Erin Reeg's parents were paramedics when they met and fell in love. They went on to become a firefighter and a nurse who, given their line of work, passed along to their two daughters the ability to react calmly in a crisis and to NOT respond to adversity with too much emotion. When the first tower fell on September 11th, Erin's father was hit by falling debris and all the coping strategies Erin learned from her parents kicked in.
She and her sister went about life as usual, even though their father spent two weeks in the hospital, coming out a changed man. Erin interviews her parents and sister about the days, months and years that followed.
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[Dad singing in car]
NARRATION: This story could not be told without the help of my father.
DAD: Like Bilbo Baggins says, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.”
NARRATION: And like The Hobbit, my dad has lived a life of adventure. Not with giants, sword-fighting and rhymes – although he does like rhymes.
DAD: A soldier of the legion lays dying in Algiers.
NARRATION: Here he is rhyming at the dinner table.
DAD: …woman nursing, there was dearth a woman’s tears.
NARRATION: My dad was raised by a World War II Captain and then worked as a paramedic before he joined the fire department. So I’ve grown up hearing about everything from heart attacks to gun shot wounds to fires to bombings.
DAD: I’d always be going to funerals, so you’d ask, “Where you going today Dad? who died?
NARRATION: And my mom was also a paramedic – raised by a cop. Then she became a nurse. So growing up, everyone in my family was trained as my dad says, “To deal with the situation at hand.” Like when his own dad died.
DAD: When the priest collapsed with a cardiac arrest at the funeral and your mother and I just got up and did CPR on him.
NARRATION: Even my sister and I jumped in and helped.
ERIN: I think I remember me and Allison being like, “Everybody stand in the foyer!”
NARRATION: My sister was 13. I was 11.
MOM: We treat first, and we don’t lose our cool.
NARRATION: One month later, when the Towers were attacked, we were all living our suburban life, but supposedly ready for anything. And my dad was sent to the foot of the World Trade Center.
DAD: A lot of times in these situations, no matter what you do people are gonna die and you have to be philosophical about it. So this day there were some new fellas working.
And watching these people fall and explode was really tough on these young guys. And uh, one guy every time another person exploded, he’d just grab his ears and scream “NO!”
NARRATION: I’ve heard my dad’s story maybe 100 times. I feel like I’m in his head, looking up. While it’s happening, I’m like him, unaffected.
DAD: Then I got picked up by a tremendous gust of wind like you would see in one of the tornado movies.
NARRATION: The emotional part hit us both much later.
DAD: I got hit in the back of the head and then I got hit in the back. And I started getting covered over.
NARRATION: Someone videotaped my father immediately after the first tower collapsed. With help, he managed to make it to a hospital.
MOM: The fastest way to tell you was your father was okay and that tough times are ahead of us so brace yourself for whatever is coming.
NARRATION: I became a stone.
ALLISON: We went to school the next day. We had our sandwiches and everything all packed away.
NARRATION: My sister’s teacher made her stand up in front of the class room.
ALLISON: No buffer, no filter on her at all. “Oh what happened to your dad?” Lady, I don’t even know what happened to my dad.
NARRATION: In the hospital, my dad had a collapsed lung. And then he got a bad staph infection.
MOM: Was I gonna be a widow? Some of the fire department men they were asking me, “Is this a career ending injury?” How did I know that, you know? I guess I’m tough, I said, “No. He’ll go back to work.”
ERIN: If he had died that day, it would have been like a period, like this actually happened.
ALLISON: Yeah, it was more like a semi-colon.
MOM: He didn’t read the newspapers, but everyday the firemen were coming in to visit and telling him who died. He would say, “how about this one?”, and they would tell him, and how ‘bout this one, and this one and this one.
ERIN: We weren’t supposed to be upset because our dad lived. Like, we didn’t lose someone.
ALLISON: Yeah. I felt like there were other kids at school that had lost someone. So why would I be so sad?
NARRATION: We went to two or three funerals a weekend until Christmas.
ERIN: Did my personality change at all after 9/11? Like…
DAD: No, actually I think your easy going way helped you and your sister through 9/11.
NARRATION: I had insomnia, fainting spells, shingles and other weird sicknesses.
MOM: It shows in your body. You don’t complain verbally -- it doesn’t come out.
ERIN: I remember sleeping in your bed after 9/11.
NARRATION: My dad doesn’t remember, because he was an insomniac himself and downstairs with the TV on.
MOM: … he couldn’t sleep either! (laughing)
ERIN: This was something that we had in common.
NARRATION: My dad went back to work, but he was only on the job for three weeks when a door fell on him. Suddenly he was home all the time. He unable to work, in pain, and had to fight for compensation from the fire department. There were reasons to be upset…about everything.
But none of us ever talked about it. For years, I pretended I was okay.
[driving in the car]
NARRATION: As soon as we were old enough, my sister and I spent as much time driving away as possible. My dad didn’t joke anymore. He didn’t laugh. The way I remember it, his eyes were dark purple and sunken in.
ALLISON: He may not have been gone, but he was gone because we saw him come home and turn into a depressed mess.
ERIN: In my head when I was younger I used to call him dad and new dad. And be like, “Oh new dad’s doing this today.”
NARRATION: I felt like he didn’t want to be around us. And I didn’t want to be around him.
ERIN: I feel like, um, like we didn’t see him as a hero. And a lot of people wanted us to.
NARRATION: Toward the end of high school, I started spending all my time in the art studio. I would mix paint and glue and make a rib cage or a heart. My art teacher called it morose. I liked the gross and dirty colors. It made me feel human, after years of feeling nothing.
PROFESSOR SHANE: Questions? Comments?
NARRATION: Now, I’m a graphic design major at a college in Albany. This past semester I was talking to my favorite art history professor about using art to grieve … and in 30 seconds he gave five years of my life a definition. This is what he said, “Trauma is a break in the continuity of existence.”
PROFESSOR SHANE: You have this flow to your life, everything’s going fine and then there’s this rupture. And that rupture is inarticulatable. And when you can’t communicate your experience, you’re separated from other people.
NARRATION: Thank you, Dr. Shane! That’s what happened to me.
ERIN: All right, well, I’m in my room. It’s full of memories of me being very nothing inside.
NARRATION: Oddly enough, my interest in anatomy helped me connect with my parents. They got excited I might be a medical illustrator. One day my dad went hunting and got a deer. He called me from the kitchen,
“Erin, I have a deer heart – you want to see what it looks like?”
I spent a half hour cutting open the aorta and the ventricles. He showed me how a heart pumps. It was a start. It was a moment of old dad.
I’ve learned a lot from my parents. Resilience when everything seems to be going wrong, and more importantly how to laugh at the world, because it is absurd. But I wish I could be more honest about how I feel. Honest with myself and with other people.
ERIN: I feel like sometimes I like…
ERIN: I just have a wall. It’s like, “Oh, who died?” Ok, this is what’s gonna happen. I don’t have an emotional response. That’s not my first response. My first response is to respond, not to react.
MOM: Right. And I don’t know where that comes from.
ERIN: You don’t know where that comes from? I think it comes from you…and you!
NARRATION: Until now, my parents have never even heard most of this. Maybe it sounds like we can talk about anything. But I spent so many years hiding how I felt that now, when I try to explain my hurt – it’s like a whole egg in the back of my throat. I still can’t say it. I’ve always been the problem solver, so it’s hard to be the problem. Maybe that’s how my dad felt too.
For WNYC, I’m Rookie Reporter Erin Reeg.