“ … Rob was on the Verrazano Bridge, driving home from his overnight shift at the firehouse. He heard what had happened on the radio station. He called his wife, my friend Christine, and left her a message. ‘I gotta go back’ he said.”
It’s then that I lost it and had to stop talking so I wouldn’t let out a sob. I didn’t want to scare my kids.
“Then what happened? What? What?” my 8-year-old asked.
I couldn’t answer.
When I remember, again, that one of my best high school friends has only that phone message to live with, I am overcome. I can only pray that the incredible pain that she and so many others feel this day can somehow be lessened by God.
I’ll never forget Rob’s wake. My friend Christine, looking wan and shocked, stood up at the front of the room next to the casket, beside a poster montage of photos of their wedding. She and Rob had been married just three weeks. They’d just returned from their honeymoon, and here she was greeting folks at her husband’s funeral.
The line of mourners wound out the door and down the street, peppered with the faces of hundreds of high school friends. Some reunion.
But as I got closer and saw Christine, her huge infectious smile gone, and, next to her, Rob’s seven older siblings standing tall – four of the seven are uniformed officers—I couldn’t stop crying. I’d gotten engaged on September 12. That’s the day she must have learned the news definitively. Her brand new husband was dead.
My reaction is the same every time I think about it—horror. Today, 11 years to the day, I tried to explain the significance of 9/11 to my daughter. It started when she asked why I always wanted her and her siblings to wave to firefighters and police officers, even if they are driving by fast, and even if they don’t always wave back (but mostly, they do, with a delighted smile.)
I explained that the firefighters and police officers I knew from my hometown were good people. Many high school friends are now captains and detectives. But most of all, one of my favorite people, a firefighter named Rob Curatolo, did one of the most heroic things I can think of.
He went back.
Who goes back after an over-night shift when they’ve got a beautiful new wife at home? Who goes back when they’ve just come off a honeymoon and are having trouble adjusting to regular life again? Who goes back? Who goes back to work?
Our humanity lives in guys like Rob Curatolo. Soft spoken. Shy. Handsome, yes, but a plain dresser. Well loved, but under the radar. Nothing flashy. But yet, everything about him was outstanding. When it mattered, he was as outstanding –heroic — as they come.
Last year, I was visiting a friend in New York City. I mentioned that in our suburban town, moms were discussing how much – if at all – to talk about 9/11. The pastor at our parish had mentioned the “two planes” thing at the family mass, and some moms were freaked out. They thought their kids were too little to know about it. Fine enough point. Evil, Satan, murder – these things are tricky concepts for a child.
I said that I understood, but I personally felt we needed to be honest. There is evil in the world. Definitely, the 9/11 story is overwhelming. Such things are so hard to explain, but we need to try, while praying that God heals the hearts of people who do these awful, unexplainable things. They chose evil. Let’s pray that less people do.
That’s what I’m trying to tell my kids.
But my friend, a hard-core, New York Times liberal, felt she and her husband had developed a better approach to explaining this terrible and tricky topic:
“We explained how those people who flew the planes into the buildings felt that their way of life was under attack and they were acting in self defense. They felt they had to do it to protect their religion. They had their reasons. Unfortunately, it ended in tragedy.”
I was, frankly, shocked. Too shocked to respond. Explaining 9/11 by giving a careful and measured “they had good reason but it ended tragically” lesson seems absurd. This is moral relativism run so amok that I almost can’t even fathom it. The suicide attackers had their reasons? Al Qaeda has a grievance with us, true, but is that a legitimate explanation for killing thousands of civilians? Are you telling me that is one of those “We may not agree but they thought they were doing the right thing and we have to be understanding of their point of view” kind of lessons?
No way. As Marybeth Hicks wrote here just the other day, “there are just some bad people in this world” who act in ways “that can only be described as evil.”
Some people laughed at George W. Bush when he talked about “evildoers.” They thought it made him look like a bumpkin. I’m from New York City, where we love to laugh at bumpkins, but I never laughed at George W. Bush. I never laughed because he was right.
Those suicide bombers were evil. Rob Curatolo and his fellow first responders were heroes. And that’s what I’m going to tell my kids.