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9/11: the day Joe's dad didn't come home. 


By Caroline Overington

The Sydney Morning Herald



Try for a minute to put yourself in Sally Cohen-Alameno's shoes. You're a mum from an ordinary family who lives in the suburbs. You have two lovely kids. Your son is five and your daughter is two, and you're wondering whether to have another baby.


Now imagine this: you get in the car one morning to take your son to kindergarten. You drop him off and then the mobile phone rings. It's your girlfriend. She says: "Have you heard from Andy?"


Andy is your husband. Of course you haven't heard from him. He's crazy busy in the mornings. He leaves home early to go to work in a towering office block in the city. Your own schedule is crazy, too: you have to get two kids up, dress one for kindergarten, change nappies for the other, make the breakfasts, the lunch boxes, the normal drill.

You never speak to Andy before 10am and, in any case, you've only just turned the phone on. Who can afford to take calls in the morning, when you've got a toddler and an older boy who needs to get to kindergarten?


So you say, no, I haven't, why? Your friend pauses. It's only for a millisecond but, for some reason, your heart skips and your stomach starts to feel funny. You say again: "Why?"


Your friend quickly explains the situation: a plane has flown into the north tower of the World Trade Centre, which is where your husband works. It's all over the news. You have to get home and put the TV on. You have to call Andy.

And so you try to call but, by this time, every phone network in the city is congested and you can't seem to get a call through. Still, you're thinking to yourself, this is crazy. This can't be anything to do with Andy. After all, as the widow of a firefighter will say to you, months and months later, she knew her husband had a dangerous job. There was always a chance that he might not make it home. But your husband works in an office.


And besides, you need your husband. You're in love with each other. Oh, sure, he drives you crazy. Everybody's husband does. You tell your friends that it's like having three toddlers in the house. You're forever telling him not to wrestle on the floor with the kids. Somebody's going to break their neck. And what's with the convertible? He's got two kids but, no, he still needs a sports car. On the weekends, Andy likes to put the top down, and then put a booster on the passenger seat, so his son, Joe, can come for the ride.


Andy's mad about his daughter, too. He likes to ride through the streets with Nina on the back of his bike, chasing down the ice-cream man. You've marvelled at his commitment before but he remembers what it was like, growing up in a family where his father worked all the time, and he doesn't want that for his own children. He wants to be there for them.


And that's another reason why whatever is happening in the city has nothing to do with you.


It is so unbelievable, it couldn't possibly be true.


But it was true. Cohen-Alameno knew it as soon as she pulled her car into the drive, and saw her neighbours running across the lawn.


"By the afternoon, the house was full of people," Cohen-Alameno said last week. "Everybody knew that Andy was a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, and they had their offices in the World Trade Centre. And so, by the time I got in the door, the phone was ringing and it was another friend, whose husband also worked there, saying: 'Have you heard from Andy? Do you know what's going on?"'


She didn't know. She tried again to call her husband, but there was still no way to get a call through.


Meanwhile, the television was showing pictures of smoke pouring out of the high floors of the towers. The sound of sirens was everywhere, but information was in short supply. "The house was filling up with people, and I was thinking, what is going on? And what am I going to do? And most of all, what am I going to tell our son, Joe?"


Battling panic and fear, she decided she wouldn't drive back to the school to drag Joe out of class. "I'm not sure I can explain the reasoning behind that. But because we didn't really know what was happening, I just thought the best thing is to try to keep his day normal, and we'll stay at home and try to find out what happened to Andy."


So she called the kindergarten and said: "'I'm Joe's mum, and Joe's dad is one of the people missing at the World Trade Centre. Just please, please, make sure they don't know anything.' Because I was sort of thinking, we don't really know what's happened yet, we really don't know what's going on."


Joe's teacher, who had four children in the class whose fathers worked in the buildings, immediately agreed those children should stay where they were, sitting in a circle, reading books, oblivious to the chaos in the wider world. That allowed Cohen-Alameno to absorb the initial shock of the attacks in private and to start the frantic search for Andy.


"The phone was ringing all the time, and it was the wives of people who worked with my husband," she said.

