On the 20th anniversary of his mother’s death, Doug Schroeder of Huntersville will do what he’s tried to do since he lost her on the 77th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He will honor her, not by staring at 9/11 coverage all day long on TV, but by finding peace somewhere between looking back and moving forward.
Ruth Lapin, 53, of East Windsor, N.J., was a senior business analyst for Baseline Financial Services. She was the sort of woman who would attend the Tony Awards (she loved Broadway), then walk through Times Square in a sequin gown to hand out her dinner leftovers to the homeless.
The night before Sept. 11, 2001, she and her husband, David, took a hotel room in New York to watch their beloved New York Giants play its NFL opener. The night of 9/11, she had been planning to help her daughter, Heather, sort through photos from her recent wedding.
One of the trillion 9/11-related stories: Today, Heather still doesn’t know where her wedding dress is. Her mom had taken it somewhere to have it cleaned.
Lapin’s life was more than crunching numbers in a skyscraper. She dreamed of opening a bed and breakfast on the Jersey shore. She was an amateur comedian. She dressed as a clown to visit senior centers. She was the common denominator for an eclectic group of friends. “Once she found you, she wouldn’t lose you,” Schroeder said.
One more thing: She drove like Mr. Magoo, preferring to talk to whomever was in the car rather than looking where she was going. “Everyone around her would get out of the way.”
Such is the emotional complexity of 9/11, there is no one way or right way for the living victims to carry on. Everyone who lost someone has carved out their own path.
Living after Sept. 11, 2001
Many, including Schroeder’s younger sister, have taken comfort in making a place in their lives for 9/11. Heather Daly, 48, of Howell, N.J., has been to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum on the site of where the towers fell. Her daughter, Ruthi, now 17, has shared the stage with dignitaries at anniversary observances and read aloud the names of victims, including her grandmother’s.
Others, including Schroeder, have sought refuge in a different place, further away from 9/11.
Schroeder, 50, is a digital consultant for Wells Fargo. At first, he was intentional about giving voice to his mother’s death. Schroeder and his wife, Donna, an OR nurse, have had three children since Lapin died. When Anna, 18, Catherine, 17, and Hayden, 15, were young, each evening at bedtime the Schroeders would remind the children that Grammy in heaven — the one they never knew — loves them.
Over time, Schroeder said, mention of his mother has become less of a ritual, more organic. Lapin might come up if one of the kids does something that reminds them of her, for example something that shows more heart than forethought. “You find a moment when her story fits,” he said.
When that moment comes, the Schroeders smile a smile that hurts.
Schroeder doesn’t know exactly how his mother died. He said she was the type who would have stopped to help someone in need as they rushed to escape. Maybe she died a hero. He doesn’t know and doesn’t feel the need to know.
By choice, he has not been to the museum. Over the years, if he landed on a 9/11 documentary while channel-surfing, he’d keep on surfing.
But there is no escaping.
The darkness of 9/11
In the August days that lead each year to 9/11, Schroeder feels a darkness come over him. “An underlying anger — a depression, where you don’t have as much joy in your life as you normally would, a lack of patience.” When that happens, he tries to spend more time alone. He usually takes 9/11 off from work.
He’s not sure how it got to him, but in the first year after the attack, he received a silver bracelet in the mail. It came from a congregation, he’s not sure which one, wanting to reach out to the living victims. The bracelet is engraved with his mother’s name and WTC. He never takes it off.
Another one of the trillion 9/11-related stories: Six or so years ago, he lost it getting off a bus uptown. He thinks he got it stuck on his backpack and off it came. A woman – a stranger – found it and returned it to him a day or so later. The bracelet didn’t have Schroeder’s name on it. She apparently tracked him down via earlier stories written about Charlotte survivors, including one that profiled Schroeder and his mother.
Schroeder sees the 20th anniversary not just as a day for the nation but a day for each living victim to remember a loved one in their own way. Let others fly the flag. He prefers to think about his mom, to see her in his children, to try to be the bright light she was.
On 9/11, maybe he’ll take his youngest child, Hayden, to practice driving. He’s working on his learner’s permit. Hayden turns 16 on Sept. 13. As they work on three-point turns, maybe Schroeder will think of his mom behind the wheel, smile to himself and advise Hayden not to drive like Mr. Magoo.