This significant anniversary of 9-11 we just marked, buried me in movies, articles, politicians and events. They blurred together and sapped all meaning from observing the day, until I heard a recording of retired firefighter John Vigiano, Sr. speaking about his sons on Story Corps. His words cut through the noise, straight to the meaning that day had for me as a father.
Vigiano’s only sons — John Jr., a firefighter; and Joe, a police officer — both died that day. In the piece, Vigiano recalled speaking on the phone with one son the night before and the other that morning. Both calls ended with exchanges of the words, “I love you.”
“I wouldn’t of changed anything,” the father said. “It’s not many people that the last words they said to their son or daughter was ‘I love you.’ And the last words they heard was ‘I love you.’ So, that makes me sleep at night.”
I didn’t face the personal tragedy of the Vigiano family that Tuesday, 10 years ago. My wife, who works in Lower Manhattan, was out of town and harm’s way. My children were within spitting distance of me the whole time. I lost no family or close friends in the attacks. My biggest troubles were trying to get my mother-in-law, who had come for a visit, back to Boston, and to get my wife home.
But that day crystalized for me what so much of parenting is about. Protecting my daughters, then 3- and 6-years old, I quarantined them from the footage swarming the television, explaining what happened in my words, buffering them from horrific images that could become memories they didn’t need to have. Today, they regret not possessing vivid recollections from that day. My now-16-year-old remembers people shouting from the rooftops on her way to school. The 13-year-old can only call up vague impressions. I experience this as a triumph; I was able to minimized the scarring.
More important, 9-11 made clear, the moments I have with my children are limited and precious and I will never know when the last one comes. I try to remember, at each parting, each good night, to let them know I love them, that this is essence of our relationship. There are instants, as I’m wading through the shoes and backpacks littering the front hall, or the dirty clothes that haven’t made it into the hamper even after I’ve asked 10 times, when homework hasn’t been done because they watched some TV show knowing they weren’t supposed to, when I can lose perspective on what is most significant. I know that even if I’m angry, or frustrated or tired, I don’t want there to be the slightest doubt in their hearts of my love for them.
Vigiano knew this before the first plane hit the South Tower. His father was a firefighter and he was, too, so maybe that’s why he understood that every parting could be the last, that the future is uncertain so you have to cut through the muck of life to the essential tie between parent and child. He knew never to miss the chance to say it, remember it, pass it on to his sons.
As loaded as the words are, they carried with them the heart and spirit of what a father has to give his children and is lucky enough to receive from them: “I love you.”