The Daughter of the 9/11 Pilot

Her father was one of the pilots killed on 9/11. Her grief led to a surprising discovery.

by
- Posted on Aug 12, 2009

I quietly closed the door of my freshman dorm room behind me at Boston College, but not before I glanced back at the photo of Dad and me. The one of me as a girl sitting on his lap in the cockpit of a 767.

I wish you were here, Dad, I thought as I walked down the hall from my room. I wish you were here to help me figure all this out.

I was glad my new roommate was still asleep. “I’m going to be gone tomorrow, at a family event,” I’d told her the night before, and she’d thankfully been totally disinterested.

It was as if September 11 wasn’t even on her mind. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Even the front page of the newspaper was focused on Hurricane Katrina.

How quickly we forget, I thought. It seemed too soon. But I’d been glad to delay the inevitable talk with my roommate. I wasn’t ready to see the shock in her eyes, to hear how sorry she felt for me, to be the victim—again.

How do you tell someone that your dad was the pilot on Flight 11, the first plane that terrorists flew into the World Trade Center?

For four years now I’d prayed that I’d be able to figure out where 9/11 fit into my life. But as a freshman starting high school on that terrible day I never got a chance to introduce myself before everyone thought they knew who I was.

I watched as kids furtively glanced at me and then quickly looked away. The “9/11 girl.”

I didn’t want to be defined by a tragedy, yet I wanted to honor Dad. He too was more than just the person he was on that terrible day. I wanted to be my own person.

I hoped to find my identity starting college. Isn’t that what kids are meant to do in college? Find themselves? But once again the date loomed: September 11. Now, if I was going to make a clean start, I had to get to the memorial service without anyone on campus making a big deal about it.

Outside my dorm I spotted the car with my mother and two sisters. I jumped in so we could make the short drive to Boston’s Public Garden.

Slouched in the backseat, I thought about the memorial services I’d attended in the last four years. There had been so many that they were starting to fade into one another.

“We will always remember,” politicians often said. But each year there was more I couldn’t recall. The pain was less, but even that seemed sad, in a different kind of way. How am I supposed to feel? What would Dad want me to remember?

Two years ago on 9/11 we had come to BC to dedicate a labyrinth in memory of the 22 alumni killed. Mom graduated from BC, class of ’76, so a portion of the memorial honored Dad.

I too had picked BC by then. A speaker told how the labyrinth was a Christian symbol of the twists and turns of life’s journey. Somehow it was comforting to know it would be there for me.

God, I prayed, help me find the path to take in my life. Yet as Mom turned into the Public Garden I felt so lost.

We joined the hundreds of others already there. Sitting near the front I craned my neck. The crowd seemed a bit smaller each year.

“I’m glad we’re here,” I told Mom. “Already you can tell this is just another day for some people. They’ve stopped coming. I don’t want people to forget 9/11—or Dad.”

“I understand, honey,” she said. “But you can’t take that burden all on yourself. Besides, there are lots of ways to honor someone.”

At 8:40 a.m. the mayor solemnly laid a wreath of remembrance. Then five minutes later we paused for a moment of silence, just as the entire world had stopped that Tuesday morning. Closing my eyes I relived the day, like I had so many times before:

Dad leaving our 150-acre farm early, before I was awake, to pilot an 8 a.m. flight from Logan Airport to L.A....the announcement as school was starting...a counselor coming to take me out of class...a blur—people at the house crying and hugging, the memorial services, the media—that lasted for weeks...then going back to school, my identity sealed: The Pilot’s Daughter.

The service ended and we walked back to the car. I heard Mom’s words again, about finding other ways to honor Dad.

On the drive back to the campus I said, “It’s funny. Most of the time when I think of Dad it’s not about him as a pilot at all. What I see is him driving the tractor at home and playing with us kids. That’s who he really was, a farmer and a dad.”

“You’re right,” Mom said. “The farm is where he felt most at home. It’s really where he felt closest to God. He loved everything about farming. He loved the feeling that he was giving something back, but he got so much out of it.”

