So, you know how in horror movies they show some crazed psychopath with a mask wildly swinging a meat cleaver as he finally catches up to his targeted victim, the one he didn’t get the first time, the one who was left with a really thick, gruesome scar over a deep, deep wound caused by the same meat cleaver, which took years to heal but is still a bit tender to the touch? And you know how you cringe in your seat as that same meat cleaver, rustier with the blood of the initial wound, glints with a flash of blinding light before it’s violently plunged into that thick scar of said victim, and you feel, for a split second, the searing pain of that wound?
After reading this:
As I re-read my opening paragraph back to myself I can’t help but think I sound like some over-exaggerating Drama Queen, but then I realize the truth in all my dark humor– I am not a Drama Queen. Instead, I am a Trauma Queen. And here is why:
I received this letter last week dated exactly twelve years and two months from the day my beloved fiancé Sergio, a firefighter, answered the call to the World Trade Center. He and the five other men from Brooklyn’s Ladder 132 are among the 127 firefighters who still remain unidentified. And while I am better today, my mangled wound still throbs with the pain of the blow and the bandages are soaked through, yet again, with the blood of trauma. A trauma which seems never, ever, ending– twelve years and two months later.
This is the piece of the 9.11 aftermath which many who were not directly affected by the attacks may not fully comprehend- the majority of our loved ones were found in pieces. Small fragments. Fragments which can only be identified for as long as the DNA technology keeps up with them. Pieces which lie in wait, as the Medical Examiner keeps the call out to families of victims who want to supply the city with DNA so they can make a match if their loved one is ever identified.The horrific statisitics were detailed in this article written in June of this year, when a 43-year-old female was identified.
In the first weeks following the attacks, while we were still hopeful for the safe return of Sergio, one of our closest friends, Rick, his former NYPD partner and a sergeant at the time, came to our house with the mission of gathering Sergio’s dental records and any DNA-laced specimens such as his toothbrush and strands of hair. It was certainly one of the most surreal exchanges between two friends, and the nano-percent of my brain which gave thought to him being found “un”-alive (I just couldn’t bear to use the word “dead”), imagined he would be completely recognizable. But in the teeniest, tiniest, most miniscule chance he wasn’t, it would have only been due to his being badly burned- the idea of Sergio being found in pieces never crossed my mind .
As I handed over his toothbrush, the thought of it possibly being contaminated with my own DNA sent me searching for his hair, which he never brushed or combed because it was so short. Then the funniest realization hit me, and I knew exactly where I would find some of his hair– in the blades of his electric trimmer. Rick and I had a good tension-breaking giggle at the absurdity of submitting his body-hair trimmings which were left over from his frequent “manscaping” sessions. It was so like Sergio to show us the humor, even through the darkest moments.
A few months later I received a call from Rick saying the Medical Examiner wasn’t able to extract Sergio’s DNA from the short hairs we had submitted. With no other source for his DNA which could be directly attributed to Sergio, Rick suggested we get a sample by swabbing the cheeks of either his siblings since their DNA was the same. Sergio was always a protective big brother, and to the same extent I wanted to protect his brother and sister from the trauma of having to do this– it just sucked on every level. Steven was working in Seattle at the time so Maricel, who was in the first trimester of her first pregnancy, bravely stepped up to the plate. There are few things I remember with such clarity during the early days of the aftermath, and Maricel’s face, fighting back tears while trying to smile in our attempt to get through it with humor, is one memory forever seared into my brain.
By November of 2001, after I accepted that Sergio wasn’t coming home alive, I was in full therapy mode through the FDNY Counseling Unit, which included sitting in two support groups of family members and fellow widows. It was through their testimonies that I started to take in the absolute atrocity of what happened on September 11th- how some were forced into planning funerals, after already having a memorial service, because their loved ones were identified afterward. And how others were debating whether or not, or when, to exhume the coffin after receiving call after call, that additional pieces were discovered, again and again. Because of this Sergio’s family and I were in a holding pattern for planning his service, not wanting to have to grapple with these morbid and excruciating decisions, and I wished for and prayed that he would never be found, at least not like that.
