Tanya Villanueva Tepper: One of Nine Subjects.
(reposted from huffingtonpost.com)
“Grief is like the ocean: it’s deep and dark and bigger than all of us. And pain is like a thief in the night: Quiet. Persistent. Unfair. Diminished by time and faith and love.”
—One Tree Hill
On the morning of September 11th 2001, I was blissfully painting my nails to highlight the bling — a diamond engagement ring my fiancé Sergio had given me a few months before on the seventh anniversary of our first kiss — sitting comfortably on my ring finger. Sergio was my everything, my soul mate, my best friend, all that I ever wanted in a man, a husband, and the perfect father for our future children.
I was watching NY1 when the news broke. Planes crashed. Towers fell. The world changed forever. And Sergio — an FDNY firefighter — was one of the almost 3000 victims who never came home. My beloved, and all the meaning to my life, disappeared into the twisted wreckage of steel, glass, and concrete. I was violently thrown into the deepest, darkest, and most treacherous waves of Grief Ocean. The seas swelled with my tears. Waves pummeled. Undertow yanked. It was excruciating to live.
Sergio, and the five other firefighters on Ladder 132’s truck that day were never recovered. His June 7th, 2002 memorial was held just eight days after a ceremony commemorating the end of the cleanup at Ground Zero. And while New York was rebuilding and recovering, I was in grief counseling with the FDNY three times a week screaming, “WHY IS EVERYONE FORGETTING ABOUT HIM AND ALL THE OTHER VICTIMS?!”
Tim Brown was our friend, a fellow firefighter, and a teammate of Sergio’s on the FDNY soccer team. He too wanted people to remember. Tim survived both tower collapses, lost 93 friends, and signed on as a subject in a documentary film to share his story. Danielle Beverly, the field producer of the film, was looking for more people to participate and Tim suggested we meet.
Danielle and I sat in a diner a few weeks after the memorial service and I gave her a copy of the tribute book I had done for Sergio. After flipping through the pages of photos and quotes, Danielle looked right at me and said, “I can tell how much you loved him.” With that one comment and at that very moment, she became my friend.
Danielle went on to explain what the documentary, Project Rebirth, was all about. Producer/Director Jim Whitaker had gone down to Ground Zero shortly after the attacks and in spite of his tremendous sadness and anxiety, had a sense of hope that the area would recover. He knew it would be important to capture it all on film and so in March, 2002, he received the go-ahead to set up cameras at different points around Ground Zero. His goal was simple: to track the evolution of the site’s rebuilding process through time-lapse photography.
Shortly thereafter, Jim decided to also document the lives of 10 people affected by the attacks by conducting annual one-on-one interviews and filming some “b-roll” (background footage) over an estimated decade. The goal of the film was to interweave the physical and emotional rebuilding after the attacks — hearts, souls, the WTC neighborhood — all rebuilding simultaneously.
It was a considerable commitment but I was intrigued by the scope of the project and hoped it would provide a platform to share Sergio’s story so no one would ever forget what happened that day. It would also be an interesting way to document my journey through grief — a journey which had made me unrecognizable to myself. Perhaps if I saw me on a screen one day, I could find all that was taken from me. I had a hard time imagining I could ever find happiness (much less love) again. But knowing there were other widows before me who had built new lives for themselves, I had hope.
My initial meeting with Jim was at a coffee shop near Pace University a few days before we would shoot for the first time. He was exactly what I hoped he would be: kind, soft-spoken, down-to-earth, and like Danielle, we clicked almost immediately. He spoke further about the importance of creating this historical record and the time commitment. Without hesitation, I told him I was in it for as long as he needed me to be.
The setup for our annual interviews remained consistent from the beginning. The chair I sat in was placed in a corner surrounded by black fabric screens with a wooden crate and a box of tissues and a bottle of water on top positioned within arm’s reach. Near the door, a large digital-film camera perched on a tripod with Jim in a chair alongside it. A boom microphone was suspended over the nine-foot-long camera path, and a panoramic window-sized box of light softly illuminated the space. Free of distractions, we would dive into the three to five-hour interviews with Jim’s simple direction: he wanted to know what my year was like, what I thought about when I woke up every morning, and even my thoughts when I showered. No moment or experience in that previous year was too insignificant or unimportant to share.