In front of my dorm building I gave everyone a hug, especially Mom. “I miss Dad so much,” I whispered to her.

“Me too,” Mom said. “He would be so proud of you.”

Back in my room I was relieved to see my roommate was out. I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling. I remembered how my father had mentored immigrant farmers, not only working with them and giving advice but sharing his land for them to grow their native crops.

Dad, a former transport pilot in Vietnam, chose to mentor farmers from Southeast Asia. He threw himself into a federal support program for immigrant farmers, so much so that when he was killed, it was named in his honor.

Mom was right. One of Dad’s jobs was flying jets, but his life was about helping others. He was an amazing guy. He was so much more than just one of the hijacked pilots on 9/11.

I was so lost in thought I barely noticed when my roommate walked in the door.

“How was the thing you went to?” my roommate said. Was she looking at me funny or was it just me?

“It was fine,” I said, scrambling to get my guard up. “How’s your day been?”

“It’s been good,” she said, but her mouth kind of twitched, like there was something else she wanted to say. “I was watching TV this morning and I saw you at the memorial service. Was your dad the pilot on Flight 11? I wish I had known.”

I’d tried so hard to avoid this conversation. With a sigh I said, “It’s just a hard thing to talk about. I was really hoping to get to know you better first. And I wanted you to get to know me.”

I could see she was trying to think of what to say. “I understand,” she said. “It was just kind of shocking to see my roommate on TV. Listen, the reason why I came back is I’ve been out with some other students collecting money for Hurricane Katrina victims. Want to help?”

Helping others. That’s what Dad was all about. What better way to honor him today! Would it help with these feelings?

“Sure,” I said. “You don’t know how great that sounds.” I headed out with her.

After some orientation we all spread across campus. I walked up to a student and introduced myself. “Hi, my name is Caroline. I’m a freshman here and I’m collecting money for people hurt by the hurricane. Would you be willing to help?”

“Sure,” he said, digging five dollars out of his jeans. “I’d love to do something. Maybe I’ll see you around campus.”

By evening I’d raised over a hundred dollars.

Heading across campus I thought about the afternoon. It left me with a kind of tingling feeling inside. For years it had been me on the receiving end of people’s sympathy. It was well-meant sympathy, but it was also a kind of wall, a 9/11 wall.

Now here I was doing something to help other people hurt by senseless tragedy. I had met dozens of new people, none of whom saw me as anything but a college student. It felt good. Actually, it felt incredible.

I was walking back to the dorm when I saw the labyrinth on my left. I walked over to it. At the entrance I again read the verse inscribed there, from Isaiah, one of Dad’s favorites. “They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagles’ wings…”

Dad was always happiest when he was doing something for others, when he was working for a common good. It was as if I were looking down a long row of a freshly plowed field, my father’s tractor far in the distance.

I realized how I could best honor Dad’s memory, following a row already tilled for me. Could I find my identity within 9/11? Could it actually hold the seeds for who I wanted to be in life? It was hard to believe.

Pulling out my cell phone I called Mom. “I’ve been thinking about Dad a lot today, about 9/11 and who I want to be. I think I partially know the answer. I’d like to do work where I’m helping other people, people who have been in tragedies.”

Mom was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Caroline, I think that’s wonderful. It’s funny because even when you were a little girl that’s how your dad and I saw you.

"I remember when you were only two years old and I was pregnant with your sister you put a blanket around me when I wasn’t feeling well. You’ve always been such a caring person. Just like your father.”

When I hung up the phone there was that tingling feeling again.

I graduated last spring, and as another school year begins I’m preparing to earn a master’s in counseling psychology at Boston College, in hopes of working with children dealing with trauma.

For the last four years I’ve volunteered for the Red Cross, urging college students to give blood. I’m becoming my own person, the one my dad would have wanted me to be.

This year on September 11 our family will gather at the farm for a more private ceremony. Far from the roar of the city, it’s not a place that stirs memories of 9/11. But I’ve learned that’s okay.

It’s the perfect spot for me to honor a farmer, a pilot, my dad, a caring man, whose love guides me to this day.

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