In the days following the attacks of Sept. 11, families wandered the streets of Manhattan posting photos of the missing. In Union Square, they lit candles, exhausted and grief-stricken but trying to cling to hope. That was where I met the McCloskey family from Indiana.
By then, I had seen the smoldering rubble, I had seen the flowers left at the Upper West Side monument to firefighters killed in battle over the years, and I had fallen asleep listening to the deep sobbing of the stranger in the hotel room next to mine. But it was the McCloskeys who left the most indelible impression.
Dick McCloskey’s daughter, Katie, was an Indiana University graduate who had moved to New York City in the summer of 2001. She had driven east in her red Mustang convertible, gotten a job as a computer technician and worked on the 97th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers. In her diary, Katie had written about how cool it was that she could see the Statue of Liberty from her office.
“The first plane had to have hit pretty much right where she was,” Dick McCloskey told me that day in Union Square.
After news of the attack, he had driven to New York with daughters Leslie and Julie, son Noah and other relatives. They made the trip praying Katie was one of the lucky ones who got out in time. Maybe she was in a hospital, still alive.
I was listening to the doves and hawks in Union Square go at it over how the U.S. should respond to the attacks, when I ran into the McCloskeys.
Dick McCloskey, a commercial real estate appraiser in the South Bend area, laid a flier of his daughter on the ground. Noah set two candles on it as paperweights and lit them, but they blew out. We talked about Katie, and McCloskey said he had given a DNA sample at the armory, in the event her remains were found (they never would be). As they were leaving, McCloskey walked toward me with tears in his eyes and hugged me.
“Say good things,” he said, responding to an act of war on innocent civilians — and a staggering personal loss — with an appeal to our humanity. And then he repeated himself:
“Say good things.”
On Monday, almost 10 years later, I called McCloskey to talk about the killing of Osama bin Laden, who had exulted in the murder of Katie McCloskey and nearly 3,000 others. He told me he and his wife, Anne, were asleep Sunday night when the phone rang. It was their daughter Leslie, a gynecologist in St. Louis, calling with the news out of Pakistan. Anne hung up and told her husband Bin Laden was dead.
“I said ‘OK’ and went back to sleep,” said Dick McCloskey. “I haven’t really been focused on tracking him down. That hasn’t been a big issue for me.... Our focus has been much more on trying to make something positive come out of 9/11.”
Specifically, they started a scholarship in Katie’s name at Adams High School in South Bend, where she was a pretty good student and also played tennis and volleyball. (To donate to the scholarship fund, visit the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County at https://www.cfsjc.org).
“We’ve helped put nine students through college now,” McCloskey said with pride.
He confided, though, that it was difficult to focus on the positive Monday, even though there was a feeling of justice served in the demise of Bin Laden.
“It opens up the wounds again, you know, and it’s kind of a downer day,” McCloskey said, adding that it felt strange to see people celebrating the death of Bin Laden in New York and outside the White House.
“The killing of a human being is never a good thing. I think it’s necessary sometimes, and in this case it was necessary. We had to get rid of this guy, and I applaud those who put their lives on the line to do this. But for anybody who wants to celebrate, I’d rather see them do that by doing something good for someone today.”
Leslie, who drives Katie’s old Mustang, was in much the same melancholy mood as her father this week. She was thinking of Katie and missing her all over again. She’s had two children since Katie died, children who will never know their aunt. But delivering babies is life-affirming and therapeutic, she said.
Leslie lost her composure, went silent, then apologized.
“I definitely think about Katie all the time,” she said, but she’s also tried to move on, “because I can’t hang on to the anger.”
Like the rest of us, Dick McCloskey can’t know whether the death of Bin Laden will quell international hatred and violence or spawn more.
“I’m glad they’ve rid the world of this kind of monster,” he said, “but we’re never going to win a war on terrorism through violence.”
For Dick McCloskey, there may be no such thing as closure. The wound is deep and the pain eternal, but his response is still one of grace. If all those people celebrating Bin Laden’s death went out and did a good deed, he said, the world would be a better place.
He ended our conversation the way he ended the one 10 years ago.
“Say good things.”