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Growing up without a father after 9/11

Every morning, Tiffany Ramsaroop wakes up to a picture of her dad. It’s tacked in the middle of a bulletin board in her lavender bedroom.

Vishnoo Ramsaroop died 10 years ago in the south tower of the World Trade Center. He was a maintenance worker who supported a wife and three girls on $43,000 a year.

Tiffany, his oldest, was 8 when it happened. It was two years before she stopped believing he got hit in the head by debris and would stroll through the door having recovered from amnesia. Two more passed before she really cried.

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Tiffany has walked the terrible line of people in grief, trying to move forward without forgetting. At 15, she flew to his native Trinidad and let his accent wash over her. His starched work shirt with his name ironed on the back of the collar hangs in her closet between the dresses and blouses. She put it on once, but doesn’t want to talk about that.

When she turned 18 this summer, her first act as an adult was to have her father’s name tattooed on the inside of her left wrist. “Vishnoo” takes up almost the entire space, in elaborate script, black as night.

The nation is preparing to commemorate the attacks Sunday. Tiffany won’t be in Lower Manhattan that morning. The reminder is just too much.

America spent the last decade fighting two wars and thinking up ways to keep itself safe. Tiffany spent those years growing from a third-grader in a starched green plaid uniform to a college freshman impatient for new experiences. Yet at every milestone, at every family event, and in some part of almost every day since Sept. 11, 2001, there was a hole where her dad should have been.

That Tuesday, 3,052 children lost a parent in the terrorist attacks. The average age was 9. They came from wealth and from poverty and from countries around the world. This is one child’s story.

This week Tiffany is attending her first classes at Queensborough Community College, not far from where she grew up. She is finding her way, asserting new independence. Her mother wanted to drive her the first day; she wanted to go it alone by bus.

Yet still she is bound to her family. It was Tiffany who accompanied her sister to freshman orientation at high school this week and who was at her bedside as she recovered from surgery last month. It was Tiffany who offered part of her earnings this summer to help her mother with bills.

Some day she would like to become a family therapist to make sure others have “the big conversations we didn’t have about stuff.”

The 10 years getting to this point have been filled with spaces and voids. During her high school graduation in June, she could almost see her father there.

“Ugggghhh…. At every single event I went to I wished my dad was there, holding up the camcorder, waving as soon as I saw him,” she says, rubbing her freshly tattooed wrist. “It really sucks when you go to high school graduation and you see your best friend running toward her father.”

Tiffany lives in a two-family house on a tight lot in a part of Queens called Jackson Heights, about two miles from LaGuardia Airport. The postage-stamp-sized front yard is overgrown with vegetables. When her father tended it, she remembers it being full of flowers.

These days the house is full of females — Tiffany lives there with her sisters, Ashley, 15, and Kimberly, 10, and Sita, their mother. Sita, 51, has two daughters from a previous relationship and two granddaughters, ages 4 and 3, who are almost always there scampering across the couches and into Tiffany’s lap.

Ten pairs of worn fluffy slippers dot the stairs leading to a basement warren of bedrooms where the girls sleep. Tiffany’s double bed fills practically all the space in her room. A narrow bureau is crowded with polish and makeup as well as a photograph of Tiffany wearing a strapless white satin dress and lighting a cake with 16 candles.

This is the same house Vishnoo, 45, left that morning, when the family piled into the minivan to drop him at the subway and then Tiffany and Ashley at PS 148. It should have been an exciting day in Miss Syed’s class; about all Tiffany remembers is that her uniform was new. Then everyone else’s parents came early to pick them up; her mother waited until school let out.

“I went to the car and my mom was crying and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘I’ll show you when I get home.’ I sat down on the couch and my mom put the TV on.... I didn’t know what to say. All I could say was, ‘Is Dad OK?’”

Tiffany remembers her father’s job as a “gardener” who planted hibiscus and greenery around the trade center’s vast plazas. It was the first work he got after he came to America and he did it for 17 years. When Tiffany didn’t have school he took her to work with him. Even intact the towers were tall and scary; Tiffany stayed away from the windows. So when it was explained to her where he was that day she could clearly picture it.

Tiffany’s father happened to be on the 35th floor in the south tower when the north tower was hit. He went up to the 56th floor for a better view. The last time anyone saw him he was waiting by an elevator bank to get down.

