December 23, 2001, New York Daily News, Struggling to be both parents at once, For Dads, The Agony Persists, by Heidi Evans, Staff Writer,
For seven days and nights after his wife perished on the 94th floor of the World Trade Center, Ramon Melendez could not bring himself to tell his two young boys why Mom hadn't come home. So he lied.
They closed the tunnels. She had to work late. She got stuck in traffic.
By the end of the week, a desperate father had to face the most painful conversation of his life.
"The look on their faces ...," said Melendez, his voice trailing off as he recounted the despair of 6-year-old Tyler and 10-year-old Jesse. "They just started crying. They put their heads down. I hugged them and tried to explain as best I could. I will always remember that day.
"Everything in my life has changed," he added. "Everything."
Most of the nearly 3,000 people who died Sept. 11 were men. But for the victims who were mothers - particularly those with young children - the husbands left behind may be facing the most difficult question of all: How do you replace the irreplaceable? How do you fill a mother's shoes?
It is not easy, and perhaps not even possible.
"Every situation is so different - some fathers have the means to get help, some don't. But the emotional pain is the same for all of us," said Warren Colodner, a Manhattan lawyer whose wife, Patti Colodner, worked on the 96th floor of 1 World Trade Center. He now is raising their 9-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son alone.
"You are dealing with a loss of someone who is so central to the family unit that it's hard to imagine how it could ever be replaced," he said. "It's just a pain we have to live with the rest of our lives and hope that time finds a way to lessen. It's really hard."
Though more than three months have passed, many of the husbands made widowers by Sept. 11 have left their wives' belongings untouched, not wanting to disturb the last and most vivid reminders of them: a nightgown hanging on the back of the bathroom door, the perfumes that sit atop their dressers, the refrigerator magnets that lovingly hold up their children's artwork.
Many also share the belief, no matter how improbable, that the women who made their house a home may still walk in the door.
"I know it sounds crazy, but I still can't believe she is gone," said Sadiq Rasool, an accountant for the city Department of Transportation who watched in horror from his office two blocks away as the hijacked plane barreled into the building where his wife worked.
At 33, Amenia Rasool was a radiant, vibrant woman and devoted mother of four. She, too, was an accountant, working for the insurance firm Marsh & McClennan on the 98th floor. She left behind 8-year-old and 6-year-old daughters, and 3-year-old and 1-year-old sons.
"I see her every day come through the subway where we used to meet and ride home together," Rasool said. "At work, the phone rings; I scream to the guy, 'Pick up the phone, my wife is calling!' It takes a while for all these things to go away."
All go on for the sake of their children, though some, like Melendez, are so depressed they would just as soon stay in bed. They are struggling to learn, juggle and be there for the children in ways their wives made look so easy. Their once-carefree children now worry when they leave the house for work.
"Have a good day. Please come home safely. I love you, Dad," wrote Rasool's 8-year-old child, Aneesa, on his lunch bag on Halloween, a day New Yorkers were anxious terrorists might strike again.
Some men have had their mother or in-laws move in. Others prefer their privacy and try to go it alone as Superdad, though many have had extraordinary outpourings of support from neighbors and friends.
Dennis Eulau, who lost his wife, has had dinner delivered to his home every night since Sept. 11, courtesy of 60 women in their Garden City, L.I., neighborhood who have been taking turns cooking for his three sons.
"I knew what the kids liked and didn't like," said next-door neighbor Laura Condulis, who added that a neighbor "organized it to make sure they didn't get ziti four nights in a row."
"You just wish you could do even more. But you can't," Condulis said. "If Michele were here, we'd be here with her 24/7. We wouldn't have left her alone for a minute. A man is different. He doesn't want to impose. He's not used to taking that kind of help."
Family therapists say the loss of a mother is especially devastating for their husbands because they typically defer to their wives the role of primary caretaker.
"Even if they are helpful and involved at home, men usually look to the woman to set the tone and to be the one who handles most of the day-to-day things and crises that come up for the kids," said Guedy Arniella, a clinical social worker at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
"When suddenly they are faced with having to take on the mother's role and provide their own circumscribed role, it becomes an overwhelming task. In addition to that, they are grieving. It's a very difficult situation."
