My dad was in the Towers on 9/11. He survived — then we squandered the years after

I later found out he had disregarded instructions to ‘stay put’ and walked out before the buildings collapsed. I was so happy to have my father back that day, and I feel so guilty about what happened after

Jennifer Barnhill
California
Thursday 09 September 2021 22:05

Creator of 9/11 documentary says he wants to help younger generations understand impact of attacks

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My dad survived the terrorist attacks of 9/11 nearly twenty years ago, but we have squandered these decades of togetherness that I prayed for as I watched those buildings fall. Today I ask for forgiveness from those whose loved ones did not survive, and for having let politics and a pandemic steal a relationship that was nearly lost one Tuesday morning.

On September 11th, 2001, I was in my 9am History of the English Language class. My teacher was so intent on teaching us how to read in Middle English that he never mentioned what was happening to my dad while I was reading Beowulf. When I finally got out of class at 10am and entered the student center at my New Jersey college, I saw not what was unfolding, but what had already happened. Both towers had been hit and one of them had fallen.

I know now that my dad was in World Trade Center 1, but that morning I just knew my dad worked in the “one with the antenna.” I prayed that he somehow would be found within the rubble, having lived up to the Indiana Jones-like persona I grew up with, getting knocked down before winning the day.

Phone calls rang busy until I finally connected with my grandfather. He’d been given the news that my dad’s office “was okay and staying put”, as per emergency personnel’s instructions. After the towers collapsed, that news sat like a pit in my stomach. I drove home from college to await word, listening to Bush’s speech on the radio.

Years later, my dad told me “it was the dead bodies” that kept him from following the orders he was given. Instead of staying put, he kept going, his flip phone left behind on his desk. He got out alive.

When the train pulled into the station that night, I hugged my dad, who was covered in white ash, thankful for the memories we would be able to have together. As we drove him, we silently looked around the commuters piling off the train, thinking on those who wouldn’t be coming home that night or ever again.

Jennifer Barnhill and her father in her childhood years

I call my dad every year, reliving those moments as if they had just happened and trying to put aside the events of the 364 days between calls. And for nearly two decades, I had no desire to go to lower Manhattan to visit Ground Zero. I grew up on the Jersey shore, just a short distance from Manhattan, known to us as “The City.” The thought of visiting the gravesite of my friends’ fathers alongside tourists purchasing “I heart New York” shirts just felt wrong — something to make tourists feel good that they “remembered” that year and a Disneyfication of a terrible tragedy.

This July I had an opportunity to take my three children to New York City, an up-till-then mythical place their grandpa told stories about via FaceTime. I decided it was time to finally pay my respects at Ground Zero in person.

My dad still lives in that coastal town where I grew up in New Jersey, a two-hour commute he tolerated twice daily my entire childhood. When he agreed to meet us to walk beside the remembrance pools, I was mixed with emotion. I knew it would be hard for both of us, but also a once-in-a-lifetime chance for my kids to learn about the morning that changed the trajectory of our nation.

But on the morning of our visit, the rain started. Unlike the blue skies that marked that Tuesday in 2001, these clouds widened the division between us that we have let fester all these years. To my father, going to Ground Zero was already painful, but the rain made it inconvenient, and so he stayed home. To me, the rain was just one more missed opportunity, and I was the inconvenience. I braved the rain and went anyway.

The painful fact is that surviving a terrorist attack was not enough to magically repair the differences between my father and I. Since September 11th, our relationship has felt divided like our country. We have allowed our differences to drive us apart rather than be something to drive conversation.

It started slowly. I finished college and moved away. I married a Naval aviator whose job took me around the world, putting an ocean between my family and I. I have had friends lose spouses to war. I’ve worked as a nonprofit leader. I became a mom and, later, a Democrat.

And one day in the middle of all that change, my father slipped from his pedestal. His brash New Jersey tell-it-like-it-is persona reminded me less and less of the funny dad I grew up with and more and more of the president I was ashamed had been elected. But I was not raised by Trump. I didn’t feel compelled to excuse Trump’s undercutting remarks aimed at women, minorities and even decorated war heroes, like John McCain, a Republican I voted for in the 2008 presidential election.

Dad and I stopped talking for a time. I could no longer take the jabs about living in “the People’s Republic of California,” the lack of interest in getting to know my new life as a mom, and the general exhaustion of having a conversation with someone I no longer knew.

So my children and I went to Ground Zero without him. We walked around and brushed raindrops off of the names we quietly read out loud. We prayed and thanked God for giving us grandpa and prayed for the kids who lost their parents. There were no vendors, no tourist groups as I had feared; simply other small groups like ours, quietly observing the hallowed footprint of the Towers. I was heartbroken I couldn’t hold my dad’s hand and remember together.

I know that when I do have to say goodbye to my father, we will not remember who won the arguments or votes on contested primaries. We will remember how we treated each other. We will remember the memories we made, both good and bad.

Globally, not much has changed as we approach the 20th anniversary of September 11th. The war in Afghanistan may technically be over, but another September 11 is always around the corner. We can’t control the terrorists — or our parents.

Today, I struggle to accept what my relationship with my father is, without beating myself up for what it could be.

When I call my dad on September 11, 2021, we will inevitably fight about something. We fundamentally disagree on so many things and we may never be close. But I will try to love him through it anyway. I owe it to those who 20 years ago lost the opportunity to fight over generational differences or politics with those they love.