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Robin Ornedo holds a teddy bear she received about 10 years ago at a 9/11 memorial event as a way to remember her father, Ruben Ornedo, who was killed in the attack.
Robin Ornedo holds a teddy bear she received about 10 years ago at a 9/11 memorial event as a way to remember her father, Ruben Ornedo, who was killed in the attack. (Jessica Pons/for The Washinton Post)

There is grief, but no memories.

There are photos, but none together.

There were no high-fives on the softball field, no fist bumps at the hockey rink, no bear hug after graduating high school.

For the children who weren’t yet born when their fathers died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — more than 100, according to Tuesday’s Children, an organization that counsels them — their fathers exist only as a lifelong, heartbreaking absence.

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, here are four stories of children who entered the world after their fathers had already left.

———

‘I pretended my dad was alive just so I wouldn’t feel left out’ — Robin Ornedo, Born Jan. 31, 2002

The first time she remembers having to make a Father’s Day card at school, Robin Ornedo was in first grade.

As a teacher explained the assignment — folding construction paper to resemble a man’s shirt and tie — the 6-year-old felt a sadness creeping in. She knew her dad was gone, lost in what she only vaguely understood as some sort of accident.

For a moment, Robin sat wondering what to do. Then she remembered something her mom always told her: that it was okay to talk to her dad as if he was still there with them. That in a way, he was still there.

She grabbed a piece of purple paper for the shirt and turquoise for the tie. On the inside, she was supposed to fill in details about him. She thought of things other people had told her, and an older student helped her write them down: “Funny and fun” and “You are like me.”

“I pretended my dad was alive,” Robin recalled recently, “just so I wouldn’t feel left out.”

It was something she would do again and again. At her family’s home in Corona, Calif., Robin’s creations — a tile with her small handprint, paper planes scrawled with “XOXOXO” and “I love you” — sit in what she refers to as “Dad’s room.”

On the walls, photos show Ruben Ornedo wearing the smile everyone says his daughter shares. A display case holds a folded American flag, memorabilia from years’ worth of commemorative ceremonies and a palm-sized model of the Pentagon. Propped up on one shelf, below the flag, is the seating chart for American Airlines Flight 77.

Robin can’t remember when she grasped what it all meant; she thinks it might have been fourth or fifth grade. As she starts her sophomore year at the University of California at Irvine, where she is studying biological sciences, she still feels confused when she thinks about what happened to her dad, and why. A 39-year-old engineer at Boeing, he was killed when terrorists hijacked the plane he was on and crashed it into the Pentagon. His daughter calls it “the incident” or “the event.”

As she’s grown older, her mom, Sheila, has told her more details about their loss. How she struggled that first trimester of pregnancy and how Ruben, wanting to be at her side, interrupted his business trip in D.C. to fly home on Sept. 11 instead of Sept. 17. How she sobbed watching the news that day.

“I can’t imagine what she went through,” Robin said. “No matter how many times I hear her tell me that story, it’s just — I will never understand how she feels.”

She was the first and only child for the couple, who were married just that year. In the happy months after they found out about the pregnancy, Ruben liked to rest his head against Sheila’s stomach and listen. They knew they were having a girl but hadn’t decided on a name; Ashley was an early favorite. After his death, Sheila chose Robin because it sounded like Ruben. She didn’t know how she’d deliver their baby without him.

Somehow, she got through it. Robin Galero Ornedo arrived on Jan. 31, 2002, welcomed by relatives of both parents and by multiple godparents — so many of Ruben’s friends and co-workers asked, and Sheila didn’t want to tell anyone no. Robin’s photo hung outside her dad’s old office, where one Boeing employee told a company publication she was “everybody’s baby.”

Surrounded by that circle, Robin grew up hearing stories about her namesake. She knows that he was quiet but decisive, confident enough to ask her mother, when they were introduced, “So, when are we going on a date?” She knows that before he proposed, he had a friend teach him Tagalog so he could ask her to marry him in her native language. And she knows he wasn’t a fan of the water but loved climbing mountains.

Which Robin finds funny because she spent years on the swim team, and she’s a little afraid of heights.