During those critical months of recovery I attended too many services, both memorial and funeral, to recall. Each one left me sadder than the last, as I watched so many family members struggle to get through the loss of so many young men, men like our beloved “Big Daddy”. It was preparation I needed to get accustomed to the idea of having to plan Sergio’s service, and in spite of my sadness, I held on to the memory of Sergio’s response when I asked him in June 2001, if he cried at the funeral for one of the three firefighters who were killed on Father’s Day—
“No. I mean, it was sad and all, but there is so much honor in the way we send these guys off.”
In March 2002, one of the girls in my support group called with the news that they had found her fiancé, three months after they had his memorial service. It was a turning point for me, because I learned what was found was roughly a quarter of the big strong man whom her fiancé used to be. My running and repetitive thoughts as I stared at the closed casket during his wake and funeral were
How the f*** can only a quarter of a person be in there?
Would I be strong enough to handle this if we learned of a similar fate for Sergio?
Am I in the f***ing Twilight Zone?
This. Shit. Sucks.
With the recovery and clean-up efforts at Ground Zero at a frenzied pace and the grim reality that no full remains were being found, and knowing that Sergio’s mom Delia trusted me in guiding the decision-making for all of us because it was just way too much for his mother to handle, I called on Sergio’s sister to help me define the parameters of what we would all be most comfortable with for notification and burial of Sergio’s remains. It was by far one of the worst conversations anyone ever has to have, but we got through it– with tears, a shitload of cursing, and dark humor. Our final decisions were that we only wanted to be notified if 50% or more of him were recovered, identified through either the name on his bunker gear or dental records, and that we did not want to be notified once the recovery efforts at Ground Zero was over. The thought of having to bury just a finger, or a limb, or any other small part of him, or to get notified days or months after the fact because of DNA ,was just way too much for us to handle.
On June 7, 2002, just eight days after the clean-up at Ground Zero officially ended and nine months after the day Sergio never returned home, we held his memorial service at St. Andrew’s Avellino Catholic Church in Flushing. Sergio, and the five other men from Ladder 132, were never found. The ceremonial fire engine caisson which was used to transport the caskets of fallen firefighters was symbolically empty. Instead of a casket at the altar, we had a large frame of the last picture taken of Sergio, along with two helmets representing each of the firehouses he was assigned to flanking his NYPD uniform hat. I delivered a tribute to him in front of an estimated two thousand family members, friends, firefighters and police officers from New York and beyond, Mayor Bloomberg and other local politicians. Following the mass we had an estimated thousand people at his collation, under rented tents near Sergio’s favorite soccer field in Flushing Meadow Park. We released hundreds of balloons, representing each member of the FDNY and NYPD who gave their lives on 9.11. (My widow brain at the time was not aware of the potential damage to the environment so forgive me, birds.) At the end of the long day, which truly celebrated Sergio’s life and honored his sacrifice, I had a little peace knowing we could somehow close this chapter of waiting and wondering.
Or so I thought.
In November of 2002 we were notified by the FDNY Family Assistance Unit that a number of vials of blood, belonging to many of the unidentified firefighters, were sitting frozen in storage at the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP). I was given a number to call and sure enough, Sergio’s blood was there and we had a right to claim it.
In a vial.
If I were a vampire I might have been happy but instead, I was a Trauma Queen and all I could think was
What the f*** were we supposed to do with that?
Could this whole experience be any more painful, any more gruesome, any more surreal?!
How is this our lives?
How is it that we have to make these unbelievably f***ed up and macabre decisions?
I hated to have to make that phone call, again to Sergio’s sister, who was then a new mom, but she always gave me strength and I knew we would make the best decision together. Burying the vial wasn’t an option for us at the time, because we felt we did enough at that point with his memorial and didn’t want to throw salt on what was still a festering wound for all of us. We also had a strong belief that Sergio’s spirit was not attached to any physical body, and this tiny sample of blood did not define the person he was. So, ignorant to how the donor process worked, we thought to just let them go ahead and use Sergio’s marrow where it was needed.