"All of them were just so worried about their own husbands and trying to find out anything they could, and I just told everybody who called, 'we don't know what's going on.' Other women I have spoken to, they said as soon as they saw the towers fall down, they knew. They just accepted that nobody who was there was going to survive. But I didn't believe that. I just kept thinking, he will call."


But no call came. Not straight away, anyway. Months later, when Cohen-Alameno got a bill for Andy's phone, she could see that he had tried to get through, from his mobile to hers, just minutes after the first plane struck, but her phone wasn't on.


"I'm still upset about that," she says, in a voice that screams that she would do anything to turn back the clock and be there to take that call. Andy didn't leave a message. Why would he? He'd survived the impact of the plane and he was probably thinking: Oh dear, Sally's phone is off. She's going to be worried. But no problem. I'll call her later, when I get out of this mess.


That was the way Sally saw it, too. "My house was full of people, and they were saying, well, I've heard of buildings collapsing, and there's pockets of air, or whatever, or they can dig people out for days afterwards. And then there was a report on the radio of a John Doe patient in a hospital, somebody who was badly burnt but alive, and as soon as we heard that, five cars just raced from my house to that hospital, to see if it was Andy (it wasn't)."

In the hour after the attacks, 10,000 people were reported missing. Most of them were found alive. Others, like the entire staff of Cantor Fitzgerald, a broking firm, would stay missing and, as the weeks and months passed, would eventually be declared dead.


At Cohen-Alameno's home in Westfield, New Jersey, fear was rising to panic. But how could anybody really be sure that Andy was dead? He'd call any minute. She asked her brother, who lived in Manhattan, to make a poster with Andy's picture on it, and put it up in the local hospitals, just in case he'd ended up there. In the meantime, Nina needed to be fed and changed and, of course, Joe had to be picked up from kindergarten. 


"I had to drive over and get him. And I'm thinking: what am I going to tell him? But I'd already decided I'd keep things normal. I thought, let's turn off the TV, let's not say anything."


But, as the day stretched into night, and Andy still hadn't called, she thought: "Well, things aren't looking good." And so, when she tucked Joe into bed, she said: "You know, Joe, there was a fire in the city today and we're a bit worried about daddy. We haven't heard from him yet, but we're hoping to hear from him soon." He nodded, and went off to sleep.


The next day, when Joe asked about his dad, she added a bit to the story, saying: "Well, Joe, that fire in the city, it was in daddy's building, and we haven't heard from him, but the tunnels are closed and the phones are broken. We're a bit worried but we still hope to hear from him soon." And, again, Joe accepted that.


"It was getting difficult to keep it from him, but I was still thinking, we just don't know what happened. I spoke to his teachers when we got to school and we all agreed that we wouldn't talk about it until we were sure. But some of the other parents had let their kids watch the whole thing on TV, so some kids were talking about it. 


"And then, that afternoon, when I went to pick Joe up again, everybody knew which families had been affected and people were staring, and I was like, trying to get him into the car, and to tell them with my eyes, just don't, don't, don't say anything."


Cohen-Alameno didn't know it then, but her decision to delay telling her five-year-old son about his father's death empowered her. Of course she didn't think of it that way. Part of her still believed that Andy was alive. But by refusing to bow to the pressure of the relentless TV coverage, she took back control of her family. She couldn't do anything about the way Andy had died, but she wouldn't be forced to show Joe things she didn't want him to see. This was her son, and she would tell him about Andy her way, in her time, and that would be her small victory against the people who sought to destroy their lives.


If you doubt the strength behind that decision, consider this: how many images of September 11 have you seen? How many times have the smoking towers been shown? How many newspapers, thick with pictures, have landed on your doorstep? To this day, Joe Alameno, now aged six, hasn't seen a single one of them.


"I just decided, early on, that I didn't want him to have a visual representation of September 11," Cohen-Alameno said.


"I thought, I want him to remember his father, not all that. So I just kept the TV off, and I made sure there were never any magazines in the house, and I spoke to family and friends, and I made sure they did the same.


