Children of 9/11: Life with a parent missing

From left, Kelsey, 13, Sean, 9, Andrew Jr., From left, Kelsey, 13, Sean, 9, Andrew Jr., 19, and Matthew Jordan, 15, at their home in Westhamton. The Jordan family lost their father Andrew Jordan, a member of FDNY, during the Sept. 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. Sean was born on Sept. 26th 2001, 15 days after their loss. (July 18, 2011) Photo Credit: Photo by Chris Ware

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Nearly 3,000 children under the age of 18 lost a parent on Sept 11. The average age was 9. A total of 108 were born in the months after their fathers died.

Amy Mastrocinque was 15, her brother Peter only 11 when their dad, Kings Park resident Rudolph Mastrocinque of Marsh & McLennan was killed. And Sean Jordan of Westhampton was born two weeks after the death of his father, firefighter Andrew Jordan. He turns 10 on Sept. 26. Sean is one of those who knows his father only through family stories, and the public pain and heroism of a cataclysmic historic event. Here are their stories.

As Sean Jordan stood before the photographs of the burning World Trade Center towers at the Sept. 11 exhibit at the Newseum in Washington D.C., he overheard kids ask their mother why there was a picture of an airplane. They obviously didn't know that two jets had plowed into the towers, Sean thought.

Their queries revealed how little they knew about the attacks that killed Sean's father two weeks before he was born.

"He got really upset, with tears in his eyes," recalled his mother, Lisa Jordan. "I told him, 'Not everyone was affected by 9/11, you have to understand.' That these kids didn't know about it, that's almost a whole world to a kid."

Sean will become 10 years old 15 days after Sept. 11. He lives with his mother, brothers, Andrew, 19, Matthew, 15 and sister, Kelsey, 13 in Westhampton, in a house with a backyard pool, a puppy they're raising for a service dog organization and the sports gear, games and clutter of active childhoods. But something is missing.

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"I was asking my mom, 'Where's my dad?' Pretty much everyone I know has a dad," Sean said recently. "Actually, since I was 4, I was thinking of that.

"It felt like everyone succeeded and I didn't really succeed yet . . . " he said. "Like they were more successful. They had it made."

His father, Andrew Brian Jordan, was a New York City firefighter, 36 years old when he died with five others from Brooklyn's Ladder Company 132. His body was never recovered. The family commemorates every Sept. 11 with firefighters from his company.

Sean's feelings about his loss are complicated. On the one hand, he wants people to understand he doesn't have a dad because his father died a hero. On the other, he doesn't want to be singled out and summed up by the one event.

This summer was the fourth -- and last -- year he attended a week of summer camp for children who lost parents on 9/11. America's Camp is ending its annual event after a decade, saying most of the children are getting too old. Sean mourns its loss: There, for a week, he could forget about how 9/11 makes him feel different.

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"Out here, I feel left out and different. Just because everybody just says to me, 'Oh, that's the kid whose dad died in 9/11.' It just hurts me. I want people to remember me for who I am, and not just for what happened to my family's history."

And if he feels left out in the larger world, he can feel that way in his own family, too, where he is the only one with no personal memories of his father. Even his sister Kelsey, who was 3 when her father died, remembers that "Daddy liked Tootsie Rolls, just like me."

"What was he like?" Sean asks. "I ask my brothers what was it like when dad was here, and they have all these memories. And it made me feel left out with my family.

"It sort of makes me feel better that they had a good time, but it makes me feel, 'Gosh, who is this person I only get to hear about in stories and see in pictures?' "

 

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Sharing funny stories

His mother tells Sean funny stories about his dad: the time he didn't like their flimsy kiddie sprinkler so he welded a commercial one to the clothesline pole that watered the kids and the lawn at the same time, and the time he saw a dog obediently following its rollerblading master, so he decided to go for a bike ride with his own dog, who promptly ran off.

Sean's older brothers, who were both junior volunteer firefighters in Westhampton Beach, do what they can to fill in for the dad he never knew. They go to his baseball games, play intense video games of Call of Duty: Zombies with him, help out with his homework. He rides his bicycle with Kelsey, and goes with her to the library.

And, of course, his siblings have also all been affected, in different ways, by their father's death. Andrew, who helps manage a local baseball team and studies history at Iona College in New Rochelle, said his father's death at such a young age inspires him "to work hard and achieve more . . . it made me consider how short life really is."

His mother said all her kids consider that. "Once things happen to you, you realize bad things can happen to you," she said. "If it doesn't, you're almost immune to that. You almost don't understand the concept of loss."

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As he gets older, Sean wants to know more about 9/11. "What's funny now, is Sean wants to see everything on TV about it. He's taking an interest, and realizing what really happened," Lisa Jordan said.

He watches the world news, too, taking in the murder trials, the earthquakes and tsunamis, the wars and oil spills. Said Sean, "I'm thinking like, oh my gosh, I was just thinking like this is our world right now."

Last spring, Sean decided he needed to do something to make sure that kids like those at the Washington museum don't forget: He went before his school board in Westhampton Beach to ask that there be moments of silence on Sept. 11 and on Dec. 7, to mark the attack on Pearl Harbor at the start of World War II. And the board complied.