Then he was gone. No confirmation other than his absence. No remains. At first, believing might have been the hardest part for Tiffany. Hadn’t her dad surprised his girls by taking them to the movies just the week before to see “Rat Race” and then let them sneak into “Rush Hour 2"? “Two movies in one day,” they rejoiced to their mother that night.

He was always full of wonderful surprises. What about the time he packed a lunch and their bathing suits and plucked a sleeping Tiffany and her sister out of bed? They woke up in the parking lot of Six Flags in New Jersey. This had to be another one of his little pranks, like the way he threatened to eat up baby Kimberly, so sweet he called her “Candy.” “No! You can’t eat her!” the girls would squeal.

Day after day, while their mother searched hospitals, Tiffany sat on the front steps with Ashley, two little girls with pink Power Rangers, waiting for Dad to come home.

The first anniversary rolled around and Tiffany went happily along with her cousins to the ceremony at ground zero. She was 9, what else was she going to do? It was windy, and everybody said the dust of the deceased was swirling around. She didn’t really connect.

“You know when you’re a little kid, you don’t have as much emotions? I felt like when I was younger I trapped my feelings in too much,” Tiffany says.

Sita said it took two years before she could convince her daughters that their father wasn’t coming home. Sometimes she wonders whether cancer or a car accident might have been easier for her girls to comprehend. “The way he go, it’s like the earth opened and just take him away from them.”

That’s how it is for a lot of Sept. 11 children, nothing to take through the rituals of grief. Mental health experts call this “ambiguous loss.”

The family buried an empty box at a cemetery off Queens Boulevard. Sita doesn’t like to go; it holds no meaning. Now that she can drive, Tiffany takes her sisters on Valentine’s Day and on her father’s birthday and invites close friends to visit with her.

Moving on is complicated for children whose grief stems from an event so public; every anniversary, magazine covers and television specials can pull them backward.

“There are going to be more than 40 shows on TV about 9/11 just for this anniversary, so you can’t avoid it,” said Fran Furman, director of counseling at Tuesday’s Children, a support group that has worked with nearly 6,000 members of Sept. 11 families. “Every time they show pictures of the towers exploding, our children and families look at that and say, ‘My loved one is in that building.’”

Around age 12, on the cusp of adolescence, the dam broke for Tiffany. Vishnoo’s only brother visited from Canada, and when he came through the door, she saw the spitting image of her father. That was the moment she realized he was never coming home. She cried and cried.

“It hurt me really badly,” she says, sitting on a back porch cluttered with plants and furniture.

Time is supposed to heal, but it seemed only to fill Tiffany with questions: Who would walk her down the aisle? Who would fix her car when it broke down? Already, the family had stopped eating dinner together; without Dad to call them all to the table, they just took a plate of their mother’s delicious rice and beans or macaroni pie and wandered to separate quarters.

Somebody had to try to fill his shoes. Tiffany appointed herself family photographer, picking up the camcorder her father never let anyone touch. “Just being in the house he would record us. Little things. I mean not just Christmas, but an ordinary winter day,” she says. He even filmed them sleeping.

Each sister dealt with the loss in her own way. Tiffany took on a co-parenting role; Ashley, the middle child, kept more to herself. Little Kimberly wrote a book about the dad she never knew. And they passed from bedroom to bedroom a poster-sized photograph of their parents, clearly in love, their heads touching.

For Tiffany the tragedy also unearthed secrets she was never supposed to know — changing the image of who her father was and further confusing her.

When Sita applied for benefits and widows’ funds she discovered that Vishnoo had been married in Trinidad and, because of a botched divorce, still was. He had three daughters with that wife, who was fighting for his assets, even claiming ownership of half the house.

Tiffany watched her mother tangle with bureaucracies and lawyers. She herself was in a titanic battle with adolescence, a jumble of feelings that left her sorry for her mother and mad at her all at once.

When Tiffany was 13, Charlie Gool came on the scene, a man her mother had been married to in Guyana before she met Vishnoo. Tiffany says she rebelled, mouthing off. No one would replace her father. An aunt intervened. “Don’t you want your mom to be happy? Look at her.”

In time, Tiffany says, she came to respect Charlie. She lectured her younger sisters to do the same. At the big Sweet 16 party her mom threw for her, Charlie played stepdad. Tiffany appreciated the effort and let him walk her into the ballroom, but still there is a part of her that waits for Vishnoo.

Lately, she’s been having this recurring dream: Her father gets hit on the head and she sees him on the street. She tries to talk to him but he doesn’t remember her. “Who are you?” he says — and then she wakes up.

geraldine.baum@latimes.com


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