Our family's recovery

When the grandmother the girls called "the human Barbie doll" died in the World Trade Center, they were buried in grief. But Brianna and Shannon, and their parents, Jay and Louise, refuse to let the past rule them.

Published September 11, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

For months after her grandmother died, Shannon Yaskulka doodled incessantly, drawing swirls and curlicues on any piece of paper she could find. Confused by what the drawings meant, her parents, Jay and Louise, brought them to Shannon's pediatrician, who showed them to a psychologist. "The psychologist said it looked like smoke," says Jay. Presumably Shannon was copying the plumes from the World Trade Center that she had glimpsed on television on Sept. 11, 2001, when the 3-year-old turned to her father and said, "Daddy, that's where Grandma works."

"We figured she's only 3, she's not comprehending this," says Jay. "But she was."

Shannon's grandmother, Myrna Yaskulka, was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. She worked as an executive secretary at Fred Alger Management, located on the 93rd floor of the north tower. Five years after her death, the Yaskulkas, like thousands of families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, are still coping with the aftershocks.

Jay, 38, a former Target manager, has been unemployed since 2000 and suffers from clinical depression. Louise, 40, remains plagued by guilt because she was supposed to be standing in front of the towers, on her way to work, when the planes hit. Their daughter, Brianna, 13, is furious about the way her grandmother was killed. And Shannon, 8, still fights against the debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. When the sky turns dark, the way it did when the smoke filled it on Sept. 11, she is often paralyzed with panic.

The public tragedy has dredged up past family traumas while also creating new psychological wounds. Losing a loved one is always painful, but losing her under horrifying circumstances makes recovery so much more difficult. "Usually when grieving, you get to a point when you can reminisce and remember good times," says Alan Steinberg, associate director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at UCLA. "But if every time you think of them, your mind is drawn to the horrifying way they died, your positive memories are blocked."

Yet Jay and Louise are determined to keep their positive memories of Myrna alive, and are doing everything in their power to help their daughters move through their grief. In 2003, they moved from Staten Island, N.Y., where Myrna and many friends and neighbors who perished in the towers had lived, to the middle-class town of Hazlet. They have taken advantage, individually and together, of the free therapeutic services available to 9/11 families. Jay and Louise strive to keep the girls from dwelling on the tragic day, but they have also instituted a family rule: No subject, not Osama bin Laden or Islam or their personal demons, is off limits. For the past five years, openness has been their chosen method of coping -- and they're banking on truth and honesty to help their daughters heal.

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On a recent scorching August afternoon, Jay is sitting on a leather couch in his dark and heavily air-conditioned living room. A bald, stocky man with a blond mustache and bright blue eyes, his posture is rigid from a chronic back condition, but he relaxes when he speaks about Myrna.

She was a "party animal," he says, laughing and recounting his mother's love of dancing and attending singles events. She was the girls' "human Barbie doll" and let them paint her face with makeup and style her hair. A compulsive shopper, Myrna visited Century 21, the famous discount department store near the World Trade Center, every workday. After Myrna's death, Louise found 200 pairs of sunglasses and an entire trunk of clothes, including glamorous evening gowns that still had the price tags on them, in her apartment.

Myrna's remains were never recovered, so the Yaskulkas filled two urns with poems, mementos and a Century 21 bag. Her cemetery plot has a view of the Woodridge Mall in New Jersey. "She chose that spot because she wanted to face Bloomingdale's," Jay says, chuckling. Photographs of Myrna show a woman who looked dramatically younger than her 59 years, a woman who fancied rhinestone sunglasses, gold lamé raincoats and white faux-fur hats, like the one that sits atop a bust on an end table in the Yaskulkas' living room, a tribute to its owner.

The Yaskulkas' boxy ranch house sits on a quiet street, lined with similarly compact houses. On the Saturday I visit, they are holding a garage sale and their driveway is filled with old toys, tchotchkes and furniture. Neighbors and friends mingle on the lawn and kids splash in the backyard pool. Even though the Yaskulkas moved to Hazlet three and half years ago, they still haven't fully unpacked; boxes are scattered around the house and the dining room table is covered in papers. In a corner of the small upstairs hallway stands a curio cabinet filled with 9/11 mementos: a star of David made from a steel beam from ground zero, a copy of the 9/11 Commission Report and a portrait of Myrna painted by Brianna.

Unlike other families who spent the first weeks after 9/11 waiting and praying for their loved ones to return, Jay says he knew immediately that his mother was dead. "My brothers and I -- we always talked about the fact that there was a black cloud over our family," he says. "I wanted to believe otherwise, but I knew." The black cloud first formed in 1981, when Jay's father, Stuart, was murdered in a botched robbery. "Three gunshots to the head for $60," says Jay, who was 13 at the time. "Both my parents went to work and never came home."

