In the recurring dream, Rob Higley doesn't die in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. He doesn't push eight insurance-company trainees into an elevator on the 92nd floor of Tower 2 and make that last sweep of the offices, never to be heard from again.
In the dream, he is rushed to a city hospital as a "
." He stays there four years, slowly recovering. Then he walks, intact, back into Vycki Higley Pratt's life, back to 9-year-old daughter Robyn, born six weeks after the attack, back to Amanda, 4 when the towers went down, 14 now.
"I'm always with Rick; it's our life as it is now,'' Pratt, 39, says of new husband Richard Pratt, and the daughter they had together, Casey, 6. "Rob doesn't say anything. He seems … I don't know.''
At that point, Pratt, 39, wakes up to a cloying, familiar feeling of uncertainty.
She was robbed of one of the great loves of her life on Sept. 11, 2001. Her three children, expressive and creative beyond their years, and Rick, a skilled landscape designer, can't entirely fill the void. There is an emptiness that all the devotion to her family cannot erase.
With Rob Higley's death at age 29, Pratt lost the ability to be certain about much of anything, except the knowledge that today, at some point, she will feel Rob and be jostled by that feeling.
It's not just because it's
. The reminders come relentlessly; 9:11 on the clock, one of their wedding songs playing on a radio, the set of Amanda's lips when she smiles, the dream.
"I question myself all the time,'' says Pratt.
"Am I doing what he would have wanted me to do? Are Robyn's and Amanda's struggles just the normal 9- and 14-year-old
girl things? Or is it post-traumatic stress? Am I right to insist on private school for all the girls?"
There is a deep and abiding source of comfort in her life that calms her, gives her strength. It is that Rob Higley's remains are buried in
Cemetery next to Pratt's beloved sister, Beth, who died in January 2000 from a life-long
. Pratt gave one of her kidneys to Beth in 1994, giving the sisters six more years together.
Pratt believes that grieving for Beth helped prepare her to cope with her husband's death and all that has come afterward.
In December 2004, two
police officers pulled in behind Vycki and Rick Pratt's car as it turned into the driveway after a Christmas shopping spree at Danbury Fair mall.
An officer gave Pratt an index card with instructions to call the
medical examiner's office. She called family members first, then dialed the number on the card. They had found a body part of Rob's, an arm.
It is buried next to Beth.
"Amanda has the capacity to be 6 years old, her true age of 14, or 21. She chooses to believe that her father only lost an arm, that otherwise he's out there somewhere. I'm glad she hasn't totally lost her innocence,'' Pratt says.
At the family's Danbury home last week, Pratt was sitting at the kitchen table of the spacious home that once belonged to her parents. She and Rick Pratt have remodeled it. Robyn joined her mother at the table. Five seconds before, she was wearing a derby hat and swooping around the kitchen. Amanda called her a spaz, so Robyn plopped down at the table, face in her hands. She says, apropos of nothing, that she was a little concerned that she still liked dolls.
Pratt reminded her that her friends also like Lollipop Dolls, largely because of Robyn's influence.
'I'm a trend-setter,'' she says.
Robyn was born in a hospital delivery room populated by a national TV news crew, three of Rob's best friends, and Pratt's cousin, aunt, and other family members.
She will forever be a
baby. She belongs, in a sense, to America. Pratt was one of 100 widows who were pregnant at the time of the attacks. Pratt and Robyn have been vaulted onto a national stage in TV segments and in
Pratt involves Amanda in these events as much as she can. At Danbury's annual 9/11 memorial, Amanda sings "God Bless America" while Robyn reads the Pledge of Allegiance. They both go, free of charge, to America's Camp in the Berkshires each summer, an experience designed for the children of 9/11 victims, or to the Broadway plays and other events sponsored by 9/11 foundations. Amanda will be featured on the national news on Friday in a segment on teenage children of victims, to be taped as Pratt, Robyn and Amanda join with other 9/11 families to meet President Obama at Ground Zero.
But Robyn has gotten more air time, and this has sometimes gotten under Amanda's skin.
"She says, 'I'm the one who lost my father,' " Pratt says.
For this reason, Pratt says she is glad that terror leader
was killed when he was — on Amanda's 14th birthday.
"She takes it as a gift from her father,'' says Pratt. "I took Amanda and two friends to see '
' on Broadway. Leave it to Rob to upstage me.''
Rob Higley's death created a fragility in Amanda. It has also led to tensions in the household between Pratt and her husband Rick that neither has been able to completely quell.
They were married in 2003.
"I did it to overcome loneliness,'' Pratt says. "I did it for a sense of permanence for the girls. In hindsight, I think it was a little too soon.''
Pratt, once a bank teller, recently went back to work after nine years as a stay-at-home mom. She works with brain-injured patients at a health care company.
"9/11 widow gets job with TBI patients, looks to give back,'' says Pratt, in perfect headline cadence. She says this half in jest; nothing is that neat anymore.
"I think I'm trying to find myself,'' Pratt says. "People say that I'm brave, I'm strong. I don't feel that way, but I do have reasons to keep on standing. I get tired, though. A sorority sister's husband dies in a road accident and what do the other sisters do? They call me. 'You've been through it.' I'm tired of being the expert on death.''
As summer beckons, Amanda, a talented singer and budding actress, is looking forward to theater camp. Robyn and Amanda will again go to America's Camp in the Berkshires. It is the 10th and final summer. The children of 9/11 aren't little children any longer.
"I know Rob would be proud of what has become of the girls,'' Pratt says. "But I do question myself."
"I question everything.''