One of my “funniest” memories is of that awkward moment on the phone when the person at the NMDP had to explain to me that the frozen blood was just to let them know if Sergio was a match to a potential recipient and that he had to actually be alive to donate his marrow. When I had to call Maricel back to explain it, I can still so vividly recall my nervous laughter, a laughter bordering on psychotic, as we grappled with the insane idea of who would keep the vial in their freezer, next to the frozen pizza? This is how the Trauma Queen in me had to cope, and in the end, we decided to leave it to the NMDP to do whatever they did with unclaimed samples.
After the “business” of the first year was done–waiting for news of recovery, filing for the death certificate, having the memorial, notifying all who needed to be notified, and getting through the anniversary–the stark reality of Sergio never coming home sunk in with a vengeance. Every day felt sadder than the next, and I didn’t want to live knowing I would never have the happily ever after we had been dreaming of together. During this critical time, I was a fixture at the FDNY Counseling Unit and my nurturing therapist and core support group of seven other “significant others” became my lifeline. We created a safe space for each other to share our sacred sorrow over who and what we had lost, and while each of us was really struggling to cope, our mutual support for each other gave us hope. I’ve said it a bazillion times- I would not have gottten through it without them and I am forever grateful for our friendship.
In early 2003, I began taking regular and much needed breaks from New York and its devastating daily reminders to my “sanctuary” in Miami Beach, a condo which I co-owned with a dear friend. I bought a motorcycle and my identity as the Ann Taylor-styled owner of our gift shop, Inner Peace, began to transform into a steel-toe-boots-and-bandana-clad biker chick who had absolutely no fear of death. With each ride on my bike under the healing rays of Florida sunshine, I felt the layers of trauma blow off me, and was grateful to get glimpses there of a peaceful existence as the battle scars of the first two years began to heal. I found solace in knowing our request to remain un-informed if Sergio were identified was in place, and wrapped myself in a self-imposed cocoon of ignorance, imagining him going straight to the light, with no pain and no physical remains to haunt us. Until I was re-traumatized, again and again, in the weeks leading up to and following the second anniversary.
Besides the repeated onslaught of media attention as we closed in on the day, I attended the final funeral for the last of the 343 firefighters, Michael Ragusa, on September 8, 2003. I met the Ragusas early on in one of the support groups and saw them at numerous services and functions during those first two years. They were desperate to recover Michael’s remains and when none came, they decided instead to bury the vial of blood which he had donated to the NMDP– I was glad they were able to find comfort in having it when we couldn’t. It was an emotional service, as were all which I attended, but the significance of the end of the end almost annihilated me.
The first bagpipe note was like a round-house kick to my soul, and with every additional note and each tap on the drums of the FDNY procession, a wicked assault by hundreds of Ninjas, a la Quentin Tarantino, damn near destroyed me. A few days later, I took yet another beat-down at the anniversary ceremonies at Ground Zero. While I truly could appreciate the amount of honor which was wrapped up in all of the pomp and circumstance, an honor which I know Sergio would be completely humbled by yet proud to receive, I could no longer hear bagpipes or TAPS without feeling like I was holding court as the Trauma Queen. It was one funeral, and one anniversary, too many.
As time continued to pass I slowly recovered, and as I did, I learned something very important about myself–I was resilient. As much as the Trauma Queen was forced to take the throne at times, Queen Resilience really called all the shots. She had an army of supportive family and friends and an arsenal of coping skills at the ready. Her biggest cannons were filled with balls of hope, which enabled her to push forward and live happily even after, in the face of never-ending, random hits of trauma.
Trauma caused by news about September 11th and related stories, like the capture of Bin Laden, or the deaths of thousands of soldiers who fought in the wars in response to the attacks. Trauma caused by learning that yet another first responder has either died in a fire or is sick from WTC-related illnesses. The worst trauma for this Trauma Queen however, is any news about remains recovery and/or identification.
Like in October 2005, and March 2006 when bone fragments were found on the roof and upper floors of the Deutsch Bank Building, across the street from the World Trade Center, the same building which would later claim two firefighters’ lives on August 18, 2007.
