Their Lives Were Shaped by Loss

By Donna St. George
Thursday, September 11, 2008

Megan Donovan was 11 when her father was killed at the Pentagon. Middle school is a dark memory. By 13, she had attended so many Sept. 11 funerals and remembrances that she recalls being mystified about an invitation to a fancy celebration.

"I know how to dress for a funeral, but how do you dress for a wedding?" she remembers asking her mother one day in their home, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.

As the Pentagon Memorial is dedicated today, Donovan is a poised, clear-eyed freshman several weeks into classes at Wake Forest University and excited about what lies ahead.

But like other children whose lives were shaped by people they lost that horrific day -- a mother, a father, a sibling -- she also is still grasping what it means to have had a childhood so steeped in national tragedy, so riven with anguish and pain.

As parent Tom Heidenberger says, for the children of Sept. 11, "it was not just a life that was taken, but their innocence."

Donovan, 18, agrees that as a child, it was hard to fathom that a terrorist attack could have killed her father, William H. Donovan, 37, a likable Navy commander who was a P-3 pilot during Operation Desert Shield. Megan keeps a framed photo of him on her bedside table.

"Losing your dad is such a huge, huge thing that everything else pretty much fell beneath that," she says. "There was nothing else that really mattered when I was little. I mean, that was what made my life, and that was kind of what dictated what I did and how I conducted myself and everything else.

"The biggest thing," Donovan says, "was that I have had to grow up a lot faster than kids my age."

The eldest of three children, Donovan took on more than most. At West Potomac High School, she was captain of the field hockey and swim teams, played soccer, made the honor roll, tutored younger children and was elected junior class president. She was a valedictorian when she graduated this year.

It takes hard work and commitment, she says, to move beyond grief. "You just have to be really dedicated and driven to want to live," she says.

John Allen Jr.

Son of Samantha Lightbourn-Allen

Samantha Lightbourn-Allen, 36, woke her son, John Allen Jr., that morning in Forestville before she left for work as a budget analyst at the Pentagon. She wanted him to be on time for classes at Suitland High School.

John was 16.

In the days after Sept. 11, he barely cried. He wanted to believe workers would find his mother in the wreckage of American Airlines Flight 77. His grades fell at one point, he said. He pulled them up, thinking of his baseball team. His grades sank again, and he had to sit out part of the season.

Senior year, he regained his focus on schoolwork. He played baseball again and was the team's designated hitter.

Allen moved in with his maternal grandparents in Capitol Heights after losing his mother. His parents had divorced. Then, at 19, he got an apartment in Lanham. There, without family, he cried as never before. "That's when I realized she was gone," he says.

He remembers: His mother's wanting to get on every ride when she took him and his sister to Disney World in the summer of 2001. Her working a second job at a pizza shop and bringing home leftovers. He recalls her laughter, her work ethic, her singing with the church choir, the close eye she kept on her children.

When he was 20, he says, he had a lifelike dream in which his mom was alive. "I think she was trying to tell me everything was all right, and it was time for me to move on and do what I needed to do," he says.

By then, he was studying at Prince George's Community College but "not finding my place." In 2006, he transferred to ITT Technical Institute, where he has taken classes in computer network systems. One day, he hopes to work at Northrop Grumman.

Allen, now 23, will earn his associate's degree in March, he says, another big moment without his mother.

Such occasions are especially hard, he says. When he graduated from high school in 2003, he stopped before the ceremony and bought roses in his school colors: red and white. He laid them at her grave.

Becca Dolan

Daughter of Navy Capt. Robert E. Dolan

B ecca Dolan recalls that the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, completely shook her 15-year-old sense of the larger world. In one devastating moment, her father, Navy Capt. Robert E. Dolan, 43, was gone. "You just start wondering what else could happen," she says.

"For a long time, I think I combated a general sense of paranoia," she reflects. "Everything scared me. I was just kind of freaked out."

Not everyone would have known this about Dolan, an outgoing cheerleader at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria who became active in the model United Nations program as she became increasingly interested in world affairs.

Dolan, 22, recalls her father as "the ideal military man" and a fun-loving dad who chaperoned her school dances, much to her teenage chagrin.

Now, she says, "the hardest thing is not having him there."