It's the senseless and violent death of his father -- and the fact that his family kept silent about it -- that make Jay and Louise fiercely determined to talk with their daughters about their grandmother's death, if the kids want to. "I don't want them to keep it inside like I did," Jay says. "As a kid, I tried to keep busy. I tried not to think about my father and I had a lot of anger."

Shortly after 9/11, Jay attended community meetings in Staten Island, but they soon began to bother him. The auditoriums were filled with children who had lost parents, and yet no one was talking to, or about, them. At one meeting, Jay rose to address the parents in the crowd. "I said, 'Kids understand more than we think they do,'" and then he told them about his experience as a fatherless 13-year-old. "I said, 'I'm not a psychologist, but I can tell you what it's like.'" He shared with them the fact that as a grown man he cried at his wedding, at the birth of his children, and each year on his father's birthday. While trauma settles and recedes over time, on certain occasions it rises to the surface. "The pain never goes away," Jay says he told the parents. "Even for children -- especially for children."

"If you as an adult can't understand how something like 9/11 could happen," Jay says, "how will you explain it to a child?"

Yet Jay and Louise have made it a priority to explain as much as possible to their daughters. "If my kids ask, I tell them," says Louise. "I don't lie. My parents used to say, 'If you're smart enough to ask, you're smart enough to understand the truth.'" When Brianna asked why someone wanted to kill her grandmother, Louise explained to her that "they didn't kill Grandma, they killed Americans, they targeted the heart of America. That helped her make sense of it," Louise says.

"The girls need to know what's going on because they'll get bits and pieces and hear things the wrong way otherwise," Jay says. "We think this is the best. Are we right? You never know. That's the tricky part of parenting."

As I sit and talk with Jay and Louise, Shannon and Brianna walk in and out of the room, sometimes pausing to hear their mother's or father's words. Jay talks matter-of-factly about his depression and the medication he needs to take to treat it. Louise weeps openly and speaks of the sometimes strained relationship she had with Myrna, how difficult it can be at times to live with a depressed husband, and the survivor's guilt she still suffers from. She tells me that when she was 9 years old, her mother had two massive strokes that left her unable to care for herself. "I became her caretaker with my dad and a health aide," says Louise, who has three younger siblings. "I grew up with my mom sick, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the [younger] kids. That was my training for this. That was God's way of preparing me."

Louise tells me that a week ago she "broke down" and started crying uncontrollably. "Even though it's been five years, it's still so crisp," she says of 9/11. At the time, Louise was an associate at Citibank, located a few blocks from the World Trade Center. She decided to drive to work on Sept. 11 so she could get home in time to vote -- it was Election Day -- and attend Brianna's back-to-school night. When she emerged from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel she heard the roar of the second tower falling and sat in her car while the world turned gray around her. Had she taken the bus as usual, she would have been steps away from the towers when the planes hit. "I sat in the car and called to Myrna, 'Where are you? Where are you'" Louise says. Myrna, who always shopped at Century 21 before work, decided to get to the office early on Sept. 11. "Why did I do what I did, and why did she do what she did?" Louise asks. "We both did something unexpected and she died and I lived."

To Jay and Louise, Shannon's wounds sometimes seem the deepest. "She's afraid of gloom," Louise says of her youngest daughter. "Rain triggers disaster to her because rain means lightning, thunder, darkness." For months after 9/11, Shannon carried around a tiny guitar and belted out "God Bless America" on the front porch of her Staten Island house and at the local mall. She constantly peppered her parents with questions. "Why did those men kill Grandma Myrna?" "When they finish cleaning up ground zero will grandma come home?"

Although the images she saw on television on Sept. 11 were fleeting, they lodged in Shannon's consciousness. Sitting on an ottoman in the living room, Louise, crying quietly, ticks off the symptoms that dog Shannon. If Shannon wakes up and it's raining outside, she often won't go to school, preferring to hide in the safety of her bed. She can become so panicked by the weather, or the smell of smoke, that she'll vomit or even run a fever. "All of this started after 9/11," Louise says.

"She'll start crying out of nowhere," adds Brianna, who is curled up on the couch a few feet from her mother. "She says, 'I want to live forever.'" Shannon's fears sometimes hinder the family's activities. A few weeks ago, the Yaskulkas were enjoying a Saturday afternoon at a car show when the wind began to blow and the sky began to darken. Immediately the family packed up and left. "If it rains, we leave as a family, together," says Louise. "Our family and friends accept it."