Or in June 2010, when “two or so dump trucks of never-before sifted debris from Ground Zero…yielded 72 fragments of human remains…”
Or the double-whammy in April of this year, when part of the wing from one of the planes was found near the mosque at Ground Zero, and a few days later, news broke that more remains were found during renewed sifting operations.
And as recently as July 6th, two days after what would have been Sergio’s forty-fifth birthday, the Staten Island Advance published an article about the identification of Lt. Jeffrey Waltz of the FDNY.
All of these random assaults, when we least expect them, force us back into the horrors of the immediate aftermath. And now, this particular assault, a letter dated twelve years and two months later, is not so random at all. It is targeted directly at us, and Sergio’s family and I are forced to revisit our feelings about being notified in the event his remains are identified. We are forced to once again confront the reality that if he is identified, it will likely be a a very small piece, or worse, pieces of him. We are forced to contemplate the possibility that the other five men on Ladder 132‘s truck could be identified, and forced to face the reality that if they are found, Sergio will likely be too. And with all of this in mind, we have to know now, if and when he is found, so we can answer some of our unanswered questions and bring him home if he’s there.
The harsh and bitter truth is, even if we chose to never be notified, we will never, ever be protected from the horrors of the day. With every news byte about remains being uncovered or remains being identified comes trauma, no matter what. But as traumatizing as it is, we’ve already been through the worst of it, and strengthened by our resilience, we will make it through again.
Still, there is no better way to express it than in New York terms– the whole situation is just
Fuck the asterisks.
In spite of this wicked nugget of hard-earned wisdom, I have to stay sane amidst all of this insanity, and I am reminded of a quote by Brené Brown-
“If we don’t allow ourselves to experience joy and love, we will definitely miss out on filling our reservoir with what we need when hard things happen.”
I can’t help but remind myself that I am very blessed to have a reservoir of joy and love to tap into as this recent trauma settles in, and I still have so very much to be grateful for– Thanksgiving was Sergio’s favorite holiday, and he would want me to do just that. I am so grateful for the seven years I had with him, even though it was cut short in such a traumatic way. He taught me so much- to live every day as if it were my last, by loving big, laughing often, and being thankful for all of life’s gifts, big and small.
I am so very grateful for one of Sergio’s greatest gifts to me– his family. Without the love and support of Delia, Steven, and Maricel, I surely would have crumbled. Knowing that we have always had each other’s back, as we continue to travel this long and painful journey of never-ending trauma, is a testament to our never-ending love for Sergio, and his never-ending love for us. I am so grateful for our families and friends, who give my life meaning and have been a consistent source of comfort, strength, and hope.
I am grateful for all of the other Trauma Queens, and Kings, of the September 11th community and beyond- our families, support groups, the FDNY, NYPD, the military families who have made sacrifices in the wars which followed, and the widowed community, who remind me that I am not alone and continue to strengthen and inspire me to push forward in the face of never-ending trauma.
I am so grateful for the kind-hearted folks whom I’ve never met before, who were touched enough by mine and Sergio’s story to reach out with messages and prayers of support that have meant so much to my healing.
And I am so very, very grateful for my happily even after- the day to day love and laughter I have with my Ray of Light husband, and our two daughters, Emilia Grace of God and Samantha Rae-diant Light of Love.
I am so grateful my five-year-old Samantha woke us up at the crack of dawn the other day, exclaiming
“The sun has rose while the moon is still out!”
Even though I could have used the extra hour of sleep, I am so glad she reaffirmed for me that the sun always rises, even when life seems dark.
I am so grateful my six-year-old Emilia lost her top front tooth this week. Her new smile is the perfect metaphor for how we can still experience delight and wonder, even when a piece of us is missing…
And I am so very grateful to Ray, who knows exactly how to comfort and support me when Trauma Queen takes over, and always points out the signs when I need to see them most. While we were driving the other day I was telling him about some of these traumatic hits and he said-
“Check out that guy’s tag…”
I am so grateful to Big Daddy, for continuing to show us he’s with us, reminding us that love always transcends death, and trauma.