A kick in the head
It's 9:30 p.m. All three boys are finally asleep and Eulau is back in the kitchen, making lunches, going through school folders and getting mentally organized for another day.
Matthew is creamed cheese on raisin bread.
Mark is a bagel and butter.
Eric, the little guy, loves ice cream, which has run out. Eulau makes a mental note to buy more.
"I don't set an alarm anymore to go to work," said Eulau, a senior vice president at Simon & Schuster who is now in charge of rousting his 7-, 5- and 21/2-year-old sons, getting them dressed, washed, fed and ready for the day. "They are all in my bed. Someone invariably kicks me in the head before the alarm clock goes off. I think if we lived in a one-bedroom tenement, they'd be very happy.
"I don't mind," he added with a smile. "It's nice to snuggle with them."
His mother and sister have offered to move into his home, but Eulau, 40, says he prefers to manage alone during the week with the help of a daytime sitter. It is a giant adjustment, but one he is determined to make.
He and his wife, Michele Coyle-Eulau, had known each other since college and shared a passion for life, the outdoors and their boys. She was their rock, the woman who started her day at 5:30 a.m. on the NordicTrack, got everybody up and out, planned fun weekends and vacations and worked as a systems analyst for Marsh & McClennan three days a week. The loving parent was always willing to color or play board games with whichever boy didn't feel like playing football with Dad outside.
"I am the same dad I always was, very close to my kids, but I can't be Michele," Eulau said. "Now we get into the van, and they say: 'Can I have my juice or water?' And I say, 'I didn't pack that, we'll just have to go to Dunkin' Donuts to get it.' The baby-sitter asks me every day, 'What are the kids doing tomorrow? Do they have play dates? Michele used to leave me notes.'
"I try, but it's not the same," he said. "You do what you can."
And Eulau does a lot. One night last week, he darted from wrestling with his sons in the family room, making them ice cream sundaes and trying to read Roald Dahl's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" to them before getting them ready for bed.
He had not sat down since he got off the 6 p.m. Long Island Rail Road train to Garden City. His laundered shirts from the dry cleaners had been hanging in the backseat of his car for days.
"People say to take care of me first, but that is easier said than done," he said. "I feel being with them is taking care of me."
In the jumble of emotions, he says there is also guilt.
"What is really hard to take is everyone feeling bad for me and the kids," Eulau said. "Michele is the one that died. She is the one you feel at night; she is the one who is missing out. We are victims but she is the victim."
'What happened to Mommy'
The first thing you notice when you walk into Sadiq Rasool's tidy Queens home, besides the hubbub of four children playing on a Saturday morning, are three framed photographs of the World Trade Center. One in the dining room shows the twin towers glittering at night in the New York skyline. Another under a glorious blue sky. The third, hung above the couch, are the towers on fire the morning of Sept. 11.
"My 3-year-old son takes that picture down every night and tells me the story over and over again. 'This is what happened to Mommy. She was here and the plane came and she couldn't run away to the basement,'" Rasool said.
"The kids tell me if they didn't have the pictures to look at as a memory, they could never understand why she is not here," he added. "I don't want to look at these photographs, but they do. So I keep them up. I want to do whatever will make them comfortable."
With two daughters and two sons under the age of 9, the 34-year-old widower is fortunate to have his parents and siblings live on the same block. His mother moved in within 24 hours of the attack.
"I never saw my son cry when he was a child the way he cried that day," said Farida Rasool, 55, who took a leave of absence from her job as a bank teller. "I told him, 'Please don't worry, I will take care of you. I will help you and the kids.'"
The Rasools were married in 1992. They tackled life together, devoting themselves to their children.
"I have to be strong for my children," he said, showing a visitor the kitchen alcove where his wife hugged him goodbye for the last time as she handed him an umbrella.
"They cry for their mother every night. When I get home, I can see it in their faces. Our lives have been turned upside down.
"Thank God my Mom is here.
"I ask myself why couldn't something else have happened that she didn't go to work that day? Why couldn't one of the kids have been sick that night? But I cannot change that now. I just have to hang in there," Rasool said.