As Patty Fallone and a friend walked down Park Avenue in New York on a sunny September morning, they were stopped by a stranger. “Did you hear about the plane?” the man asked. If his face hadn’t been so serious, his comment could have been the opening line of a joke. Neither woman yet knew about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, so when the man conveyed the news, it took a moment for its significance to register. Patty looked south. Beyond the Met Life building a few blocks away, she saw smoke rising from the midst of Lower Manhattan.
“Oh my God,” she said knowing, without yet being told, “My husband is dead.”
Patty was certain that, if the emotions she felt at that moment were reflected in her face, her expression would be seared into that stranger’s memory for the rest of his life.
Suddenly, Patty's world moved in slow motion. Patty, who was then 35, stepped off the curb, unthinking, into the street, cars whizzing past; her friend pulled her back onto the sidewalk and led her inside. From her friend’s apartment, Patty called St. Ignatius Loyola School where her four children were enrolled. She instructed the staff not to say anything to them until she arrived. She called her therapist, and then sat down in front of the TV. In her shock, she couldn’t quite remember whether her husband Anthony, 39, a bonds trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, worked in the North or South tower. I want to find his body, she thought. Then, as she watched the second tower fall, she no longer felt that need.
When she arrived at St. Ignatius, it was crowded with parents, and a part of Patty was surprised. In some ways she felt as if it these events were happening only to her. Had everyone lost someone? she wondered.
Most of the students were brought to the gym. The Fallone children—Katie, 11; Alexandra, 10; Anthony, 7; and Patrick, who, at 5, had just started his first full day of kindergarten—were brought instead to the principals’ office. When they entered, Patty could tell that her girls already suspected the worst.
Accompanied by the school’s principal, a psychologist, and Walter Modrys, S.J., then pastor of St. Ignatius Loyola parish, Patty looked at her children. Her younger daughter’s face is still a vivid memory. There was nothing to do but tell them.
“The building Daddy worked in was blown up and Daddy died,” Patty said.
“What if he made it out?” one child asked hopefully.
“He didn’t,” she said. And then she looked around at the other adults in the room. No one had any answers. I’m on my own, Patty thought.
To her kids, she continued: “I am here. We are here. We’re safe. I’m here to take care of you.”
The Long Road Home
Patty waited with the children at her friend’s house until someone could drive them to their home on Roosevelt Island, a thin, two-mile-long strip of land between Manhattan and Queens. The Fallones had been an active part of its diverse, close-knit community. Even in the midst of her mourning, Patty worried about the men who worked at the neighborhood deli, one from Egypt and one from Palestine. She hoped neither was the target of bigotry or misdirected anger. She wanted to make sure that her neighborhood, her “diverse little world” as she called it, didn’t disappear along with her husband.
Roosevelt Island was a place where even the people who Patty didn’t know smiled at her and at her husband Anthony, who had been a kind of larger-than-life presence in the neighborhood. Patrick, their son, had attended public pre-school on the island, and many of the mothers remained close. So in many ways, it wasn’t surprising when a group of these mothers showed up together at Patty’s door in the days following Sept. 11. They sat down, and one of them suggested they all hold hands and say a little prayer. So the women—Jewish, Christian and Muslim—joined together and prayed for healing.
Ten days after the attacks, an even larger group gathered for an interfaith memorial service at Patty’s request. The Catholic memorial Mass for Anthony would be held the next day, a Saturday, but Patty wanted a service that included the community in which her family lived. Her brother-in-law and sister-in-law wondered if both services were necessary, but Patty insisted. “This is what my family needs to do, and this is what our community needs,” she told them. Her in-laws attended, and as they watched group of neighborhood children sit cross-legged on the floor around an altar in an ecumenical chapel, they were happy they’d come.
The next day, about 20 blocks from where she’d learned of Anthony’s death, a memorial Mass was held in Anthony’s name at St. Ignatius Loyola church. Outside of the church bagpipers wailed a mournful song on their instruments, hired by a mother from the school. It was a moving sight, but also one that caused a few friends of the very-Italian Anthony to wonder whether they were at the correct location. The scene inside proved they were: the church was packed with friends, families from the school and people who just needed a place to mourn, a place to feel closer to God.
Patty had always felt a close relationship with God. She was active in her Catholic parish, attended retreats and had a strong sense of the goodness in this world. And somehow she found that Anthony’s death, the attacks, the terrorists didn’t change that. Couldn’t change that. She drew strength, also, from Father Modrys’s confidence in her ability to handle both the funeral preparations and the life that lay ahead. “He let me do what I felt I needed to do,” Patty said. But as they planned the ceremony, she looked at him and said, “I have to be honest, I will not gain any comfort from scripture; it’s my faith in God that’s getting me through this.” Father Modrys chose the readings. Patty had other choices to make.