Other details she’s gleaned from dozens of letters and cards her mom tucked into a binder with an American flag on the cover. They arrived in the weeks after 9/11, addressed to Sheila and “Baby Ornedo.” Robin reaches for the binder when she feels alone.

In her admission essay for the University of California system, she described realizing she “was never going to have a dad there for me to protect me, to dance with me, or to carry me on their shoulders.” But the letters, with their stories about “Ornedo the Tornado,” helped change the way she thought about his absence.

“I learned to see my dad as a role model instead of some stranger I will never meet in this lifetime,” she wrote. “My name is Robin for a reason. It is to be like my father, Ruben, who always reached the top of the mountains.”

Robin wanted to attend UCLA, where her dad studied engineering. Maybe she would feel closer to him strolling the same hallways he had. When she was waitlisted, she was devastated: “I thought I lost that connection with him.”

The sting of the UCLA rejection feels distant now. There are other ways, Robin has decided, to be like her dad.

———

‘Every time I put on the Army uniform ... I feel connected to him’ — Luke Taylor, Born Oct. 25, 2001

Luke Taylor always knew he had a mother and father in heaven, though as a child he didn’t really know what that meant.

Then one night when he was 8 or 9 years old, he wandered into the office of the man he called Dad. As the two watched TV together, Luke asked for the first time about the memorabilia on the shelves. There were dog tags, a folded American flag and a photograph of his grandfather commissioning two sons — Dean and Kip Taylor — into the Army.

Then came the long conversation that Luke would remember for years to come. Dean Taylor tried break it down on a third-grade level. He explained that Kip Taylor, Luke’s biological father and Dean’s brother, was killed in the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon before Luke was even born.

That Nancy Taylor, Luke’s biological mother, died of breast cancer just over two years later. And that he and his wife, Donna, had agreed to Nancy’s wish that they raise Luke and his older brother as their own.

“I think I remember it most because he started crying, and my dad does not cry very often,” Luke said. “Like, I can count on one hand how many times my dad has cried throughout my last 19 years of life.”

The sight of it made him cry, too.

Luke was born Oct. 25, 2001, six weeks after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, killing all 64 people aboard the plane and 125 inside the building. Lt. Col. Kip Taylor, a 38-year-old aide to the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, was among the dead.

Just over an hour before the attack, Kip had sent friends and family an email rhapsodizing about how fatherhood had changed his life. He and Nancy saw their 20-month-old son and the one on the way, both conceived through IVF, as miracles.

“After kids, there are days that just get going when you say, ‘Hi honey, I’m home,’” he wrote. “My conclusion is that what we do until that moment pales in comparison to what we do after that point in the day.”

Twenty years later, the message brings a sense of peace to the son he never met. It shows that his father was happy at the end, Luke says: “You do all this planning in life — hey, I want kids, I want a good job, I want to settle down with a good wife and be a dad. ... He’s like, ‘I’m finally here.’”

Every once in a while, Luke goes through a “sad spurt” thinking of all he’s lost. On those days, he says, he misses Kip and Nancy, “which is weird, because I didn’t know them.”

But most of the time, he’s matter-of-fact in talking about their deaths. He tries to stay upbeat. He feels lucky to have been raised from 2 years old by the only parents he can remember, who describe Luke and his brother as “the greatest gift ever.”

Married for almost 20 years on Sept. 11, 2001, Dean and Donna never planned to have children. After Nancy’s death, they rededicated their lives to the two little boys. Dean retired from the Army, getting a job at the Transportation Security Administration, and Donna became a stay-at-home mom. They hewed to a written list of requests Nancy left behind.

Luke, who marvels at the sacrifices Dean and Donna made, believes they were “meant to be parents.”

There’s no way of knowing how his life would have turned out if the attacks didn’t happen, he said.

“I don’t really do the whole ‘what if’ thing,” Luke said. “I mean, you can go back in history and it’s like, if this hadn’t happened, the world would be a completely different place. Yeah, that’s true. But it did happen, so here we are.”

He grew up in Colorado Springs among reminders of his “parents in heaven.” Sometimes he would make a face or the light would hit a certain way, and someone would tell him he looked just like Kip. He played basketball in high school like Kip, and after a good game, Dean would say how proud he’d have been.

Sometimes the family would visit Arlington National Cemetery, where Kip and Nancy are buried, and Luke would feel a swell of pride knowing the Taylor name was among all the white headstones.

