Born on September 11: A Birthday Forever Changed
When your birthday falls on the same date as one of the worst tragedies of humankind, yearly celebrations take a backseat to memorial services. Four families with children born on that horrific day share their stories.
Gabrielle Wallach doesn't want to celebrate her 12th birthday with cake this year. Actually, the seventh-grader told her parents that she never wants cake on her birthday. Instead of marking the occasion with indulgent sweets, Gabrielle prefers to quietly honor the 2,975 people who lost their lives eight years ago on her birthday -- September 11.
Dinetta Wallach, Gabrielle's mother, still cries when she thinks about how her little girl woke up in the family's downtown Manhattan apartment on the morning of her 4th birthday, Sept. 11, 2001, eagerly anticipating her SpongeBob SquarePants birthday cake, and how her daughter's world -- along with everyone else's -- changed.
Mother and daughter were home alone when they heard a giant boom at 8:45 a.m. It was the hijacked passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, Mass., slamming into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Minutes later, while taking in the horrifying view from a neighbor's apartment, they witnessed the second plane hit and, soon after the buildings collapse.
"Why is that building burning?," Wallach remembers her daughter asking over and over again. Then, the little girl, who was starting pre-kindergarten the next day asked, "Did my SpongeBob cake blow up, too?"
"She thought the whole city was coming down," said Wallach.
That night, when Gabrielle's brother Jordan and father Fred were safely home, the family decided it was important to mark the little girl's birthday. Gabrielle's two grandmothers came by and Dad bought a pre-packaged Entenmann's cake. It was no SpongeBob, but it was something.
Gabrielle didn't talk much about 9/11 until her 5th birthday came around. Wallach asked her daughter's teacher if she could bring in cupcakes to lift the children's moods on the one-year anniversary, and the teacher agreed.
Gabrielle, who overheard the conversation, did not.
"She told me she just wanted to acknowledge all of the kids who lost parents that day," said Wallach. "She said, 'No cupcakes in school' and that she wouldn't talk about her birthday in class. That continued until she was 10."
Now a Middle-schooler, Gabrielle remains contemplative when she wakes up on her birthday. Every year since the attacks, the family gathers in the neighbor's apartment and watches the memorial beams of light that project into the evening sky were the World Trade Center once stood. The family will have an intimate dinner on Friday, but no cake.
"We'll never have cake on 9/11," said Wallach.
A Birthday Forever Changed
Gabrielle is not alone in her strong reaction to sharing her birthday with the massive tragedy that reshaped the world. Whether they were born in the years before the attacks, in 2001 or in a post-9/11 world, September 11 birthday children are a marked bunch, their birthdays forever tainted by the events of the day.
Benjamin Hesse's family members have trained themselves to say Benjamin was born "the 11th of September," so they can redirect the conversation before hearing the inevitable, "Oh, that's terrible."
The boy turned 8 in 2001. As the tragic morning unfolded, his family discovered that an uncle, Manhattan fireman Faust Apostol, went to the World Trade Center and died in the line of duty. Debbie Hesse, Benjamin's mom, broke the news to her son when she picked him up from his Long Island school, about 20 miles from the terrorist attacks. Benjamin told her afterward that he didn't want to celebrate his birthday that evening.
"I tell him no matter what happened, it was still one of the most important days in our life," said Hesse, who will take Benjamin and the family out for dinner on his 16th birthday this year. "He was too young to lose (his) birthday. Would I have changed that day? Of course."
Benjamin's school has held vigils for 9/11 victims every year since the tragedy. Because several students lost parents when the towers were attacked, Hesse and school officials agreed it was best that he not celebrate his birthday on the day itself, out of respect.
Lives Taken, Patriots Born
When Hillary O'Neill turns 8 on Friday, her parents will buy her red, white and blue balloons and place a small American flag on her birthday cake. Family friends will call the house to wish Hillary a happy birthday because the occasion gives them an excuse to celebrate something good on the anniversary of 9/11.
Hillary is proud to be born on September 11, said her mom, Heather O'Neill. In fact, Hillary pointed out to her mom last week that her name has two "L's" in it, which, for her, symbolize the towers and the 11 in her birthdate. The young girl, who goes to school with several children who lost their fathers in the 2001 attacks, wears a World Trade Center charm on her bracelet and an American flag pin on her Crocs.
But for O'Neill, her daughter's birthdate is difficult to handle. An avid scrap booker, she has yet to create a page for Hillary's birthday. The day the baby girl was born began with a perfect sky and mom-to-be O'Neill thought, "What a beautiful day to have a baby."
That feeling changed when O'Neill turned on the TV in her Norwalk, Ct., hospital room and learned of the terrorism in the midst of her labor. The hospital went into chaos as the staff prepared for the anticipated overflow of emergency-room patients from New York City.
"What am I doing bringing a child into this world when it is so evil?," O'Neill wondered, asking that the TV be turned off. Hillary was born as the hospital continued to set up for survivors, though none ever came.
O'Neill and her husband Glenn have come to believe that Hillary's life is a symbol of hope because of the day she came into the world.
"She has all of those people twinkling in her eyes," said O'Neill. "It is a source of pride for all of us in our family."
The Birth of the Future
For some children born on the September 11ths beyond 2001, the significance of the day is not yet understood. Wendy from California, who asked for anonymity, said her son, Joshua, born on Sept. 11, 2005, is not yet aware of the meaning of his birthday. Joshua was born six week prematurely and Wendy never gave his birthday a second thought. She was focused solely on her son's survival.
"I've never said anything to him," said Wendy. "As your child gets older, you can talk about it. Would I necessarily talk about it on their birthday? I don't know. ... Where do you find the line to say we are going to keep living ... versus an acknowledgment of the past?"
Editor's note: This story was originally published on September 11, 2009.