From the moment filming commenced, I instantaneously felt comfortable with Jim and his crew. Tom Lappin, (the cinematographer) and John Zecca, (the sound director) were guy’s guys — easy-going, unpretentious, and always laughing at my attempts to lighten the mood with potty humor. After my agonizing, tear-filled first interview when I recounted what “that day” was like, they had become my brothers, bound by hearing the testimony of my unimaginable experience.
In a strange, yet not uncomfortable way, our annual sit-downs had become like therapy for me. Even without a couch for me to lie on, or a bookshelf filled with psychology books, or a degree hanging on the wall, there was “Doctor Jim” — engaged, yet not overly eager or pushy, compassionate, empathetic, non-judgmental, and patient — safe to share my innermost thoughts with. Because the interviews always took place on the anniversary of the attacks, my feelings were always razor-sharp, and at the forefront of my mind. And, since my grief counseling was ongoing, I had become adept at digging deep and expressing what I felt. Jim would simply turn on the camera and document my stream-of-consciousness monologue. If I said anything which struck him, he would ask me to expand on it much like the way my therapist would do. Several of my journey’s “Aha!” moments happened during those interviews. And I will always be immensely grateful to Jim for that.
It was one thing to be in a private room with the crew during the interviews, and a totally different experience being followed by cameras in public capturing the “b-roll”. Trying to be inconspicuous while being conspicuous took a little getting used to and I can vividly recall many passersby pointing and wondering what it was we were filming. If only they knew, I would think to myself before refocusing on whatever I was engaged in at the moment.
Besides following me in the days leading up to the anniversaries, the crew filmed me riding my motorcycle in Miami, renovating the Queens gift shop Sergio and I owned, and planting a memorial garden in his honor. As the years passed and I had the gift of a second chance at love with Ray (a fellow biker I met in a gas station in May 2003), the crew filmed our wedding in Maui in May 2006, and Jim signed as the witness to our blessed event. They captured me reading Sergio’s name during the fifth anniversary ceremonies, on the official start-date of my first pregnancy. In June 2007, the crew was in the delivery room with us as our daughter Emilia came into the world — thankfully, via c-section. And the crew was there again in 2008 when our second daughter Samantha was born — sharing our joy not just as bystanders, but now and forever as our extended family.
It was right around the seventh anniversary when I received a phone call from Jim telling me he felt that the film was announcing its own ending. Jim explained that all of the subjects, now down to nine because one dropped out early on, seemed to have reached a place in their lives where there was some sort of resolution. I knew exactly what he meant as I felt I had gotten past the intensity of my grief and was at a peaceful and joy-filled place in my life with Ray and the girls. While I was not surprised that the filming would be ending, another part of me felt nostalgic. I would be sad to see them go.
We had our last interview in March 2009, and being in the position again of reflecting about my grief, I realized I had some added anxiety about “letting go” further in having to say goodbye to the Project Rebirthteam. I never imagined that this would contribute to another wave of grief, but I felt like they were the last tangible connection to my identity as Sergio’s widow, and there was pain in having to close this chapter of my life. As with all of the other grief waves, I pushed through it and gained comfort realizing that my experience with Project Rebirth was not solely about my being a widow, it was also about my ability to rebuild in spite of such an enormous loss.
Once the interviews were done, Jim left his long-held position as president of Production at Imagine Entertainment to dedicate himself fully to editing and finishing the film. With almost 1000 hours of footage to sift through, it took him and a team of editors lead by Kevin Filipini over a year to complete the task. In early August 2010, Jim called me with the news that I was one of the five participants who made the final cut, and he wanted to fly to Miami to show it to me.
