Of the many mental pictures that remain of the vicious attack on the World Trade Center, one has stood out for me. It was of a young woman, six months pregnant, who was desperately searching for her husband with a wedding photo. His office was located on the upper floors of the South Tower. The personal tragedy that these innocent victims experienced and the strength and moral courage they exhibited will stay with me always.
Don’t Hang Up!
In the New York suburb of Yonkers twelve year old Kevin Strothers was already working on his English assignment for the next day. It was early September and there would be no holiday to celebrate the day off school while his teachers participated in their professional development activities. His mother, Allison, was in her bedroom preparing for her business trip. He glanced out his window at the early morning sun and the yard with the remnants of Sunday’s family reunion. Some of the balloons were still bouncing in the breeze while others had shriveled into a knot of plastic.
The reunion had been a yearly event ever since Kevin could remember. It was good to see his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The only downside was that he found it difficult to relate to his grandmother Strothers. She was always weepy and had been, even before the loss of her husband the previous year. He often caught her looking at him and, when their eyes locked, she would burst into tears. His mother explained that he reminded his grandmother of her own son, his father. She asked him to be patient and understanding.
Allison Strothers had been planning the reunion for weeks. She spent long hours at her satellite brokerage office in mid-town Manhattan. Although she loved her job, she was determined that Kevin would not suffer the working mother plague. It was hard for her when she lost her husband. She was six months pregnant with Kevin. The memories of the brutal and tragic happening, even now, often overwhelmed her. As a safeguard, she learned early on to force herself to think of Kevin and devote herself totally to his well being. She had to fill his needs as both mother and father, but the strain was beginning to get her down.
Kevin was used to his mother’s pampering and accepted it, even though he felt uncomfortable at times. He knew she worried about him and so, in his way, he tried to be the perfect son. He wasn’t the only student at school with one parent, but the other single moms and dads were often not single too long. In fact, Terry’s mom had married twice since he and Terry had met three years before, and recently Terry informed him that dad number 3 was on his way out. It wasn’t much different with his classmates’ fathers. Sean’s dad had split with his mom. One afternoon, while Kevin was hanging out with Sean, his dad had broken down and sobbed at the break-up of his marriage. Young Kevin was embarrassed and didn’t know how to react. Two months later Sean’s dad was heavily involved with someone else. It was time, Kevin wondered why his mother didn’t date. She was an attractive woman.
Allison Strothers was thirty three, poised, confident and a money market broker in the same firm her husband had been with. Today she was on her way to a Chicago business meeting to finalize a merger with another firm. She glanced at her watch. Plenty of time, even for the enhanced security at the airport. She scrambled with last minute briefcase checklist. The merger documentation, Palm, notebook computer and cell phone. Everything in place except the cell phone. She retrieved it from the side table and, as she turned, she heard the cab honk in the driveway. Distracted, she dropped the cell on the bed, where it slid off and onto the carpet on the far side. She walked to the door and called down to her son.
“Kevin, let the cab driver know we heard him. I’ll be right down.” She quickly collected her business tools, snapped the briefcase shut and walked out the room after checking her attire one last time. “Lunch is in the refrigerator. Soup – use the small pot. Sandwiches – ham and tomato in the crisper. And milk – no soft drinks,” she said, emphasizing the “no”. I’ll see you about six tonight. How about Mario’s Trattoria for supper? On his agreement, she kissed him and was out the door at 7:30.
It was exactly one hour and forty five minutes later when Kevin heard the distinctive ring of his mom’s cell phone. That was strange he thought. It was coming from her bed room. She must have forgotten it in her rush. That was unusual for his mom. She was very disciplined and never forgetful. Sure enough, it was on the carpet. It was probably her calling to let him know. He clicked it on.
“Hi, mom. You forgot it, right? I found it on the floor beside the bed,” he said, a smile flickering across his face. In response, he got a loud crackling sound and a voice that was so broken by the poor reception that he could not make out what was said. The crackling was followed by a high-pitched whistle and more crackling. Then he heard a voice loud and clear.
“Allison. Can you hear me? It’s Mike. There’s been a problem”
“Sorry, sir. This is Kevin. My mom is flying to Chicago. She left more than an hour and a half ago.” He stopped and froze. How many times had his mother told him not to divulge personal information over the telephone? Especially the fact that he was at home alone?