"I just told them these moments were horrible for our country and I think we should honor them in a respectful way," he recalled.

"I didn't want to wait until I was in my final years in school, because if I waited, basically, no one will remember it then."

 

 

Amy Mastrocinque

 

Amy Mastrocinque wasn't speaking to her father when he left the house on Sept. 11, 2001. She was 15, and he was a dad who expected a lot. And that could be a difficult combination.

She can't even remember the details. Did she forget to clean the bathroom? Did he criticize her tone of voice?

"He was stubborn, I was stubborn," she said. "It was a normal everyday spat."

She never got the chance to apologize that evening, as she usually did, because Mastrocinque was at his desk at Marsh & McLennan on the 100th floor of the north tower when a jet slammed into the building. His death left her with a decade of guilt and regret, and worry about what he would have thought of her as she grew into adulthood.

"I never got to have an adult relationship with my father," she said. "I never got to reconcile with him.

"I haven't been easy on myself," she said. "I know I'm young, but at 25 I feel like I've been through a war."

 

Uncles stepped in

Peter Mastrocinque, now 21 with his father's dark hair, long legs and slender build, had an easier relationship with him. He tried the sports his dad wanted him to try. He enjoyed the hobbies his dad enjoyed. When his father died, his uncles stepped in to give him the male companionship he'd lost.

Differences aside, Rudolph Mastrocinque remains a constant presence in the lives of his children. In the decade they entered adulthood without their dad, Peter and Amy have made their choices with the question: Would this make my father proud?

If she could be with him for one more day, Amy said, suddenly tearful, "I guess I'd ask him if he's proud of me, and if I turned out the way he had hoped."

"Where Amy was in her life was very different than where I was in my life," said Peter, a senior music business major at New York University who lives in Brooklyn. "We had different relationships, and I was young . . . I'm confident he would be proud as long as I was happy."

For Amy, the past decade has been dominated by unfinished business. The world mourned the loss of the victims of 9/11, and each year the horrifying images she didn't want to see were replayed on television.

She missed her father, but she didn't miss everything about him, and that made her feel even more guilty. She didn't miss his demanding standards, his perfectionism. "If I got a 95 on a test, he'd ask why didn't I get 100?

"There were a lot of things that were hard when he was around that I didn't miss, and was I a bad person for that?" she asked.

Rudolph Mastrocinque, 43 when he died, was a man with strong opinions -- about politics, about life -- who believed in taking on responsibilities and meeting them.

He coached his children's sports teams and cheered them from the sidelines. If his daughter said he didn't often praise her, he was also a constant in her life.

"He went to every one of her cheering competitions," said their mom, Meryl Mastrocinque, who has remarried. "He coached her soccer team and put her in good positions because he knew she could do it. I felt that his presence at all of her things was his way of showing her."

Amy noticed. "It meant a lot," she said, recalling how at first he was upset that she gave up the swim team for competitive cheerleading. "If it was important to me, it was important to him. He got into it."

In 2000, Rudolph Mastrocinque appeared to have dodged death after undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for a cancerous brain tumor. During his treatment, he told his family exactly what they should do if he died.

"He was adamant in telling us that if he ever died, he wanted us to basically conduct our lives in the same way," she said. "He told me he didn't want me to do anything differently."

Amy would take that advice when she turned 16 in October 2001, and went ahead with the Sweet 16 party her father had helped plan.

Even as the Hawaiian shirt he had bought to wear that night hung in the closet, she had her party because she and her mother knew that's what he would have wanted.

"All my friends came with the intention of making it the best day for me, and they did," she said. "It was something I needed. I had all my friends there. It was a happy time."

Later, though, the world moved on. After all the initial support, "everyone got on with their lives. I felt people thought, 'Well, you should be over it, it's two months later.' "

After graduating from Kings Park High School, where she was the only student who had lost a parent on 9/11, Amy went on to Colgate University in upstate Hamilton. While there, she refused to go out Sept. 10 and 11. "People didn't get it. They didn't seem to understand how I could get emotional over something that happened so long ago," she recalled.

 

Strength during illness

As a freshman, she was struck with a rare and serious illness, Lemierre's syndrome, which required surgery to remove infected clots from around her lungs and heart. Her father's own cancer survival gave her strength. She went into surgery holding his photo, and listening to Bruce Springsteen's 9/11 CD, "The Rising."

Last month, Amy moved to an apartment in Northport, and this fall began a new job teaching high school English in Hicksville. With the help of therapy, she is learning to turn to herself for approval. She had to work hard on that, because like her father, she's become quite a perfectionist.

"I have to think I'm OK and that's all that matters . . . My dad did the best he could for 16 years, and now it's up to me," she said. "I've spent so much time worrying what he would think. Now it matters what I do. I trust my instincts."

Amy's guilt over apologies left unsaid has evolved into regret, she said. "I think I've forgiven myself for it," she said. "I was a kid, and I didn't know this was going to happen. It's more regret that we didn't have a better relationship."