As the years have passed since high school, capped by graduation from the College of William and Mary in May, her fear and worry have faded. She did an internship on Capitol Hill, then a semester in Paris.

Her dream is to work as a travel writer or with National Geographic, "something where I can bring the world into people's living rooms," she says. This summer, she was an intern at American Cheerleader magazine in New York.

"So many people are closed off from the world, and I'd like to open it up in any small way I can," she says.

She recalls the widespread public distrust after Sept. 11 of people who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. Such misperception or scapegoating, she says, is what she imagines working to prevent.

One of her favorite keepsakes from her father is a gold necklace he brought her from the Middle East. As a child, she wanted to be an archeologist and visit Egypt. The necklace has her name on it, in Arabic.

She misses her father daily -- and talks of him often. Still, she says, "I'm not going to let what happened scare me from seeing the world or doing what I want to do."

Thomas Heidenberger II

Son of Michele Heidenberger

Thomas Heidenberger II was 14, in his third week of classes at Gonzaga College High School, on Sept. 11, 2001 -- the day his mother, Michele, 52, was the senior flight attendant on Flight 77.

"The hardest part about it was that I just started high school, it was kind of a milestone in my life, and then that happens, and it kind of knocks you down," Heidenberger recalls.

"I definitely grew up quicker. What worse could happen to you, you know?"

In the weeks after, the support of friends and family became a lifeline. Thomas and his father leaned on each other. Thomas's sister, Alison, then 20, was at college.

"If it wasn't for him . . . , " his father says, nodding at his now-21-year-old son.

A year later, Thomas transferred to Georgetown Preparatory School to be nearer to friends from his elementary school, Mater Dei.

During his high school years, Thomas worked many of his required community service hours at St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville, where his mother had volunteered.

"I remember my mom in a good way," he says. "Yeah, it was a terrible thing that happened . . . but I go on each day and think about what my mom would want me to do."

Now a senior at the University of Scranton, Heidenberger is studying finance, having just finished an internship in private wealth management at UBS in New York. He says it is important to him to show that he has survived Sept. 11, that the terrorist attacks have not stopped him.

"I haven't let it hold me down," he says. "It's motivated me to push myself further."

Says his father, "If you look at a lot of these kids, they are survivors."

Devita Bishundat

Sister of Kris Romeo Bishundat

Devita Bishundat was 17, in her first week at Goucher College, when her family's life in Waldorf was rended. Her big brother, Kris Romeo Bishundat, a Navy petty officer, was killed when Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

He was 23, a fun-loving one-time basketball player at Thomas Stone High School in Charles County who made good with a military career. His parents emigrated from Guyana when he was young.

"To this day, I have no idea how I finished the semester," Bishundat, 24, says, thinking back. "I literally have no clue."

Her brother's death redefined everything that followed, she says: how she views the world and relationships, imagines her career. She has become more passionate about politics. She hopes to go to graduate school and work in public service.

"I feel it's really made me look at my life in a different way -- who I am as a person, what I care about -- and really act on that and believe in that," she says. "It is such a big part of me and who I am and my family and my identity now."

Turning 23, she says, was especially tough: both the idea that she has outlived her brother and that she has "the opportunity to do things he will never have the opportunity to do."

To her surprise, the feelings recurred when she turned 24.

But remembering him helps. She recalls that her brother believed in "paying favors forward," offering small acts of kindness that might leave the world a better place.

She imagines that if Romeo were alive, he might be married, with children, perhaps still in the Navy and driving his beloved black Jeep.

* * *

For many children of Sept. 11, the Pentagon Memorial will become a sacred space to remember the father, mother or sibling they lost.

Megan Donovan has been involved in the project in small ways for years, attending board meetings with her mother and helping with fundraising events. Thomas Heidenberger rode a 12-mile leg of a national bike ride his father organized to raise money for the memorial. John Allen Jr. expects to remember his mother there, and Devita Bishundat will remember her brother.

As Becca Dolan says, the hope is that the memorial will be meaningful to the families who bear the losses of Sept. 11 as well as to the larger world. "It's not a bad thing that people move on: You don't want people to live in paranoia and fear," she says. "But at the same time, you don't want people to forget."

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company