At Texas Christian University, Luke is in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, carrying on the family military tradition. One of the other cadets is the son of a long-ago friend of Kip’s.

“Every time I put on the Army uniform as a cadet, I feel connected to him because that’s what he wore,” Luke said.

There’s one more thing that might strengthen their connection: a time capsule. For years, the plastic container has been waiting in storage, taped shut and tucked away until he turns 21.

Nancy put it together before her death at 39; Luke has been told letters and audio recordings are inside.

Sometimes his lost parents can feel almost like distant relatives. He’s hoping the time capsule brings them into sharper focus.

“It’s like I’m missing something,” he said, “but I don’t know what I’m missing.”

———

‘He wasn’t supposed to be there’ — Claudia Szurkowski, Born May 3, 2002

Before her family dug the camcorder and cassette tapes out of storage, Claudia Szurkowski had only seen her dad in photographs.

She watched eagerly last winter as one of the late-1990s home videos filled the living room television screen. Finally, she would get a glimpse of him in action - the man she’d heard about all her life.

But when Norbert P. Szurkowski made his first appearance, his daughter almost missed it. He was speaking off-camera, his voice deep, confident and painfully unfamiliar.

“It took my mom to point it out that it was him,” she said. “And that really upset me, because if I were to hear him down the street, I wouldn’t know it’s him.”

Months later, the memory still gnaws at Claudia. She mourns her father every day, and yet there is so much she will never know about him.

She was born on May 3, 2002, nearly eight months after the day he left for work and didn’t come home.

Her parents had been aware of the pregnancy for only a few days: her mother, Ursula, woke up one morning and just knew. Norbert was giddy. It was baby No. 2 for the couple, who had been together since they were teenagers newly arrived to the United States from Poland. Their oldest, Alexandra, was 3 years old.

Claudia learned her family’s Sept. 11 story in bits and pieces. She knows it is difficult for her mom to relive — even now, 20 years later, after she has remarried, had a third daughter and moved her children to Naples, Fla.

While training to become a mechanic, her dad was earning extra money putting up wallpaper. That Tuesday morning, a supervisor sent him to the World Trade Center to fix a mistake another worker had made at the Cantor Fitzgerald offices.

The last Ursula heard, her outgoing, adventurous husband of five years was on the 104th floor, several stories above where American Airlines Flight 11 tore into the North Tower.

“He wasn’t supposed to be there,” Claudia said, shaking her head. Thinking about it made her mad.

She grew up longing for the father she’d never met. She saw him in her own features and grew accustomed to people telling her, after she made some expression or gesture, “Your dad used to do that, too!” She found comfort in knowing he loved the name Claudia.

“Whenever I get thinking about him, and I miss him so much,” she said, “I just realize, oh, he knew what my name was going to be - like, he knew me, in a way.”

Sometimes Claudia envies her big sister, who at least got a few years with him. In one of the home videos, he held her and talked to her: “Alexandra, Alexandra, hey, darling.” Then again, she thinks, maybe that just makes it harder.

Every year on Sept. 11, she posts a tribute to her dad on social media. “I miss you more than anyone could ever understand,” she wrote on Instagram in 2018, below a picture of his name inscribed in bronze at the 9/11 memorial in New York.

Otherwise she mostly keeps her loss to herself. She doesn’t want people treating her differently out of pity. It had happened before; someone would discover her dad died in the World Trade Center and suddenly want to sit next to her at lunch.

“My junior year of high school, when somebody found out, they instantly went on their phone and posted a photo of me,” Claudia recalled. “And they were like, this girl is so strong, blah, blah, blah, things like that. And I’ve never once had a full conversation with them.”

So she mourns more quietly. She reads as much as she can about 9/11, feeling less lonely when she learns about other people who lost someone that day.

Her dad smiles out from a photograph she keeps in her bedroom, next to a cheerleading trophy and her diploma from Naples High School. She talks to the image of him every day before she goes to sleep, sometimes out loud, sometimes in her head.

She tells him the kinds of things she’d tell him if he were at the dinner table. How her day went at her job as a secretary at a Naples hospital or in her classes at Florida SouthWestern State College, where she’s studying law. What she has planned for the next day.