Her experiences have left her more independent, more resilient than she otherwise might have been, she said. "In the beginning, of course, I felt why does everyone else's biggest worry [get to be] what they're going to wear to school, and mine is where is my father and what happened to him? Now I think those are the cards I was dealt. It doesn't do me any good to say, 'Why me?' It's not going to change anything."

She sports two new tattoos. She has some lines from the poem "Invictus" on her hip. On her left inner wrist is a lotus flower with a Sanskrit inscription meaning "a new beginning."

"I hope I came through this with some sense of grace and intelligence, and that he would have been proud of the person I've become, imperfect as I am."

 

 

Peter Mastrocinque

 

Peter Mastrocinque was 11 when his father died. Rudolph Mastrocinque had left for work early that day so that he could come home in time to coach Peter's evening soccer clinic.

"Looking back, I can remember thinking how unfair that was, he was there one minute and gone the next . . . I felt there was a lack of justice in my own life. But I had to come to grips with the fact that sometimes bad things happen to good people and that this was my life now."

He remembers the chaos of the early weeks, the confusion and loss. His mother, Meryl, told him that as hard as it was going to be, there also would be "plenty of people to help me get through this."

His Uncle Ross Scheintaub -- married to Meryl Mastrocinque's sister Robin -- told the new widow, "I have a son now," Peter recounted. His father's brother Richard did a very similar thing. "I spent a lot of time at their homes. At 11, it was a strange time, right before I started growing up and I was influenced by the male figures in my life."

Scheintaub asked him what music he liked, and he said he wasn't sure. So he gave him a stack of classic rock recordings and Peter came back saying he thought "Tommy" by The Who was the coolest thing. He went on to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple. Now he sings in a campus a cappella group, dabbles in musical theater and wants a career in the music industry.

Peter remembers his father in the old blue Bass Ale T-shirt and boat shoes he wore after work, how he got a kick out of listening to Rush Limbaugh and other talk radio hosts who shared his conservative politics.

His dad Rudolph Mastrocinque had been close to his own father, also named Rudolph, and brother Richard, and "he and his whole family really liked to tease each other," Peter said. "When you get used to it, the sarcasm and teasing is a second language. He had a very quick wit, and at times things would cross lines and I'd get upset, but usually I understood it was out of love and fun."

On some weekend mornings, they'd go down to the Kings Park Bluff on the Long Island Sound and launch the motorboat his father kept in their driveway. If he passed a yard sale, he would invariably stop to buy old fishing poles to use for parts in creating a functional rod.

Much of their time together was spent at practices for the teams his dad coached -- baseball, lacrosse and especially soccer. "When we came home we'd still be talking about the game and what I had to do . . . he was demanding, but he never demanded perfection. He was trying to get me to make my best effort and learn all the tools that I needed. There were times he nagged at me, but in hindsight, I realized there is always something else to get to, to know if you really wanted to be better."

 

Race for the remote

Early on Saturday mornings there was the race to the sofa to get control of the TV remote.

"If I got there after him, I'd be watching the AMC channel, a 'Three Stooges' marathon, or 'Tarzan' or John Wayne. I think I've seen every single John Wayne movie because of that."

And there were lots of friends in his father's life, from work, from soccer. And from family: A happy memory was going to his grandpa's to use his jigsaw to make a car for the Boy Scouts Pinewood Derby. "I remember it made my dad really excited, too. He'd draw the shape on the block, and the three of us would work on it."

Then, one morning his father went to work and was gone.

"I think I have gone my own way," Peter said. "At a pivotal point, at puberty, in middle school, he wasn't around anymore, and I had no choice but to go my own way, politically and otherwise.

"He's not physically there, but mentally, emotionally, spiritually, I would say he is. Even if I go out and play a pickup soccer game, I feel like he's with me when I do that. When I went to the prom, he wasn't physically there, but that doesn't mean he wasn't with me from my perspective."

Over the years, Peter said he sometimes tried to avoid the anniversaries. "There were times I just wanted to go about my day and not have to worry about it. For most people it's an anniversary, they think of it when it comes around. For my entire family it comes up a lot more often than once a year, most notably every day."

He's been forced to learn how to deal with it. He leaves an NYU class if he's uncomfortable with the direction of a discussion. If it comes up in conversation, "and I'm uncomfortable, I can say, 'Take it easy.' " What most disturbs him are "violent, bigoted reactions."

Peter, who was raised Jewish like his mother, participated in a program called Seeds of Change that brought Jewish and Muslim students together for workshops, here and in Israel. The Israelis commented that the Americans probably had no idea about the tensions there, and Peter's group leader persuaded him to tell his story.

"Eventually I built up the guts to share what had happened and I said it has never occurred to me to blame Muslims for what happened . . . the only direction I can point to is people who did it."

In the past, Peter said, he seldom shared his story because he didn't want 9/11 to define him to the world, and he didn't want the pity and sympathy. "I realized that I can speak up and maybe it would help somebody else," Peter said. "It's not just about pity and sympathy. Maybe it can help give someone hope or confidence that hate isn't the only option."