“The voice on the other end continued, albeit haltingly, “Allison? Is that you? Allison Strothers?” he repeated.
“She can’t come to the phone right now.” Kevin added lamely. “Can I take a message” On the other end, the man’s voice sounded perplexed. Inexplicably, he erupted into a sudden coughing fit.
“Sorry,” he apologized, “I’m confused. Who did you say you were?
“Kevin. Kevin Strothers. I’m Allison’s son.” There was silence on the line, with only an occasional transmission crackle. Then the man spoke slowly.
“How old are you, Kevin?”
Kevin was wary as warning signals flashed. Don’t divulge personal information, he heard his mother repeat. But something in the voice compelled him to answer. “I’m twelve,” he said and added, “How do you know my mother?” The question was answered with more silence.
“This is crazy. Something gone haywire. The whole world is going to. . .” he paused as he grappled with what appeared to be an illogical situation. “Your father. Where is your father?
“My dad died before I was born. I never knew him.”
“Sweet Jesus,” the man uttered. The way it softly passed his lips made it sound more like a prayer than an oath. “Kevin. You were named after your grandpa Strothers, correct?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
More silence. Then the man continued. “Kevin, listen carefully. I don’t understand how or why, but something has happened to bring us together.” He paused, searching his brain on how to explain the unexplainable. “I’m your father.”
“What?” The story of the attack rushed through Kevin’s memory. He had been pressuring his mother for information about his father. At age six, he was insistent. His mother had quickly assembled his grandparents. She had to fight a rising hysteria as the memories returned. His grandparents, in tearful support, relived the horror and terror of the unthinkable attack on the World Trade Center. His father had been listed as missing and eventually as dead although his body was never recovered. It had taken years for the family to recover. Even so, the scars were still evident.
“I’m at the office. There’s been an explosion. A plane. Two. It’s pandemonium here. Smoky. I tried to get through before but there was trouble connecting. This last time it worked and I got through. Don’t hang up. Whatever you do, don’t hang up. Tell your mother I love her. And you,” his voice cracked or was it the line? “Take care of her for me. I’m sorry we never got to meet, you and I. I’m sorry we never got to play baseball or go to the movies or camping. I’m sorry I’m not around for you. A kid needs a father.”
“Dad, get out. Get out for mom and me. Now! Please!”
“It’s too late. Too late, Kevin. Stay on the line and talk to me.” His voice was rough and raspy now and he coughed again. “I wish I could see you. Hug you. I wish I could have been there for you. Got to know you and seen you grow up. But I’m with you, no matter what happens. Don’t be bitter. Don’t let them get the better of you. Show them how strong you are. How strong we are. How much better we are.” His voice went down a touch, Tell your mom you need a father. Tell her she needs someone in her life, too. Memories are good but you can’t touch them or hold them. One day she’ll meet someone. Someone with a crinkly smile, a particular manner or a special look in the eyes.” The connection started to crackle and the high-pitched whistle started up again. He heard his father say “I love . . .” before the line went dead.
At 6:30 that evening, Allison Strothers entered the front door, kicked off her shoes and called out to her son. There was no response. She went searching for him and found him sitting on the bed in her bedroom. Something had happened. A sense of fear rose in her throat. He had his back to her and was hunched over with his head down, his chin on his chest. He clutched her cell phone in his right hand.
“Kevin” she circled the bed, speaking softly, not wanting to alarm him. He looked up. He had been crying. The tears had dried and crusted on his face but they started anew as she embraced him. Slowly, with difficulty, he told her what had occurred. They both wept and consoled each other and accepted the event, even though they could not explain it. Somehow it had made them bond even closer.
Kevin was amazed that the day had passed and he was not aware of it. It was as if he had been in a special place – and indeed he was. He had missed lunch and now he was ravenous. They agreed to follow their original plan and go out for supper. As they drove to the restaurant, his mother told him of her business luncheon. It was there she met the new account executive for her firm. He was transferring to the Manhattan office from Chicago because of the merger.
“He was very solicitous,” she said, “and had a beautiful smile and perfect manners.”
“What kind of smile?” asked Kevin, turning to look at his mom’s face.
“When he smiled, his eyes would squint and his nose wrinkled. I’d call it a crinkly smile. Rather endearing,” she added, looking into the distance.