Skip to comments.Dad missing from picture for 9/11 victim's son (Bring a box of tissues)
Posted on 06/18/2002 7:57:57 AM PDT by dead
Twelve-year-old Peter Negron draws pictures.
There is the one of his family on a road trip to Florida in their Blazer - the same Blazer that was crushed under tons of steel when the Towers collapsed. There's another of him and his dad camping. With a tent in the background, the two of them are happily fishing by a lake.
And then there's the same exact picture, except his dad's not there and Peter seems suddenly little and alone. Big red letters on the top announce his grief. "MAD AND SAD," it says, pretty much summing up Peter's take on life in the months after the tragedy.
This Father's Day, instead of celebrating, thousands of children whose parents vanished on Sept. 11 will be filled with sorrow and longing.
"I don't want to talk to nobody, see nobody, nothing," Peter says of his plans for today. "I just want to go to the cemetery, and say that I love him and I miss him, and then I just want to come home and stay in my room for the whole, long day. My friend Mikey said he'd stop by, but I don't even want to be with him."
No one knows how many children lost a parent in the attacks, but clearly many did. The bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald alone estimates that its 658 victims left behind more than 800 children. And the New York Fire Department's 343 victims had more than 600 children among them.
Peter's dad, Pete, began working in the World Trade Center in 1994, first as a draftsman with an architectural firm and then, on the 88th floor, as a Port Authority project manager for environmental issues. Negron was so enamored of the towers that he often took little Peter there to show off the building that touched the sky.
In 1999, when Peter was 10, Pete and Leila Negron had another son, whom they named Austin. A month later, they moved out of Pete's mom's Bronx apartment to their own place: a compact white house in Bergenfield with blue shutters and a tidy little yard, where an American flag now flutters by the basketball hoop.
With the baby occupying Leila Negron, Peter spent even more time with his dad. Together, they would go camping and fishing. They would roller blade, or wash the Blazer, or watch the Yankees on TV, or fantasize about a family vacation to Puerto Rico, to introduce Peter to his father's relatives. Best of all, Peter remembers, they would head for the park and practice baseball. For hours on end, Pete would show Peter how to bring his elbow up and step into a throw, how to pull his arm all the way back in a pitch, how to hold his mitt for the surest catch.
Then, on Sept. 11, 10 days after Austin turned 2, Leila Negron showed up at Roy W. Brown Middle School riddled with anxiety. News of the plane crash was everywhere and Pete wasn't answering his phone."I kept hoping he'd come home that night," Peter remembers. Together, he and his mom decided to "think positive."
For weeks, even months, Peter imagined the rescuers finding his father alive. Unconscious maybe, but all right.
Then one day, as Leila sat on the front stoop smoking the Marlboro Ultra-Lights she had taken up the day Pete disappeared, she saw two cars pull up along the curb. Seven somber men and one woman approached. Leila felt woozy and confused, as if real life had collided with a movie scene.
Downstairs, a sleeping Peter heard grown-ups upstairs and he got up to investigate. He saw Port Authority workers and two people wearing shirts with the American Red Cross emblem. They told Peter to sit down. A nice man with a mustache kneeled down beside Peter's chair and said in a quiet voice that the rescuers had found his dad. Peter's eyes widened. He glanced at his mother and saw she had been crying; suddenly, he knew what their words meant. He burst into tears.
"They gave me a cup of water to drink," says Peter. "I went to my room and closed the door and just stood there, for hours."
For months, the delightfully mischievous boy who had loved to clown around with friends disappeared in a cocoon of solitude. When friends called to play, Peter gave excuses - that his mom needed him to baby-sit, or that he was sick. His beloved baseball glove lay untouched. In the first two marking periods of seventh grade, Peter missed 40 days, too miserable to show up. Even when he mustered the energy for school, his teachers say he was dazed and inattentive. Many times, as soon he arrived home from school, he wept.
"For months after 9/11, Peter never smiled," says Peter's guidance counselor, Selma Alaimo. "This sweet kid looked like he'd lost his very best friend."
Whenever the family crossed the George Washington Bridge to visit the Bronx, Peter would study the Manhattan skyline, stunned by its alteration and afraid he would forget what it once looked like - where the buildings were that buried his father. He asked his mother for photographs of the towers, and for memories. She would tell Peter how his dad loved to croon to Marc Anthony, how he sometimes messed up the lyrics and cracked everyone up, and how he was so nervous on their first date that he accidentally left the car in drive and had to chase it down. Peter would say, "Tell me that story again."Every news clip about 9/11 that Leila Negron reads, every medal she is given, she saves for the scrapbook for her sons. Every memorial she is invited to, she attends. "If it was just me, I wouldn't go," she says. "I'm not interested, or maybe I just don't want to cry all over again. But I go to these memorials for Peter and Austin, and I take them along. I want them to know who their father was."
The task has not been easy.
When Austin playfully calls his brother "Pete," Peter goes into a rage. "Make him stop!" Peter yells at his mother. "He's calling Daddy's name!" And when Austin studies their father's photograph in the living room and says, "Daddy? Daddy? Daddy in heaven," Peter flees.
Leila Negron has not had to face her task alone. Every Sunday afternoon, Peter goes to the support group for children of Port Authority workers lost that day. Every Sunday night, he goes to another support group for Twin Towers kids in Bergen County, children whose parents worked for all sorts of firms.
Many in Peter's school have also rallied around him. His science teacher appointed herself his weekly tutor after he fell behind in his work. Another teacher organizes the faculty at every holiday to flood the family with gifts. And Peter's 24-year-old writing teacher, Steven Engravalle - whose best friend also lost his father in the World Trade Center - has vowed to become Peter's big brother. Together, the two men have taken Peter to Nets games and pro-wrestling matches, and they plan to go to the batting cages soon, too.
"I was a little standoffish at first," admits Engravalle's friend, Chris Motroni. "I was afraid it would be too emotional for both of us. But then I thought about the words my own dad lived by - he'd always say, 'Do good today' - and I figured I ought to meet Peter. We're a lot alike, him and me. I understand the bond he had with his father. He's a great kid, and it gives me strength to see how he's doing such a good job just being a kid."
Slowly, as the buds took hold of the tree tips and the chill of winter eased, Peter began to reemerge. Last month, at a teacher's request, he wrote a poem about his dad and 9/11 for the school magazine. These days, he walks home with his buddies, stopping at 7-Eleven for Slurpies and Silly String, and yabbering about homework. Often, he asks Leila if he can go ride his bike, or play ball, or head to friends' houses, and she rushes to say yes. One teacher was so relieved by the recent change in Peter that she called his mom just to say she had seen Peter high-fiving his friends in the hallway.
Still, the handsome boy who looks so much like his father has his moments. He sometimes sidles up to his mom on the couch, slips his arm around hers and puts his head on her shoulder. In silence, they sit for a few minutes, Leila pulling him tight and fighting back her own emotion. Eventually, she'll ask, "You OK?" and Peter will begin to sob. "I miss Daddy," he'll say. And then he will sob some more.
Ask Peter now what he misses most, and he hangs his head and stares at the grass.
"Everything," he finally answers.
And what will he most remember?
He picks at the blades of grass. It is a hot day, and the forgiving breeze seems to have forgotten this stretch of the neighborhood. Peter's shirtless shoulders twitch as he sniffles. Fat tears plop onto the grass.
He whispers, "That morning, he said, 'I love you, champ.'"
And then he cradles his face as he weeps.
Ruth Padawer's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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