“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” -Arthur Ashe
For thousands of survivors, family members, and friends of those who were lost on September 11, 2001, the anniversary is marked by sorrow and trauma as memories from the day resurface. I know these feelings all too well, and while I can happily say my life has taken some beautiful and unexpected turns since then, I still struggle, twelve years later, with memories of the day my fiancé Sergio didn’t return home. It is what it is, and I hold my sorrow gently.
For me, this day is about remembering not just Sergio and the thousands who were lost with him on September 11, 2001, but also about remembering the thousands more who were lost in the years following, whether to illnesses attributed to the recovery efforts, or to the wars which followed in response. This day is also about remembering the heroes who are still here, who touched our lives and held our family up as we struggled to process our enormous loss and rebuild our lives in the years that followed.
One hero in particular is Captain John “Smooth Daddy” Graziano, whom I met twelve years ago, when he came to our apartment with trays of food and sat with our family, giving us what little information he had about Sergio and the other five men missing from Ladder 132. It was Thursday, September 13th, and with all of the chaos of trying to locate the men during those initial two days, he took the time to come to us in person with food, thoughts, and speculations about where they might be. A memory seared into my brain is of him showing us the “ticket” with the time of departure from the Brooklyn firehouse, and his reasoning that with the time it took to travel downtown via the Brooklyn Bridge, the truck would have gotten there around the time of the South Tower’s collapse. He was hopeful, as we all were, that the company arrived minutes after and was not in the buildings, and perhaps would be found in a pocket somewhere. Like so many others who appeared on the news, John made the haunting observation that much of what was there was fine dust, metal, and papers — a complete anomaly for two buildings which housed so much by way of walls, furniture, and other remnants one would expect to see.
In the weeks that led into months, John spent countless hours on the pile, digging and searching — at first with the hope for finding our men alive, and when time was no longer on their side, the hope shifted to bringing their remains home to our six families. We would receive regular calls and reciprocate encouragement and gratitude as we supported each other during one of the most horrific times in history. When it became clear there would be no remains recovery and the clean-up efforts were ending, John was our rock as he helped us all plan and deliver the memorials which honored our loved ones and celebrated their lives. He and his family, as well as the other men and families from Ladder 132/Engine 280, secured a cherished place in our family. And to this day, John can still always be counted on, with phone calls and messages of love, support, and heartwarming humor — even as he begins his next round of chemo for the Stage 3 pancreatic cancer he was recently diagnosed with.
After dedicating twenty-seven years of service to the FDNY, John retired a few years ago and began pursuing his passion for riding motorcycles with the FDNY Fire Riders. After seeing a number of other firefighters succumb to WTC-related illnesses, including Sean McCarthy from Ladder 132, John remained vigilant about his health and went to regular screenings in the World Trade Center Health Program. Thanks to the tireless advocacy of organizations like the Feal Good Foundation, the program was put in place with the passing of the Zadroga 9/11 Health Act, to monitor and provide care for all of the first responders and neighborhood residents around Ground Zero. While John had been consistently receiving a clean bill of health these past years, nothing could stop the debilitating back pain which began this past April. After seeing doctor after doctor, one finally ordered a CT scan with contrast which detected the inoperable tumor in his pancreas. Based on the size, the doctor determined that John has had this tumor for years. With no history of pancreatic cancer in his family, it is highly likely due to John’s exposure to the environmental toxins which were at Ground Zero.
When I heard the news I was devastated and angry — and truthfully, I still am. I’m angry because it’s pancreatic cancer, which under current available screening practices, can only be detected in its later stages. I’m angry because of the fifty cancers which were covered under the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, cancer of the pancreas is not one of them. And I’m devastated because this promising new test discovered by a 14-year-old kid, which detects pancreatic, lung, and ovarian cancers in their earliest stages, wasn’t available sooner.
But in spite of my anger and sadness, I am hopeful, inspired, and grateful.
Hopeful that the critical test for early detection will be made available to this deserving community of heroes, and inspired by and grateful for Jack Andraka who is changing the world by creating it. Hopeful that pancreatic cancer will be added to the list in the Zadroga 9/11 Health Act and inspired by and grateful for the ongoing advocacy by The Feal Good Foundation and 911 Health Watch, in their fight to help these angels on earth get the treatment and compensation they are entitled to.
But mostly, I am hopeful that my buddy Smooth Daddy will beat this thing. I am inspired by his courage, faith, and strength, and so very grateful for our friendship.