Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A child of 9/11 finds family and home in Iowa City

Originally printed Sept. 11, 2011.

Kahleb Fallon's first memories aren't of his mother's bright red hair.

They're not of the big grin his mother wore every day or of her biting wit.

That's because Kahleb's mother -- 23-year-old Jamie Lynn Fallon -- was working in the Pentagon as a storekeeper third class on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. She was one of the 184 people who lost their lives after a hijacked Flight 77 crashed into the building.

Kahleb was 7 months old at the time.

Yet Kahleb's early memories are happy ones.

They're memories of jumping on cardboard boxes and sledding down hills at his grandmother's house in Virginia -- the house he called home until he was 5.

They're memories of coming to Iowa City to visit his mother's older brother, Mike, and wife, Cornelia, and of playing with his newborn cousin, Amelia.

And they are memories of moving to Iowa City and spending the next five years becoming part of a new family, a new neighborhood and a new community.

Now 10, Kahleb said he no longer remembers a time when he didn't call Uncle Mike "Dad" and Aunt Cornelia "Mom."

A 'normal' childhood

For the past five years, Mike Fallon and Cornelia Lang have worked to provide as normal a childhood as possible for their nephew, now son, Kahleb.

And while there have been challenges along the way, they've largely succeeded.

Kahleb is an energetic, athletic fifth-grader who enjoys playing soccer on his Kickers team every bit as much as he enjoys trying to outwit his classmates on the chess club.

"He's so energetic and involved," said Zac Wedemeyer, director of Taproot Nature Experience, "that he helps make my job as a nature teacher much easier just by his being there."

Kahleb said he doesn't remember explicitly telling his friends about how his birth mother died, but many of them already know. Mike and Cornelia have shared the story with several of their neighbors, and each year they take time to meet with Kahleb's teachers at Mann Elementary to make sure everyone understands his back story.

That has been important because Kahleb, especially early on, would mention his birth mother at unexpected moments. When a teacher would hold up cutouts during a lesson on shapes, for example, Kahleb might raise his hand and say, "That's a pentagon. I know that because my mom died in the Pentagon."

Explaining 9/11

Kahleb's understanding of his mother's death has evolved over the years.

At first, it was just a 7-month-old's wordless sense of loss over the absence of someone so familiar.

"After the event, he used to get really excited whenever he saw people with red hair," said Kahleb's grandmother, Pat Fallon, who was his guardian from 2001 to 2006.

Pat said she was very clear with Kahleb that his mother had died. After he started asking more questions, she then explained that his mother had died in the Pentagon after it was hit by a plane.

But it wasn't until earlier this year that Mike and Cornelia decided to tell Kahleb that the plane crash hadn't been an accident -- that someone intentionally had crashed the plane into the Pentagon.

After that revelation, Kahleb began to ask more questions about "the event." And when he saw an age-appropriate book about 9/11 at the library, he checked it out and had Mike read it along with him.

"I had a lot of questions after reading it," Kahleb said.

No claim made

One question Kahleb doesn't ask very often -- at least for now -- is, "Who is my biological father?"

The answer, like much about Kahleb's life, is complicated.

Jamie, following in her father's footsteps, joined the U.S. Navy in 1996. After four years abroad, she returned stateside and was assigned to the Pentagon. When she became pregnant, the Navy allowed her to move in with her parents in Woodbridge, Va.

Pat was understandably curious about the identity of Kahleb's father, but she said Jamie was a very private person and never referred to the two possible fathers by anything other than first names.

After "the event," everyone in the family felt it was in the best interest of Kahleb for the grandparents to become guardians. So Pat and her husband -- also named Mike Fallon -- worked with Navy lawyers to take the necessary steps. They placed ads in newspapers stating that anyone who wanted to make a paternity claim for Kahleb needed to come forward.

In the past 10 years, no one has made such a claim.

Good kind of inevitable

Even in the midst of everyone's grief over Jamie's death, a plan for Kahleb's well-being seemed to form early on.

"It felt very inevitable," Cornelia said, "but a good kind of inevitable."

During Jamie's funeral, for example, Cornelia was the one who looked after Kahleb while the Fallon family focused on their mourning. She then found herself in the same position a few months later when the elder Mike Fallon died of cancer in early 2002.

"As I was holding him, I started thinking, 'We're going to wind up with this kid,'" Cornelia said.

Over the next few years, Mike and Cornelia focused on developing their relationship -- moving to Iowa City, marrying in 2004 -- and visiting Kahleb regularly.

Once the couple had Amelia in 2005, they decided they were in the position to offer Kahleb a new home and a new family in a caring community.

Pat also knew that her time as Kahleb's guardian would be limited.

"At 60, I knew I probably didn't have the energy or the effort of will to raise him beyond the time he was 5," she said.

So after Kahleb turned 4½, Mike and Cornelia began a series of visits over the next year until Kahleb made the permanent move to Iowa City on July 4, 2006.

Rejoining the 9/11 community

Because Mike and Cornelia had not been involved with Kahleb's day-to-day care until 2006, they didn't deal directly with the government programs and officials designed to help the families of 9/11 victims. And for the past five years, they haven't reached out to connect Kahleb with the largely East Coast-based organizations and resources for the "Children of 9/11."

But Mike decided to make some inquiries earlier this year about the 10th anniversary events. And once connections had been reestablished, Mike and Kahleb were invited to travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in today's commemoration ceremony at the Pentagon.

"I think we're finally ready to join the 9/11 community," Mike said. "It's kind of like Kahleb's coming out party. His quinceañero, if you will."

Mike said his expectations for this weekend are high.

"After so many years of drifting and suffering, I'm hoping for some healing in my family," he said. "I'm hoping this will touch (Kahleb) on a deep level. That he'll feel something powerful. Something all his own."

Kahleb said he's excited to tour the Pentagon and to see where his mother worked. But he's most excited to go to a Washington Redskins football game today and to get to walk out on the field with other family members of 9/11 victims.

As of Tuesday, however, Kahleb said he didn't know what he was going to do when he visited the bench dedicated to his mother as part of the Pentagon Memorial.

Cornelia said she knows this weekend is a time of healing for the Fallon family. And she also knows Kahleb will be better able to connect with this new community if he doesn't have the distractions of a 6-year-old sister and 1-year-old brother tagging along.

But part of her still wishes she had been able to go to Washington, D.C., this weekend.

"It would have brought everything full circle," she said.

It would have brought everything back to the moment she sat at Jamie's funeral with Kahleb in her lap and -- amid the chaos -- felt the future starting to come into focus.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at a

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