Our conversations with him from Disney World had been short and tough. The cell service in Iraq was spotty and the time difference was frustrating. We had one conversation midday Saturday, as he and his crew were going to bed in a military compound somewhere in Baghdad. He exhaustedly mumbled something about getting much-needed sleep the next day. Exactly what he said didn't register with me at the time. My daughter Cathryn was determined to buy a puka shell necklace. With my shoulder cradling the cell phone, I negotiated some cash from my wallet while keeping an eye on the twins, who were dangerously close to a fence in front of a bamboo grove.
Later, Bob would swear that he told me has was going to embed with the military for some exercises, while I would swear he said only that his team was going to relax for the day. At the end of our conversation I passed the cell phone around so the kids could say hi. This was common practice in our house—good nights, kisses, homework help, all via satellite. When your father covers news around the world, the phone becomes a primary communication tool, for better or worse.
"Do you feel safe there?" I asked absentmindedly, collecting the change from Cathryn. "Are you okay?" It was a stupid rhetorical question, made more absurd by the fact that we were currently standing in Disney World, "the happiest place on earth," while he was somewhere in the most violent place on the planet.
"I do. We're surrounded by the military. It's fine," he reassured me. He and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, couldn't know that the elevator was about to drop. In the ocher-colored sands on a godforsaken highway outside Baghdad, they were about to enter their own Tower of Terror.
That night I called the front desk to request a 7 a.m. wake-up call. With the bigger kids sleeping next to the twins, perhaps I could slip downstairs the next morning and take a quick swim in the pool before breakfast. Even though it was January in Florida, the water was invigorating and it would be a great way to start our last day in Orlando.
In a few days Bob would be home and we'd be a family again. His new appointment as co-anchor had set a grueling pace for the past month, even the weekends. His days had been crammed with photo shoots, press conferences, and ad campaigns. The new program with Bob and Elizabeth Vargas was committed to go to the story, to have one anchor on the road and one in the studio as often as possible. Bob relished the challenge. It was a new era at ABC News. There was an excitement at the broadcast that was a welcome tonic after the months of sorrow following Peter Jennings's illness and then death from lung cancer. Bob and Elizabeth would give the news department something to rally around, after feeling like a ship without its beloved captain.
"Just get through January," I had told Bob, as he left for the Middle East on that fateful trip. It had become a kind of mantra for us after the announcement, as he shot out of the gate as a newly minted co-anchor.
"I really don't want to leave you guys," he said, as he leaned into the door frame of my home office, rolling suitcase in hand. He looked exhausted, distracted, and not eager to get back on a plane to return to Iraq for the sixth or seventh time in three years. The town car was already idling in the driveway.
"Just get through January," I repeated, "and life will take on a more normal pattern. We'll have weekends again, and we can be a family."
He reeled off everything he'd packed, hoping I'd figure out what he might have missed. This was familiar territory, this nonchalant leaving. It should have had more weight, but to give it any more importance would have jinxed it in my mind. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gaza Strip: give him a kiss as always, treat it like a normal morning, and he will come home safe and sound. I had a work deadline that day, and the sooner I got him on the road the faster I could finish my task.