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Keeping her distance

Daphne Davis wants nothing to do with New York City, where her husband was killed. She brought him home, to Texas, where she says he is with her still.

By STEPHEN BUCKLEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002


Daphne Davis wants nothing to do with New York City, where her husband was killed. She brought him home, to Texas, where she says he is with her still.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Daphne Davis has skipped most memorials in New York the past year. She has never been to ground zero. Sometimes she denies she's a widow.

Her husband was a much-decorated Port Authority police officer. For 15 years, they lived a long-distance marriage. For 15 years, she dreamed of the day their family would be reunited.

The dream gone, she suffocates her pain with distance and denial.

Here in Austin, she keeps last year's terror at arm's length. She immerses herself in the daily maelstrom of her children's lives and in the deluge of paperwork, correspondence and applications for funds.

She will not go to New York on Wednesday. Why should she? Her husband isn't there. He is home in Austin, with her.

"I don't want to go," Davis says. "His ashes are here. I don't have to share him with anybody. I'm married to him for real now. To me, he's retired and we're one family now."

* * *

Daphne Davis, shy and sweet, and Clinton Davis Sr., funny and charismatic, met in Austin in the late 1970s. He was a security police officer at Bergstrom Air Force Base.

They left for New York, where he had relatives. He started with the Port Authority police in 1986, his beat the World Trade Center.

The Davises lived in Flushing, Queens, until 1989. By then they had two small children, and Clinton wanted out of New York. The big city, he said, is no place to raise children.

Daphne and the children returned to easygoing Austin. But a police job there required too dramatic a pay cut, so Clint stayed in New York.

"Clint always loved Austin," she said. "He definitely didn't want his kids in New York. He didn't want them living in fear. He wanted them to be able to run around, to have some freedom."

Daphne and Clinton talked two or three times a day. (Their monthly phone bill sometimes topped $700.) The family spent summers together in New York, and he came to Austin a few times a year.

They planned to reunite after their oldest, Clinton Jr., graduated high school. He did just that in May, and Daphne reminded her husband of his promise. The last time they discussed it was Sept. 10.

She was dressing for work when she heard a plane had crashed into the trade center. She couldn't reach Clint on his cell phone, so she called Port Authority police.

"Is Officer Davis all right?" she asked.

They contacted him on his radio, and she could hear him say he was fine.

"You be careful," she said.

He was missing for two weeks. On Sept. 23, Davis was in New York for the prayer service at Yankee Stadium. She kept telling people she could feel it: Clint was coming home that day.

Port Authority officials met her at her hotel room that afternoon. Clint, who was 38, had had been found on a staircase in the north tower, near people he apparently was trying to save. His body lay next to his closest friend on the force.

"I told you he was coming home," Daphne told friends. "I just didn't tell you how."

Eight hundred people attended the funeral. They recalled Clint's love of karaoke, his fondness for the horses. They honored his heroism and paraded through his old Flushing neighborhood.

Daphne couldn't sleep for weeks. She didn't eat a full meal for four months. She lost three dress sizes.

She wondered: Did Clint suffer? What was he thinking about? They found his cell phone in his pocket. Why hadn't he called?

Clint Jr. was listless and angry. He had been accepted to Southwest Texas State University in nearby San Marcos, but he lost all desire to go. He has no memory of last October and November.

"I couldn't figure out who to blame," he says. "That was the big question: Why?"

Daphne fended off relatives over money. She had no idea yet how much she might get. All she had was a $200,000 insurance policy.

She told them, "I have to do for my family first. Clint took care of me. Now, I'm going to take care of his kids."

"This money issue -- wow. I didn't know money could make such a difference. It hasn't changed me, but it has changed the people around me."

She began tending to the prosaic details of death -- bank statements, Social Security benefits, legal correspondence. It became a full-time job. "I was getting up at 6 a.m. and working till 10 at night." Her mother, Joann Webb, says Daphne tried to squeeze "72 hours into 24."

Sometimes Webb awakened at 3 a.m. to find Daphne curled on the carpet in a spare space now known as Clint's Room.

There, on the second floor, his ashes are in a tiny cross that hangs in a bell jar and in a silver, heart-shaped locket hanging on the door.

Before bed each night, Daphne kisses the locket, tells Clint good night and shuts the door. If she forgets something and has to go back, she repeats the ritual. "Sorry," she'll whisper.

