Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK - Four-year-old Gabriel Jacobs inherited his dad's sandy hair, long nose and blue eyes. The day they buried what was left of his father — a piece of rib, part of a thigh bone, a bit of one arm — the boy released a balloon into the air, then turned that familiar face skyward to make sure his daddy caught it.
This is how a son reaches out to the father he never met. Ariel Jacobs died in the World Trade Center attack six days before his only child was born.
"When he sends a balloon up to the sky and he finally sees the tiny dot of the balloon go through the clouds, he says, 'OK, the balloon found the doorway to heaven, I think he has it now," says Gabi's mother, Jenna Jacobs-Dick.
There are dozens of children like Gabi Jacobs, born to Sept. 11 widows in the months after the attacks. Five years later, as they approach kindergarten, they are just beginning to grasp the stories of their fathers and of the day that changed their lives forever.
The first baby arrived just hours after the disaster, and the last nine months later. Some mothers only discovered they were pregnant after the dads were gone — including Rudolph Giuliani's longtime aide, who was married to fire Capt. Terence Hatton. The firefighter's daughter was born the next spring, and her mother named her Terri.
Their fathers were rescue workers, cops, restaurant waiters and stockbrokers. Their mothers, pregnant and alone when the dust of the towers settled, worried about the stress on their unborn children from the agony and shock. Some miscarried. One went into labor during her husband's memorial service.
Many moms broke down in the delivery room, where they tried to fill that empty space with photos, a police badge, a piece of clothing. Friends, sisters and in-laws with cameras and brave faces stood in for all those lost dads.
Each delivery was, all at once, wonderful and awful.
Julie McMahon remembers her son's birth in early 2002 as a day of jangled nerves. "It wasn't supposed to be this way," she thought.
She delivered baby Patrick while her husband, Bobby, a firefighter with natural athleticism and a love of photography, looked on from a picture on the bedside table. The photo captured a moment of pure happiness — Bobby, wearing a cap and a giant grin, leans over their first son Matthew, clutching a massive tuft of cotton candy.
Patrick arrived with Bobby's curly hair and lanky body, and has sprouted into a miniature version of his daredevil dad. The child took his mother's breath away recently when he bounded by, swinging his arms and moving his head just so — it was Bobby's carefree strut.
When James Patrick's son was born, everyone agreed it was like looking at his father — the same fair skin, blue eyes and brown hair, that certain way he moved his mouth. The Cantor Fitzgerald bond broker, ecstatic about starting a family, died seven weeks before Jack entered the world.
The boy is also playful and silly like his dad. His mother, Terilyn Esse, like many of the other 9/11 moms, cannot explain how the children acquired their fathers' personalities — the social grace, the twinkling eyes, a love of words or music.
But there is a word they all use to describe it.
"It's bittersweet," says Jacobs-Dick, whose husband was attending a conference at the World Trade Center. "He's a reminder of Ari, not just the fact that he existed, but of who he was because they're so similar, and I can appreciate Ari in the present through him."
She is careful, though, that Gabi doesn't grow up with the sense that he is here to take the place of his father, who wept at the doctor's office when he learned that the blur on the ultrasound was a boy.
It is an unfair burden for any child who has lost a parent, says Marylene Cloitre, director of the Institute for Trauma and Stress at the New York University Child Study Center. And because of the public tragedy, children of 9/11 victims might always feel pressure to represent something even larger.
"Which is very hard to do when you're 17 and you hardly know what you feel and think yourself," Cloitre said. "Like 'Oh, my father's a hero so I have to carry the heroic memory,' when they don't even know what that is or how to do that."
Cloitre is tracking 700 children who lost parents in the 2001 attack, each a study in grief and hardship.
But the 4-year-olds are unique: They are building images of their fathers from the wisps of other people's memories and photographs, without even the subconscious sense of long ago cuddles or kisses on the forehead.
As each child discovers a lost father's life, along come questions: How did Daddy die? Who are the bad guys? Where did the buildings go? When they cleaned up the buildings, did they clean up Daddy, too?
Cloitre says the conversation will change as they grow up. In a few years they will probably want to know whether their fathers would have loved them. As teens, they may wonder about identity — how am I like him?
"It sort of exhausts people — they wish it could be over, that they could just say one thing, but really, what to say today pales in the face of the real challenge, which is a lifelong dialogue with their child about who this person was," she said.
Already, some of these children can tell you Daddy died when bad guys took control of some airplanes, and then flew them into the towers. Others haven't even heard the word "terrorist" and don't know there was anything more than a big fire.
"There are always questions and things that come up, and sometimes I'm thinking, 'oh my gosh' — you try to buy time so you can come up with an answer and do the best you can," says Kimberly Statkevicus, whose second son was born four months after husband Derek died.
Their child, named after his father, turns 5 in January. He knows that a piece of bone was recovered from his father's right hand, and is matter-of-fact about what happened. "My daddy went to work one day and some bad guys came and knocked the buildings down and crushed him like a pancake," he explains.
He wonders why there are no photographs of him and his father, like his brother has. Sometimes, it upsets him.
Some of the questions of these fatherless children are easy: Did Daddy like mayonnaise or mustard? When he played baseball, did he strike people out?
Other times, they're more spiritual: Does he see me when I ride my bike?
For those answers, Terilyn Esse has taught Jack Patrick there is a special thing he can do.
"When he started to talk, I would ask him, 'Where does Daddy live?' And he would say 'In heaven,' and I would say, 'Who does he live with?'" she said. "And he would say 'With God and the angels,' and I would say 'If you want to talk to Daddy what do you do?'
"And he would say 'I close my eyes and look inside my heart.'"