I Lost My Son on 9/11

Peter AldermanIt is the "nevers" that haunt Elizabeth Alderman who lost her 25-year-old son Peter Alderman in the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. He will never marry, never become a father, and never see his eyes in his own child's. He will never dance or laugh or witness the beautiful blue sky on a September day again.

“No matter how bad my loss is," Alderman told The Stir last week, "it does not begin to compare to Peter’s.”

It's a loss so profound, most of us cannot even begin to wrap our minds around it. For the rest of the country, it has been 10 years -- a full decade -- since the United States and world were changed forever, but for Alderman, time has often seemed to stand still.

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"When you have that kind of sudden loss, time stops," says Alderman, whose life has changed since that tragically beautiful day in mid-September in many monumental ways -- she has since become a grandmother five times, completely changed her career and life's purpose -- and yet also barely changed at all. “[Time] does not for a second take away the pain. It has not diminished one bit."

It's an unimaginable private loss, but one that Alderman has lived very publicly. Her son Peter Alderman worked for Bloomberg and was at a conference at Windows on the World, on the 106th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Just a few days before, he had cut a trip to France short so that he could be back at his job. His parents stayed on to vacation another week, and that is where they were when they heard the news that the World Trade Center had been attacked. “I really became antsy. I can’t say I had a jolt. I just had agita that I really wanted to find out. We tried calling home and we couldn't. I kept trying and trying to call. The only one who knew he was there was our daughter Jane.”

Earlier in the day, Jane had emailed her brother. He emailed back and said, “I’m here” and she said, “Where?” and he said: “106th floor.”

Though it took days to get a final answer and to get back to the States, Alderman said she knew in her heart that her youngest son was gone. And she also knew that she and her husband had to do something so that Peter could leave his mark on the world, but they didn't know how at the time.

Two years later, in 2003, the family had founded the Peter C. Alderman Foundation, whose mission is "to heal the emotional wounds of victims of terrorism and mass violence by training health care professionals and establishing clinics in post-conflict countries around the globe," according to its website.

The Alderman Foundation has established 10 clinics in Africa, Cambodia, and Haiti. They also run a master class to train local, indigenous mental health professionals around the world to deal with the specific trauma related to terrorism. The clinics operate within government-run facilities, which makes them far less expensive for the foundation to run and also, hopefully, far more likely to sustain through the years.

But why mental health?

“It is necessary to rebuild and reconstruct both the individual and the post-conflict society," says Alderman, whose Foundation has treated over 100,000 people. For Alderman, the work has given her purpose, a reason to get up in the mornings even when she would have preferred to stay in bed and grieve. Even so, it hasn't taken away the pain of losing the child she says was most like her.

“I always thought if I lost a child, I would never be able to stop screaming," says Alderman. “I really thought how can you possibly continue to breathe? But you really have only two choices. You either kill yourself or you put one foot in front of the other."

She has always avoided the ceremonies in the past and she will do the same for this 10th anniversary. For her, it isn't a day of national grief, but one of profound, personal loss few of us can imagine. Even still, she says his birthday -- August 19 -- is a far more painful day. "It's another year he is not here to celebrate," she said.

"Peter really was laughter and sunshine," says Alderman. "He bound us all together. He was warm. He would kiss his mom in public. He had more friends than I will ever have in my lifetime."

Here he is with his mother on her birthday after the two had a cake fight:

When he died, more than 300 of his friends drove to New York to be with his family. And each year, his friends still pay tribute with beer and wings on the important anniversaries. But for his mother, the pain endures, no matter how many years pass. "I used to paint and quilt and do architectural drawing, but now I can’t do these fun things when Peter can’t," she says. "You look at a beautiful sky. It's too painful because it's something Peter will never be able to do.”

On September 11, 2011 she will listen for his name to be read on the television -- "I feel like someone who loves him should" -- and then she will turn it off and grieve in private. Still, she knows she has done what she could to make sure her son has made a mark on the world.

It was in Nairobi during a trip for the foundation that Alderman had her most profound moment of recognition. An Imam was reading a blessing and kept mentioning the name Peter Alderman, though not in English. And when the translator read it back, it was full of kindness and blessings and gratitude for the Aldermans and their son.

“We wanted to leave a mark for Peter," Alderman says. "And here is this Muslim Imam on the other side of the world saying a prayer for our child. We were truly leaving a mark that Peter existed. People will know about Peter and because of him they are afforded this incredible opportunity.”

Asked what Peter would say if he could see his mother now -- the woman who was afraid of insects and flying, who now has traveled all over Africa in his name -- she said: “I think he would be very proud."

 

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