Shannon has been in and out of counseling for five years. She has made progress with some psychologists, but not with others. Last year, after seeing a young therapist-in-training who worked in conjunction with her schoolteachers, Shannon was able to overcome her fear of going to school for several months. Louise says Shannon has coped well with a recent spate of East Coast thunderstorms, but she's concerned about what worries the coming school year might trigger.

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Brianna's reaction to her grandmother's death has taken a different turn than her sister's. Rather than becoming consumed by fear, she has focused her feelings outward, railing against President Bush, the media, and anyone who dares to tell her they're sorry that her grandmother died. With her dirty blond hair in a messy ponytail, black bra straps peaking from underneath a white tank top, and a diamond stud glittering in her nose, she looks more like 18 than 13.

"I hate when people say, 'I'm sorry,'" Brianna tells me. "I tell them, 'Why? You didn't do anything!'" She also hates -- hates!-- President Bush. "Because of his stupidity, my grandmother is dead," she tells me.

"If Brianna sees Bush on the news, she says, 'He knew this was going to happen,'" Jay adds. "She really tenses up at the news and I can't blame her. I'm mad too. Why are we going after Saddam? I'm confused too."

Brianna expresses similar rage over the ubiquitous media representations of 9/11, whether it's TV coverage of the foiled terror plot in Britain, previews for Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" or the flurry of images -- some as innocuous as billowing American flags, some as wrenching as the buckling towers -- that have been blanketing the media in the lead-up to the fifth anniversary.

"I threw my remote at the TV when I saw a commercial for [the Oliver Stone movie]," Brianna tells me from her perch on the couch. "A movie is supposed to be entertaining. [Movies like that] give more information to people than they need to know or want to know. And for those who lost people, it brings back the tragedy. But there is no way to stay away from reminders -- on the news, radio, TV, now a movie. Enough!"

Psychologists say many victims -- particularly children and teenagers -- want to rid themselves of the 9/11 badge. "No matter how well a kid is doing in every other regard -- and I've seen children be so incredibly emotionally mature about their relationship with their dead parents -- they always feel like a 9/11 kid," says Marylene Cloitre, a research psychologist, who has worked with hundreds of children who lost parents on 9/11 in her role as director of the Institute for Trauma and Stress at New York University's Child Study Center. "Many of them look forward to college for the opportunity to be free of that ID. And that ID has been tough to shake because of what 9/11 has meant to the city and country."

But Brianna in some ways has embraced her association with the attacks. She is happy to talk to the media and when she meets new people, she immediately tells them about the way her grandmother was killed. On the first day of school she informed her history teacher that she will not attend lessons on 9/11. ("I don't need to learn about it," she tells me. "I lived it.") Brianna insists that her family attend anniversary ceremonies at ground zero, and the girls go to an overnight camp every summer for 9/11 kids. Indeed, experts and parents talk about how therapeutic it is for 9/11 kids to be around each other. Losing their loved ones at the same moment, in the same way, creates an indelible bond.

Brianna and Shannon attend Camp Better Days, a one-week overnight camp for children who lost loved ones on Sept. 11. "You can't escape the world, but you can at camp," says Brianna, who excitedly tells me about all of the activities -- movies under the stars, 1980s night -- that she gets to do at Better Days. "At camp I feel good because everyone there has been through the same thing." Shannon, who needs her mother to stay with her until she falls asleep when she is at home, has been attending camp for four years. It is the one place where she feels independent -- even safe.

As Louise, Jay and I continue to talk, with the girls hovering nearby, Jay says he tries to provide as much fun and escape for Brianna and Shannon as possible, taking them fishing, to amusement parks, on bike rides. "Kids shouldn't endure any type of pain," he says. "I don't try to distract them, but why should they be thinking about bin Laden or what Bush is saying? I don't think they need to be involved with that."

The Yaskulkas are no longer in family therapy, deciding instead to work together to try to solve their problems and transcend the anguish of the last five years. "Our therapy now is talking to each other," says Jay. "We have each other."

Invariably, when the subject of 9/11 surfaces, he strives to keep the focus on his mother. To his family, Sept. 11 is entirely personal. "I know people whose life is 9/11 stuff, but I couldn't do that," he says. "We don't talk about it so much as something that happened to thousands of people. We talk about her." And all the things they love about her. Jay wears a silver cuff memorial bracelet with Myrna's name engraved on it, his way of keeping her memory alive. On Myrna's birthday, for three years after her death, the girls baked a cake and sang "Happy Birthday." They bought helium balloons and attached notes to them to send up to heaven. "By doing things like that, we accentuate the positive," says Louise. "Did 9/11 rob them of some of their childhood? Yes. But I don't want them to take life as gloom and doom. They have a lifetime to worry about the crises in the world."

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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