In that room, his police awards crowd the walls. There's his favorite softball bat, scuffed and hooked into his black Franklin fielder's glove. There's a shelf of his books, including Barron's Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms, Black Profiles in Courage and the Koran.

In a corner, Daphne has crammed one and a half file cabinets and three briefcases with documents. One file, with old letters and checks, is labeled: "Clint's smell on the mail."

This room is where she tackles the complex applications for financial help. She has spent six months alone applying to the federal government's Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund. She still doesn't know how much she'll get.

She has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a bevy of sources, including the Twin Towers Fund, the Sept. 11 Fund, the New York Stock Exchange and various police groups. That's along with her husband's pension.

She bought a five-bedroom house on a street with broad, clipped lawns. The home has a big back yard, where Clint Jr. uses a BB gun to shoot at an Osama bin Laden target.

She bought three luxury vehicles (a Chevrolet Suburban, a Chrysler Concorde and a Cadillac El Dorado) and is renovating her mother's house.

She made a will and set aside money for her children: "I have my kids set up for when I go. I'm living to protect them."

One afternoon last week, she greeted Clint Jr. in the living room with a huge grin.

"I have a surprise," she said.

"Somebody give me a scholarship?" he asked.

Turns out, yes. The Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund. The check was for $3,700.

"That's a full year," she said.

"Yeah, that's good," said Clint Jr., now 19.

Clinton Davis Sr. longed to see his son in college.

Two weeks ago, Clint Jr. sobbed during the half-hour drive to Southwest Texas State to see his dorm room for the first time.

"I miss you! I miss you!" he railed. "You were supposed to be here with me."

* * *

In the last year, Daphne turned down most of the numerous invitations -- all offering free transportation and hotel -- to attend memorials in New York. She will be there Sept. 17 for a ceremony honoring her husband as the Port Authority's Policeman of the Year.

"I don't want to go," she says, referring to the series of memorials that start today. A few minutes later: "My memories of him are here mostly. I don't know if I'm in denial, or what."

She did not attend closing ceremonies at ground zero. She has never been there. In a taxi with her mother once, she drove by but had no idea she was close until they were overpowered by the sickly sweet smell of something burning.

Why go to New York, she says. There's too much to do in Austin. One recent afternoon -- "a pretty laid back day" -- she got her niece and nephew after school, went to the post office, returned home, picked Priscilla up from volleyball practice, started a pot of spaghetti and attended a school open house.

(The night before, the family bowled its first league match. They call themselves "the Survivors.")

At volleyball practice, her 12-year-old daughter met her with:

"Mom, guess what? I made the A team. But I'm not on the first string."

"That's okay," Daphne said.

They exchanged high fives.

At Priscilla's first game the next night, Daphne clapped, chanted, stomped, pumped her fists and cheered herself to exhaustion.

"My kids make me nervous," she said. "I don't want them to mess up."

At 38, she helps care for five children -- her own, plus three nieces and nephews. She also took in one of Clint's nephews, Maurice Rogers, who came to Austin with her after the funeral.

Maurice is a high school senior, and she was at his open house at Reagan High last week. She listened in the front row as his English teacher, Margaret Huston, discussed rules and obligations.

The teacher discovered that Daphne is related to a victim of Sept. 11. "We all worry about what we're going to do that day," Huston said, referring to Wednesday. "It'll be a tough day. A tough couple of days."

Huston wished Daphne well.

"You know what used to bother me?" Daphne said that evening. "When someone calls me a widow. When someone asks me my status, I still say I'm married. They say, 'You mean widowed.' I say, 'No, I'm married.' I guess I still want to be somebody's wife."

The sleepless nights have returned with the approaching anniversary. Daphne snaps at the children more. Her mother says Daphne's voice sometimes is so weak and depressed, it sounds like a baby's.

She will stave off depression with busyness, preparing her own Sept. 11 festivities.

There will be a banner on a flagpole in her front yard -- "We love you, We miss you forever" -- and the family cars will lead a mini-parade around town in his honor. Their mascot will be their Yorkshire terrier, Hero.

Mostly, though, Daphne will bask in her late husband's presence.

She will listen for echoes of his favorite sayings ("No news is good news"). She will listen for his voice (which she says told her it was the right time to finally talk to a reporter).

She will take comfort in the mysterious telephone call that comes between 6 and 6:30 a.m. every day. The phone always rings once and only once. No one is ever on the other end. She says it's Clint Sr., reminding her to live her life. Another day is here.

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