She chose not to blame God. She chose to make the best of her situation. Every day, she chose to get up every morning and go on living. “I felt like people needed to see us being ok, and if we could be ok then they could be ok,” she said. “And a lot of people didn’t know if they could be ok.”
How, exactly, to make things ok was only one of the many questions Patty faced in the months following the attacks. None had easy answers, especially a bedtime inquiry posed by her son Anthony. Why, he asked, would a person fly a plane into a building to kill someone? Patty thought for a moment. She could have blamed any number of things: war, terrorism, religion. But Patty knew that the question was about hate, what it compels people to do, how it hollows people out.
“It’s like Star Wars," she told her son, “You have the force and the dark side, and it’s in each one of us. What made Anakin turn to the dark side is that he became angry and resentful, and the dark side took over. Jesus tells us to fight the darkness within us to be that good person inside.”
For the 8-year-old, it worked. But for Patty, this choice, between dark and light, good or evil, was rooted not in a Hollywood blockbuster but a deeply rooted theology. “The whole point is we have free will,” she said. “God clearly allows people to do what people choose to do. If he stepped in every time a mistake was going to happen, then that’s not free will. It’s the same attitude for raising kids: You want to raise happy, independent, self-sufficient adults. You don’t want to just have an older version of who they were at 12.”
Talking to the Father
Patty and her husband were not the type to ask, “Why me?” But after 9/11 others asked the question for her, wondering aloud why the Fallones, who loved so much, who lived life so fully, had to suffer this way. Patty could only answer: “Does someone else deserve it?” For Patty, the question of why was always less important that the question: What now?
In the days and weeks that followed the attacks, Patty continued to pray. She still prays. Sometimes she talks to Anthony in the same way she did when she would call him at work. Sometimes she talks to God. She asks for strength and offers thanks. “There are times when I’m talking to God and I get that fluttering in my stomach, the kind of butterflies you get when you know you’re loved,” she said.
Still, every once in a while, the reality of her situation hits her. “Holy s---,” she thinks. “My kids grew up without a father.” The first time she saw a father-daughter dance, it felt like a knife to her stomach. At her daughters’ high school graduations, her heart broke again at her husband’s absence. It is not during the difficult times, but in the beautiful, poignant moments that she feels most sharply the loss of her husband. She knows how proud he would be of who their children have become. She knows how much their children have missed by not having Anthony in their lives, not hearing his booming laugh, being near his cheerful presence. But she takes comfort in the time they had together. “Listen,” she told her children. “You know what it’s like to be your father’s favorite company, and he loved you. There are people who have their fathers their entire lives and have no idea what that’s like.”
Often, when her children were younger, Patty walked with them to the subway in the morning. They walked along the East River, past lines of roses and juniper trees. On days that were particularly gorgeous and sunny, she’d say to them, “What do you say when it’s a beautiful day?” The children knew their reply: “Thank you, God!” It’s a refrain Patty hasn’t forgotten.
After the attacks, well-intentioned friends tried to offer comfort, saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” But the words rang hallow to Patty. “You can’t tell me there’s a good reason Anthony got blown up,” she said. “But what I will say is there are always opportunities to make things better, and it takes a leap of faith sometimes to recognize and take advantage of those opportunities.”
For example, there was the time in November 2001 when Patty just wanted to stay home but was eventually swayed by friends to go out with them. In the back of a New York pub, their group met some fire fighters from Los Angeles. They began talking and then remembering and then crying. They talked about faith and God and the fire fighters introduced Patty to their families via e-mail. Eventually Patty and her children even visited them in California. They still keep in touch.
“You have to be open,” Patty said. “You have to want things to get better. You have to want to be happy again. There is a choice to be made: You’re going to be happy or wallow. When you have faith, you can make that choice.”
The fire fighters’ support and friendship played a significant role in Patty’s healing process. So much would have been different if she had stayed at home that night. The events of a single day, a few hours even, can change the course of everything—this she knows.
A decade later, Patty occasionally recalls the stranger from Park Avenue—the man who, in just a few words, unknowingly told her that her husband was, or would soon be, dead; that her children would grow up without a father; that her future as she’d imagined it was over. Sometimes she wishes she could find that man. She would like, as she has done for so many others, to reassure him. And if that man saw her, if he could read her expression today, he might know without being told exactly what she wants to say: “Everything is ok.”