When Ariella and Olivia Russin were very little, they imagined that their dad just worked a lot.
“I used to think he was on a long, long, long, LONG business trip,” recalls Ariella.
But now that they’re nearly 10, the twin sisters born four days after their father’s death on Sept. 11, 2001 know better.
They know that Steven Russin was on the 104th floor of the North Tower at the World Trade Center, where he worked as an executive for the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald.
They know that their father was a funny guy who loved chocolate, telling jokes and dressing up like Spider-Man.
And they know that he’s never coming back.
“We want a dad, sometimes,” says Ariella. “It’s kind of sad, to not have a daddy.”
For the Russin twins and their older brother, Alec, who was not quite 2 when the towers fell, their lives have been defined by the nation’s worst terror attack.
Like other children of 9/11 victims, they’ve grown up in a family reshaped both by private loss and public attention and, now that they’re getting older, they’re having to learn how to grapple with both, said Fran Furman, director of counseling for Tuesday’s Children, a support and advocacy group for families of 9/11 and other acts of global terror.
“Ten years to them is different than 10 years to an adult,” Furman said. “You are talking about their entire life.”
That fact is not lost on the twins’ mother, Andrea Russin, now 44, who says she has struggled for a decade to help all three of her children come to grips with their family’s grief. Anniversaries of the event inevitably draw media queries and attention, she says, but the real work goes on all the time.
“They shouldn’t be thinking about the fact that it’s been 10 years,” notes Russin, who lives in Princeton, N.J. “For them, it’s every day.”
Andrea Russin was among dozens of women who were pregnant when they lost their husbands or partners on Sept. 11, 2001. Steven Russin, 32, was among some 658 employees at Cantor Fitzgerald alone who died when American Airlines Flight 11 struck Tower One.
Stunned and overwhelmed, Andrea Russin sought — and received — a rush of help and support in those early days. She joined five different support groups, sought grief counseling, accepted generous offers of time and help from people she knew and strangers.
"It felt like in that first year it was my responsibility to get better for my children," Russin recalls.
'I know he is always with me.'
For children like Ariella and Olivia, who never met their father, and their brother, who was only a toddler, memories of their dad have been constructed from family photos and videos and stories told by their mother, family members and friends.
They learned that he was born in the Bronx and grew up in New Jersey and that he studied finance at Ithaca College. They knew he loved to play and watch sports of all types, and that he had an irrepressible sense of humor.
The girls say they feel like they know their dad and feel his presence.
“I know he is always with me and I am always with him,” Ariella says, quoting from a poem she wrote published this spring in a new book, “The Legacy Letters: Messages of Life and Hope from 9/11 Family Members.”
Such thoughts are comforting to many children of 9/11 victims as they grow up, especially as they face inevitable questions from friends and strangers, Furman says.
“It can be traumatic not to have memories,” she said. “People are asking and what do they say, since they didn’t know their father on this earth?”
When Alec was little, his mother says she’d overhear whispered questions about the terror attacks from his friends riding in the backseat of her car. Ariella and Olivia say they were surprised once during a lesson at school.
“In history we had to talk about it because something in our textbook brought the twin towers up,” says Olivia. “We had the whole story about it.”
Attention and expectations
The attention and expectations that come with being a child of 9/11 have had mixed effects, Andrea Russin says. On one hand, her children have experienced great kindness and generosity from individuals and groups who lined up to help the family. On the other hand, there’s an expectation that the intimate details of their family life should be available for public consumption.
Andrea Russin, for instance, doesn’t want to talk about whether she has a new partner now or ever plans to remarry. She didn’t return to her job as a pediatric occupational therapist, and, while she won’t release details, says she’s been able to support her children in part with benefits from her late husband.
“I got a fraction of what my husband’s life was worth,” she notes.
She says she has worked hard to help her children have normal childhoods. They spent this summer swimming and going to camp, for instance, and they’re looking forward to next week, not because of the looming anniversary, but because of the girls’ big birthday party. This year, there might be movies in the backyard on blow-up screens and a sleepover with 10 kids.
“They’ve always had more than normal birthdays,” says Andrea Russin.
Still, the girls do admit that their lives seem different from their friends’.
“Sometimes I feel incomplete because I don’t have my dad,” Olivia says quietly.
When Ariella thinks about the day she was born, four days after those terrible attacks, she says she feels sad that her father wasn’t present.
“Your mom has to be there,” she says. “But your dad should be there.”