I have had many surreal moments in my life, but nothing compares to the almost two hours spent watching almost 10 years of my life in a feature film. I cried watching me cry. And my angel of a husband held me close while I cried for my late fiancé. I cried tears of joy watching our wedding, and I was again moved to tears at the synchronicity of seeing that they filmed a rainbow in the sky over the hospital the day Emilia was born. In between, I was moved by the music and in complete awe of the other four participants of the film now called simply, Rebirth.
To watch my story unfold on screen in the context of four others who were also affected by the events of 9/11 was humbling. Seeing my friend Tim grapple with survivor’s guilt after losing his closest friends was heart rending, yet enlightening. Ling, who survived the carnage of one of the impact floors but sustained second and third degree burns, undergoes countless surgeries and is nothing short of a superhero. Brian, a construction worker who lost his younger brother, is all heart as he works to rebuild the site and cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. And seeing 15-year-old Nick navigate the murky waters of grief over losing his mother while growing into a man was especially poignant to me, now that I am a mom myself.
When the credits were finished I wanted nothing more than to meet and get to know all of them, including the four who didn’t appear in the feature film. The nine of us had all gone through such solitary journeys, yet we were all tied together in this parallel experience of the parent entity called Project Rebirth. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, I was honored to finally meet Ling, Nick, and Brian, and stand in such inspiring company. Along with Tim, I consider them friends for life.
After reflecting on the seven years I spent with Sergio and seeing my journey through grief into healing in the film, I am drawn to a quote by Mother Teresa:
“I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, only more love.”
I find solace in knowing I have no regrets about my relationship with Sergio. There was nothing left unsaid between us, nothing to forgive. We loved each other completely as if each day were our last. There were many layers of hurt I worked through, but the greatest I experienced was the pain in thinking I had to “let him go” in order to find new love again. But love found me in spite of myself. And what I’ve found in Ray and our two daughters is that the heart is ever expansive. It grows and grows in direct proportion to the amount of love you give and let in.
Even so, this does not mean my grief over losing Sergio ends. As anyone who has experienced loss can attest, there will always be triggers to bring on the waves of pain. This is the paradox within the paradox. And when it happens I tell myself, I hurt because I love, and I hold my sorrow gently.
The greatest validation so far for my participation in Rebirth happened at the Sundance Film Festival. Two women approached and thanked me for sharing my story, and told me it will help so many people. They introduced themselves as Bonnie Carroll and Kim Ruocco, from the organization The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which helps families of fallen military personnel. Bonnie founded TAPS following the death of her husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll, in an Army C-12 plane crash in 1992. Kim, a social worker, lost her husband, Major John Ruocco, a decorated Cobra gunship pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps and father of two sons. In 2005, Major Ruocco had returned from a tour in Iraq and 10 weeks later was preparing for a second tour when he lost his life to suicide. Meeting them had such a profound effect on me, as they transcended their grief to help others who suffered as they had. I am hoping to follow their lead by continuing to work with Project Rebirth the non-profit organization in their initiatives to educate people about grief and resilience.
What I want most from the film is for people to have a connection to September 11th and to remember the victims who were so senselessly taken that day. I am further humbled knowing the film and excerpts of it will be a permanent installation at the September 11th National Memorial and Museum which officially opens this year. As time continues to move forward it is important to honor all of the victims by remembering and being grateful for how precious life is. We owe it to them to be the best we can be by living with intention, integrity, compassion, and love. We owe it to them to never, ever forget.
Since some degree of loss and heartbreak is an inevitable part of growing up, I imagine my daughters having to confront their own pain in life one day, and I pray that it will be nothing more than a break-up with partners who don’t deserve them anyway. Whomever the culprit or whatever the situation, I will tell them first and foremost to live through the hurt one moment at a time. Hold on to hope, even if the situation seems hopeless. Grab joy wherever they can. If they tell me there is no joy to be found, I’ll encourage them to cry, find support, and promise them that time and change will carry them through. And if they refuse to believe me, I’ll show them Rebirth.
[Tags: Project Rebirth , Rebirth 9/11 , Rebirth Documentary , Rebirth Film , New York News]