Their lives were shaped by loss

Megan Donovan, 18, of Alexandria, Va., lost her father, Navy Cmdr. William Donovan in the 2001 Pentagon attack. "The biggest thing," the Wake Forest University freshman says, "was that I have had to grow up a lot faster than kids my age." Illustrates SEPT11-KIDS (category a), by Donna St. George (c) 2008, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph.)

Megan Donovan, 18, of Alexandria, Va., lost her father, Navy Cmdr. William Donovan in the 2001 Pentagon attack. "The biggest thing," the Wake Forest University freshman says, "was that I have had to grow up a lot faster than kids my age." Illustrates SEPT11-KIDS (category a), by Donna St. George (c) 2008, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph.)

WASHINGTON " 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 Alexandria, Va., home.

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 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.

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 II, who lost his mother, Michele, 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, Samantha Lightbourn-Allen, there, and Devita Bishundat will remember her brother, Kris Romeo Bishundat.

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," says Dolan, the daughter of Navy Capt. Robert Dolan, who was killed in the Pentagon attack. "But at the same time, you don't want people to forget."

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