"And then, just last weekend, like a whole year later, I almost blew it. I'd taken the children to get some doughnuts, and when I turned around in the store there was a rack of magazines and every single one of them, or so it seemed, had a September 11 cover for the anniversary.


"So I said to the children, 'quick, quick, go and pick which doughnuts you want,' and while they were looking, I was quickly turning all the covers over. A friend who was in the doughnut queue said to me later: 'you looked possessed'. But I thought, I haven't come this far, to have it all ruined now."


Cohen-Alameno keeps a journal for her children. It is in the form of a book, called "My Father's Love", and it was produced by a teacher at Joe's school, Kathleen Maleski, who was so moved by the strength of the mothers that she decided to do something to help them.


The book is mostly blank, but it has questions in it like: "One of the best times I had with my dad was (blank)" and "My dad's skin was (soft, stubbly, smooth?)" The mothers who took the book (more than 1600 have been distributed) help their children fill it in and, as they years go by, they can add to it, and maybe read it together.


Joe doesn't read his book. "He's not that interested yet," Sally says, "but I'm keeping all the scrapbooks, all the information I can find, so I can show him later. He's only six. He's not even grieving yet. He's still processing this." 

And this brings her back to the day she told Joe that his father had died.


"I put it off because, as I said, we just didn't know what had happened to him.


"But then, on the Friday after it happened, a boy went up to him at school and said: 'Did your daddy die?' And Joe got angry and said: 'What are you talking about? He didn't die.' But the boy said: 'My mummy said that your daddy was in that building and that he's dead.' And so of course he was so upset and the school had to ring me, and then I was really upset because that robbed me of the chance to tell him my way, when we were sure."


But, with hope fading one Saturday morning, Cohen-Alameno found herself sitting on her neighbour's trampoline with Joe.


"I said to him, 'You know, Joe, we think daddy was in that building where there was that fire, and he's died there, and he isn't coming home."'


"He wanted to know: 'What do you mean, not coming home? You mean ever?'


"He had some trouble with the never part."


"He kept saying, 'What forever and ever and ever and ever? Do you really mean, forever?' But a year's gone by now, and we've had events, like Father's Day, and Andy didn't come home for that, and I think he's started to think: well, if he didn't come home for that, then maybe he really isn't coming home."


Then, of course, there was the matter of explaining what happened to Andy.


"I decided on honesty as the best policy," Cohen-Alameno said.


"So I said, 'Some bad people did a very bad thing. They took an airplane and they crashed it into daddy's building.' And then he wanted to know: 'On purpose?' And I said 'Yes', and I tried to explain what they might have been thinking but, you know, I'm Jewish and my husband was an Italian-American Catholic and I guess our faith wasn't really all that strong, so it was hard to explain to them how somebody might feel so strongly about something that they would do this, kill daddy, who didn't have anything to do with it."


For a long time after that conversation, Cohen-Alameno wondered what Joe had made of it. And then, many months after September 11, Andy's parents organised a memorial service for their son. "He was pretending that nothing was going on, and he was refusing to sit with me, and wanting only to sit with his cousins, and trying to ignore it all."


And then, out of the blue, in the middle of the church, Andy's uncle's pacemaker malfunctioned, sending him thundering to the floor in pain. 


"And I just lost it," Cohen-Alameno says. "I didn't mean to, but it was just too much. I was just thinking, this is really what we need, and it just triggered me off. And then I thought afterwards, well, it's good for them to see me cry, so they know it's OK for them to cry.


"Since then, we've just talked about Andy all the time, and I make sure that everybody else does too because I really think, if the children forget, that would be the saddest thing of all."


In that spirit, Cohen-Alameno is pushing on with life. Just last week, after a year of helping her children through an almost unbearable loss, and of dealing with her own, entrenched grief, she decided she needed to do something for herself. 


She took a job working in admissions at her son's school and, every day so far, she's taken with her a small album of photographs of Andy, and another picture of him which she wears in a locket around her neck.


"We're getting on with it," she smiles. "We're doing what we can."


Andy Alameno was very proud of his wife and children. He would be even prouder now.


Caroline Overington is the Herald's New York correspondent.

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