“I’ll ask him questions, even though I know I’m not going to get an answer,” Claudia said. “Like, what does he think? Is he proud?”

She wonders what her life would be like if he were here. She’s always picturing his presence in her head. Just the ordinary things: Getting in trouble with her mom and asking her dad to get her out of it. Or being told, “Go ask your father.”

———

‘I know how quickly things can change and what can be taken away’ — Jack Esse, Born Oc. 31, 2001

Jack Esse's father, Jim Patrick, was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Jack Esse's father, Jim Patrick, was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (Sarah Blesener/for The Washington Post)

As Jack Esse was growing up, the older he got the more he behaved like a man he’d never met.

He would twist his tongue when telling a joke. He curled his hands when walking. And he announced two very specific demands when it came to food. One: He would never again eat mayonnaise again. Two: Different foods on his plate should never ever touch.

These things freaked out his mother because Jack was turning into a replica of his father, Jim Patrick, a bond broker on the 105th floor of the North Tower at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

On that day, Jack was still percolating in his mother’s bulging belly. He was born seven weeks later on Halloween, and he has lived his life in the costume of a man for whom he has no memories.

“I obviously never knew him,” Jack said, “but I have a lot of him in me.”

Which is precisely where Jack’s mother, Terilyn, always explained he’d be.

A stone commemorates Jack's father, James Matthew Patrick, at a 9/11 memorial in Connecticut.
A stone commemorates Jack's father, James Matthew Patrick, at a 9/11 memorial in Connecticut. (Sarah Blesener/for The Washington Post)

When Jack was a toddler, he and his mother talked about where Daddy Jim lived. They have an old VHS tape of one of those conversations.

“Who does he live with now?” Terilyn asks.

“With God and the angels,” Jack says.

And in his heart.

But even with his heart full, there was also a profound absence — and a lot of questions.

There is no playbook for a son to learn that his father died in an audacious attack in which terrorists used airplanes as missiles against America’s towering symbols of capitalism and democracy.

Terilyn, who remarried a few years after her husband’s death, recalled that she read somewhere that she should answer the questions as they are posed, and offer nothing more.

Around kindergarten, when Jack asked how his daddy died, Terilyn said, “He was in a building, and it fell down.”

A year or so later he asked how the building fell. “A plane flew into it,” his mother answered.

By third grade, the questions become more pointed.

Jack wanted to know, “Why would a plane fly into a building?”

“Well, there were these really bad guys,” his mother replied. “And the bad guys were flying the plane, and they flew the plane into the building.”

As Jack advanced in school, the event that killed his father became a subject of instruction. The more Jack learned, the more resentment built up.

Still living in Fairfield, Conn., his mother had married a man who treated him like his own son and adopted him. He had a younger sister and brother, as well as three stepsiblings. And yet, his half-siblings had their own flesh-and-blood father.

“I felt like I was missing something that they had that I didn’t — a real father, real siblings, stuff like that,” Jack said. “I felt like I was missing my real dad. I had a hard time with that.”

Jack saw a therapist, but he said he got over the resentment naturally.

“I think as I matured, I saw that I had a really great life, a man I called ‘Dad’ even if he wasn’t my biological dad,” Jack said. “I came to accept it. I look at my siblings like my real siblings. This is my family.”

As he grew up, Jack revealed even more traits of the dad he never knew. He became obsessed with hockey, just like his dad. He gives everyone nicknames, just like his dad. He takes time feeling comfortable around strangers, just like his dad.

“People talk about nature versus nurture,” Terilyn said. “Well there is a lot of nature with Jack. I’m constantly saying, ‘That’s Jim.’”

Each Sept. 11, Jack and his family mark Jim’s death quietly. He visits a nearby park where there is a memorial for Connecticut victims of the attack. At dinner, they hold hands and say a prayer for him. Jack’s longing for him endures — a longing that is shaped by what is both present and missing.

“I can’t sit and wonder anymore about what my life would have been like without September 11th happening, if I had known my dad,” said Jack, now a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, where he’s studying business. “I know how quickly things can change and what can be taken away.”

And that’s why Jack said he usually ends conversations with friends and family with a simple message he wishes he could tell the man who also despised mayonnaise: “I love you.”

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