really good, and days where you feel like you're back at square one. You do want to feel you have your new identity intact, standing on solid ground."

"Good days and bad days" is the way Judy Troy describes life without her husband, Willie, who was killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. A retired Army staff sergeant, he worked there as a civilian program analyst. The Troys were high school sweethearts who had been married 30 years.

For Mrs. Troy, of Fayetteville, N.C., little has changed since last Father's Day. She describes her workdays as a budget analyst at Fort Bragg as "usually pretty good." The hardest moment comes at 8 p.m., "the time his key was always turning in the door." She would have dinner waiting, and the couple would talk about the day's activities.

When their daughter, ReNee, was growing up, Father's Day was "a big deal around our house, observed as though it was Christmas all over again," Troy recalls. ReNee made cards, and they bought gifts.

"She was a daddy's girl," Troy continues. "She and I were always close, but there was that daddy thing. Now I don't know what to say to her sometimes. I know she's hurting, but she's a strong young woman."

Holding on to memories

This Sunday, Troy, with her 10-year-old granddaughter, Jasmine, will place a flower on her husband's grave, as they did last year. They have a house in the country outside Whiteville, N.C., and he is buried behind it, near a pond. "It's so peaceful there," she says quietly.

For her daughter, ReNee Troy-Mebane, a business manager at a bank in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday will be a day of reflection. She recalls the happy times she and her father spent fishing, shopping, and talking.

She also remembers with fondness the Mighty Mouse mugs she and her third-grade classmates painted for Father's Day. But alas, her father put his in the dishwasher, and the colors ran. Even so, he kept it as a memento of his daughter's love.

Now, all these Father's Days later, the mug remains in her mother's home, a reminder of the close relationship that existed between a doting father and his only child.

Acutely aware of her father's absence, Ms. Troy-Mebane is making a point this week of telling friends and colleagues to call their fathers on Sunday.

"I'm like the reminder police," she says with a laugh.

Then, growing serious, she adds, "It's not promised that there'll be another Father's Day for you to even speak to your dad or send him a card. You just have to take advantage of every opportunity you have to spend with your family members, or tell them you love them."

Troy-Mebane also derives peace from knowing that she and her father left nothing unresolved. "I don't have any regrets or anything I wish I had said or done," she says. She urges others not to hold grudges or leave arguments unsettled.

"The best way you could celebrate Father's Day is to let all of that go. You may never have a chance to make it right. You plan for tomorrow, but make sure you live for today."

Fathers who lost an adult child on Sept. 11 will also confront memories and emotions this Sunday. Matt Sellitto's 23-year-old son, Matthew, was the youngest victim at Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. Asked if this Father's Day will be easier than last year, Mr. Sellitto, of Harding Township, N.J., replies firmly, "No. Not even a little bit."

He and his wife and their younger son will observe the day as they always did with Matthew. They will attend church, then play golf and have dinner.

"He'll be with us the whole day," Sellitto says on the phone, his voice breaking. The family scattered ashes from ground zero on the 12th green at their golf club, in honor of Matthew.

"He loved that hole so much," Sellitto explains.

A challenging day

For some children, this week brings challenges, too. Claudette Greene of Greenwich, Conn., who lost her husband, Donald, on Sept. 11 in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, has two children, 11 and 8.

"Father's Day is a day they would prefer to have erased from the calendar, especially when they're asked in school to create special tokens for that day," Mrs. Greene says in an e-mail.

In the Boston area, two widows who, like Retik, were pregnant when their husbands died on Sept. 11, will join Retik in Sunday's run. Patti Quigley of Wellesley, Mass., gave birth to her second daughter a month after the tragedy, when her husband, Patrick, was killed in the crash of United Airlines Flight 175. Their baby, Leah, is now 19 months, and Rachel is 7.

Calling last Father's Day "traumatic," Mrs. Quigley says that she and the children are now doing well. But, she adds, "We're also learning to live with a certain sadness without Patrick around."

She often shows the girls family photos and tells them, "Daddy did this, and Daddy did that."

Haven Fyfe, of Brookline, Mass., learned the day before Sept. 11 that she was four weeks pregnant - news she happily shared with her husband, Karleton. He died the next day on Flight 11. Their baby, Parker, celebrated his first birthday last month. Her other son, Jackson, is 3 years old.

Life gets better

For her part, Mrs. Fyfe recalls last Father's Day as "excruciating" and "terrible." Attending Retik's Fun Run helped, offering a distraction and giving the day a focus. "It was a way of acknowledging my husband," she says.

This year everything feels different to her, and better.

"It feels like we're 'power women' out there," Fyfe says. "I've just conquered another year of figuring out not only parenting two children, but doing it on my own." That includes managing the family finances, which her husband had always handled.

Her son Jackson was only a year old when his father was killed and has no memory of him.

"I try and talk about Daddy a lot, but he can't really even pick him out of a picture," Fyfe says. "The concept of Daddy in our house is very confusing. They'll figure it out one day."

Those who have made progress in the past year in dealing with grief say that the support they have received from families, friends, and communities has been essential. "This is not a process you can do alone," Retik says. She and others find that the passage of time helps, too.

As Retik puts the finishing touches on details for Sunday's race and walk, she reflects on the past year. Noting that her children are fine, she says, "I do think I've done a good job of keeping life normal and consistent. I still take them to the circus. We go to soccer and gymnastics."

For herself, there are karate classes three or four times a week, an activity she calls a lifesaver and a needed outlet. Every other week, she attends a support group for 9/11 families.

Retik and Quigley are also establishing a foundation to help women in Afghanistan.

Still, some aspects of life have grown more difficult.

"Dave seems so distant in some ways," she says softly. "It seems a lifetime ago. I can't even imagine being married. On the other hand, I can make my brain think it was 30 seconds ago."

Sometimes she finds comfort in listening to a recording of his voice on her computer. But, she adds, "It makes me incredibly sad that it's harder to conjure up the whole idea of Dave being part of my life. I'm a single married person. What is that? I feel married. But I don't want to be alone."

Still, on this late spring afternoon, as birds sing in the backyard and a dog barks in the distance, Retik looks at her young family and smiles.

"In general, everything's gotten easier," she says as the children gather around the kitchen table, nibbling carrots. "We're in a routine. Before, I had a feeling we'd be OK. Now I know we're OK."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Life goes on
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today