Monday, September 10, 2001. It was a beautiful fall day. A perfect leaf lay on the sidewalk of the loud and welcoming West Village neighborhood. I stopped amidst the motion and smiled at the leaf, excited for my favorite season. Fall. Cool days, sweaters with boots and the smell of a new school year (even though I was 26 years old and working as a full-blown adult, fall still smelled like new pencils and crisp book covers. New beginnings). I bent down, picked up the perfect leaf, meant only for me (of course) and continued my stroll through New York City.
When I arrived at my apartment I pulled out my Webster’s dictionary and gently placed the leaf between its pages. I smiled again recognizing I hadn’t done something like this since I was a kid, before the world got too busy to stop for fallen leaves.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The sky was clear, the morning cool, the fall weather perfect. The day terrible. As a young attorney at a respected law firm, I rode the subway uptown to my office oblivious to the horror that was happening above me. From my office building we gathered in a conference room before a small television and watched as the towers fell. I gasped. I ran to the ladies’ room, locked myself in the stall and sobbed. Not because I had a loved one in those towers but because there were many loved ones in those towers. The loss was surreal, unbearable. I couldn’t imagine the terror. And yet, it was only blocks away. It was happening, in my city, to my people and no one could stop it.
The author’s father, Michael Cerullo, second from the left, among several others at work on the original World Trade Center.
That afternoon I left the office, my backpack filled with an appeal to review (yes, the partner gave me work to do), and I walked down 3rd Avenue towards my West Village apartment. Tears streamed down my face as I stared at the cloud before me. I was 70 blocks away but the cloud was clear. It was enormous, dark, at street level. Within that cloud terror, death, sadness. I was overwhelmed. As a New Yorker, as a human being, I cried. I called my father from my cell phone as I walked. From across the river in New Jersey, he was only minutes away but it felt like eons. New York was on lock down. Tunnels and bridges all closed. No one could come in or go out. I couldn’t go home.
I spoke with him as I walked and cried. I told him how terrible it looked. I told him it was dark, a dark evil cloud. Is this really happening? And I cried. As a native New Yorker, my father born and raised in an Italian neighborhood near Bleecker Street, I know he felt the loss. New York ran through his veins. As a young sheet metal worker, he built the Twin Towers with his bare hands (pictures of him as a young man sitting on beams with no walls soaring high above the city). But protecting his daughter was now his priority. To protect me from sadness, from evil all he could do in that moment was say “honey, look away.”
Michael with friends in the Village, circa the 1960s.
Wednesday, September 12 and Thursday, September 13, 2001. I went to work. My law firm was one of the few that remained opened. I was a new attorney and didn’t feel comfortable taking the days off. I had good reason to take off. After all, life had shifted. The world was not the same. But I wasn’t secure enough to articulate that reality to my senior partners. So, I arrived at the office and tried to be a lawyer. Desperate for Friday, when I could cross the river and go home.
Friday, September 14, 2001. Finally, Friday. The sky was clear, the air cool. Sadness still hung heavy. I sat at my desk eager to get through the day so I could go home. My telephone rang. I answered. “Something happened to your dad, Michele. You need to come home, quick.” I hung up the phone. I didn’t cry. I shook, uncontrollably. My brain didn’t know what had happened but my body knew, my soul knew, and I shook.
Childhood photo of author with father
On September 14, 2001 my father, my rock, my security, my superhero was shot in the back of the head and killed. At his work, lying on the floor of his factory basement, alone, my brother found him. When I arrived that afternoon, I walked through the door of my childhood home like had a million times before but it now felt foreign. A notable presence was gone. A puzzle piece missing. The middle piece. The air was thin. So thin that you drowned in its space. The absence of gravity. And I couldn’t just “look away.”
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers fell and the world shifted. Life for tens of thousands, if not more, would never be the same. Three days later, on Friday, my tower fell. He was only one person but he was my everything.
Sixteen years ago, a perfect leaf once lay unharmed on the sidewalk of a busy city on a beautiful fall day. The leaf still preserved and unchanged between the pages of a heavy book. Our lives not as fortunate. Reality reared its fragile head, and our books flung open, exposing.
September, 2017. Though exposure is unwelcomed revealing our vulnerabilities, the wind is not always threatening, the elements not always dangerous. After all, isn’t it the elements that give the fallen leaf it’s color, it’s beauty? We can hide from the world and stay secure, preserved, like that perfect fall leaf from September 10, 2001 – or we can live.
Immediately following my father’s death, I couldn’t feel the warmth of the rising sun with each new day. I was angry at the clock hands for continuing their knowing path each minute, each second without him. I pleaded, alone, in my mind yelling at the sky, at the clouds, searching.
I needed a companion for my loneliness. So, I wrote. I wrote with sorrow, with fear, with desperation. But with every passing September, me exposed to both the rain and the sunshine, the high tides and the low, the elements colored my life. And just like that, years later with the blessing of motherhood my perspective shifted. I no longer saw life through the eyes of a child desperately missing her father but through those of a mother whose children had yet to live. Thus, I wrote with a renewed joy, realizing that to truly honor my dad I had to live my life in full color.
My debut children’s picture book My Superhero Grandpa, is my dandelion, my flower from a weed. My Superhero Grandpa is a story of a grandpa who watches over his young grandson from Heaven. And while rooted in loss, as my children will never know the hugs of their grandfather or his contagious laugh and love, the story is colorful, whimsical and uplifting. Writing for children has allowed me to “look away” as my father so delicately instructed many years ago as I stared at terror from a New York City street.
Remember, stories are born from our experiences, the good and the bad. And while life is fragile, and security is not guaranteed, if tragedy chooses you don’t allow it to shroud your colors but instead put it in your quill, and write. You may be surprised where it takes you.
For the month of September, 100% of the author’s profits from sales of “My Superhero Grandpa” through Amazon.com will be donated to Tuesday’s Children, a recovery organization formed in the wake of 9/11, to support children directly impacted by terrorism and traumatic loss.