article

09.10.09

'I Don't Have a Dad'

Olivia lost her father when the towers fell. Now 14, she clings to his old shirt, a pair of his glasses—and learns about pain and the passage of time.

She is 14 now, in her first week of high school. Most of her friends don’t know why this day matters so much to her, and she probably won’t tell them. “The people who I wanted to tell already know,” she says. But sometime today or tomorrow or next week, Olivia Dack will probably pick up his “big, ol’ glasses” and see once again how the world looked through his eyes. Or maybe she will hug the shirt she still remembers him wearing. Some years, Olivia and her brother, Carter, 10, and their mother, Abigail Carter, mark the day with a bike ride—just the three of them. And once, Olivia says, “we got balloons full of helium with messages to him and we let them go at night.”

It’s the kind of gesture her father, Arron Dack, would have appreciated. He was just 39, an occasional poet and an executive at a tech startup based in Midtown. Eight years ago on this day, there was a trade show at Windows on the World that he didn’t want to miss. And so he was there—until he wasn’t.

Someday, she thinks might like to write about Sept. 11. “Like how people wrote about the Holocaust. Like Anne Frank. I might try to do something like that.”

The first year, the anniversary of Sept. 11 came as something of a shock to people who lived through that awful day in the city. How could 12 months pass so quickly? But now it has been eight years and the events of that morning have begun to pass into the fog of memory. New arrivals to the city still want to hear what it was like, but they receive the recitations of eyewitnesses with the same detachment they might give to aging World War II veterans telling battle stories. So you were there…so what?

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But if you lost someone you loved, it is different. Here is what Olivia remembers: “I woke up like any other day… I remember really clearly walking out of the house and my mom was on the phone. She couldn’t go farther because the phone wouldn’t go out that far in our yard. My mom was on the phone with my dad. So she couldn’t walk me out to the bus and I was mad that she wouldn’t come with me cause the phone wouldn’t go out…She told me to get on the bus by myself.” 

Olivia was in first grade in Montclair, New Jersey, and she recalls hearing someone announce on the intercom that the first Twin Tower had fallen. “All I can remember,” she says, “is thinking about is what that meant.”

Should it get easier after eight years? Maybe. Olivia’s mother is an expert on grief now; she’s even written a book about it, The Alchemy of Loss. “I know that when the anniversary comes, I often get a call from some kind of media,” she says. “You kind of brace yourself and you hold on a little bit. It’s after the anniversary that I have the hardest time. You’ve braced, you’ve made it through, and then you let go and it all falls apart.”

Olivia has also become used to talking about her loss. A while back, her middle-school teacher asked if she would tell the class about her dad. “When I gave my presentation, a lot of my friends were in tears,” she says. “They just felt really bad…They have a lot of sympathy toward me because I don’t have a dad, but I don’t know any different. I’ve not had a dad for longer than I had one.”

Four years ago, the family moved across the country to Seattle, where the events of Sept. 11 seem even more remote. “We try to make it a non-event,” says Abigail, “which is a lot easier in Seattle. In New York, it’s sort of in your face. In Seattle, it’s not. It’s very easy to have a normal day.”

She and her children don’t plan to participate in any public memorials. “I find them kind of empty,” she says. “They’re not really about the person who died. They’re about the event. And I don’t need to remember the event, quite frankly.”

But Olivia gets some comfort from having so many other people remember the day her father died. “It’s like other people are honoring my dad,” she says. Back in Montclair, she was friends with one other girl whose father also died in the attacks. But then the girl moved and Olivia barely remembers her now. Someday, she thinks might like to write about Sept. 11. “Like how people wrote about the Holocaust. Like Anne Frank. I might try to do something like that.”

Her mother has a more modest ambition for the anniversary. “I made this memorial for him, a bird bath,” she says. “The memorial is kind of falling apart because I didn’t know what I was doing.” She laughs. “It has pieces falling off. I’m thinking of getting out some glue.”

Barbara Kantrowitz is staff editor at the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University Teachers College and a contributing editor at Newsweek. Elspeth Reeve is a writer living in New York. She has written for Time, New York, and The New Republic.