It can be the most ordinary bit of life that brings back the memory of Dennis Scauso to his daughters Gabrielle and Juliette. A friend’s mention of a parent. A passing fire truck.
For some Long Islanders who were young children on Sept. 11, 2001, time has perhaps frayed but not erased the memories of the parents they adored in their young lives nor has it eliminated the pain of their loss, even as they have grown up and started new phases of their lives.
They have come of age and dealt with all the struggles young adults face against the very public backdrop of mass tragedy.
Yet that day remains frozen in time. At 12, Lauren Erker of Farmingdale had a more immediate sense of the danger than Gabrielle, who was 6, or Juliette, then 4.
“I was at school, in second-period social studies class and a teacher ran in and they put on the TV," Lauren said. "I was kind of hoping he wasn’t at work yet. I told my next teacher and he sent me down to call my mom and finally my aunt answered and they came and got me.
“I just wanted to be left alone," Lauren added. "I went to my room; probably cried a little kind of hoping that he just didn’t have a phone, and I was trying to figure out where he was. Myself I didn’t believe it, but my mom told me a few days later.”
Her father, Erwin Erker, was a systems analyst at Marsh McLennan, whose entire staff of 295 employees present that day was lost. He was 41.
Gabrielle was in first grade when she got the first bit of news. “They made an announcement and my mom soon came to pick me up," she said. "The first graders didn’t know what was going on. I knew there was a big fire, and I knew my dad was a firefighter and got very, very worried," Gabrielle said. "I knew he fought fires. I always thought he’d be OK. When we got home and saw on the TV, we still clung to the hope he’d be OK.”
But the tears of her mother, Janlyn, signaled the tragic news.
“Mom was crying but she didn’t tell us anything,” Gabrielle said.
The family went to the middle school to pick up the other children, Darcie, now 23 and expecting her first child, and Donny, now 21.
If the drama playing out on TV and the Internet was hard to comprehend, Susan Thomas explained why. “When they see those images, they see that’s happening over and over again," said Thomas, a bereavement coordinator at the center for Healing, Opportunity, Perseverance and Enlightenment at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park. "Little kids — they don’t realize it’s the same image. Some of what I found is that kids would say the whole city fell down. The whole city fell down. Those images stick in your brain. For kids who are seeing those images, it can be very, very traumatizing.
“It was such a public event,” Thomas said. “The kids couldn’t escape from it. A lot of times the parents had to turn off the TV to shield their children.”
But the memories of the man who once sat with them in the rocker or used duct tape to fix everything remain in the minds of Juliette and Gabrielle, who live in Melville. And there’s the cooking of the FDNY firefighter, who specialized in hazardous materials.
“They wouldn’t let him cook at the firehouse. He couldn’t cook at all,” Juliette said. “His mom could just whip up a whole bunch of things, he thought he could too and he would just throw a bunch of things into the pot. Even the dog wouldn’t eat it.”
For Lauren, her father was a “Great, funny guy. We got along well. I was always a daddy’s girl. We went shopping together, spent a lot of time together and had a lot of vacations.”
Even as distance from the attacks grows and anniversaries accumulate, the children who have grown up with the loss of their fathers have learned to cope.
Gabrielle and Juliette attended memorial services with each passing year, but if the subject came up in school, they often opted out of the classroom discussion. Sometimes they warned their teachers ahead of time; sometimes not.
And both adults and kids can be clueless, even cruel.
“I feel like people don’t know how to deal with problems," Gabrielle said. "It was on such an international scale, people didn’t know how to deal with it. People were either overly sympathetic, they’d keep asking ‘Are you OK?’ or they would say cruel things like, ‘For all the things you guys are getting I wish my dad was dead.’"
Thomas said, “It is a difficult thing. A lot of them really have gone through the process and they learn to integrate. But nobody ever gets over a loss.
“Grief is a lifelong process. We don’t just grieve and get over it. As they mature, they grieve and re-grieve that loss, at very important points in their lives, when they go to the prom, or graduate or get married. If they were very, very young, they’ll have a very different process.”
For several years, they attended programs for Sept. 11 children, but at least one, America’s Camp, closed in August after recognizing that its campers were aging out. The Scauso sisters went for eight years.
“At America’s Camp, at first we were all just very angry; we all kind of did our own thing," Gabrielle said. "But as time went on, we all kind of understand that sense of loss. We love and are attached to the people we met.”
While Lauren eventually joined a group for children who had lost a father, her mother, Ann Erker, said the family found a simple way to go on.
“I’ve continued to live," the elder Erker said. "We had plans to go away at the end of October [in 2001] and so we went. We continued on. We didn’t not do things because he wasn’t here. In that way, we make him proud. My kids were my strength. We’ve just lived a very normal life.”
The children were so young at the time of their fathers’ deaths that they find it difficult to determine the precise effect of the tragedy on their lives.
Lauren, a recent college graduate, is looking for work as a graphics designer. Gabrielle is trying to decide where her art abilities might take her. And Juliette took an interest in peace-building workshops at summer camp.
As the 10th anniversary looms, the families are handling it in different ways.
Ann Erker said Lauren and her son, Andrew, 19, will attend several memorials this year, including events on Long Island and then Sunday at Ground Zero.
The Scauso family will attend a memorial at St. Patrick’s Cathedral but their plans beyond that are a little up in the air. Darcie Scauso is heading for an induced delivery of her son, tentatively scheduled for Friday but possibly delayed until Sunday.
He will be named Jayden, for the boy’s father, Jason, and her father, Dennis.