The week of the anniversary kicked my ass. Since my return home after a whirlwind of activities all 9.11 and Sergio-related, almost every free moment I’ve had to myself I’ve just wanted to tune out, shut down, and sleep. And nap. And sleep some more, between naps, before going to bed for twenty-four hours of uninterrupted sleep. Truth be told, had it not been for Ray and the girls, and a daily dose of Red Bull, I would have likely slept the entire first week I’d been back. It’s funny how our bodies work to heal from trauma and grief. And it’s funny how in spite of the trauma and grief and my yearning to sleep, I am deeply fulfilled with all I did in honor of Sergio and the victims of September 11th during the anniversary week. Who woulda thunk one could ever be “fulfilled” while in the throes of grief? Take it from me, it’s possible.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought as to why this anniversary hit me harder than some others have over the last thirteen years. I realize there were a lot of different and difficult circumstances bearing additional weight on what is already a heavy time, and thought I’d share a little here for the record.
On September 9th, I spoke alongside my dear friend and fellow Rebirth film participant, Tim Brown, to high school students at E.O. Smith High School, about Sergio and what happened to us thirteen years ago. We launched our educational initiative, Talking With Tim & Tanya, in collaboration with Project Rebirth and an incredible teacher Tim Bowen (TBo), who had been using our film Rebirth as a part of his September 11th curriculum. It was really hard recounting some of the horrors of the day and aftermath, but thankfully I managed to do so in front of three back-to-back classes of Juniors and Seniors without winding up in a puddle of tears. In spite of the difficulty, it was very fulfilling knowing I gave the students who were too young to recall a personal connection to the day, while sharing who Sergio was and the life lessons we learned. The thoughts, hugs, signs, and beautiful letters of gratitude we received afterward affirmed that we really made a difference with these students and teachers, and I am so very grateful for the meaning this brought to the pain I experienced after losing Sergio.
After our morning at E.O. Smith High School, Tim Brown and I drove across Connecticut to meet up with some of the team for “Project Rebirth Night” of the Minute Man Challenge of the Ride2Recovery. About 150 catastrophically injured veterans, alongside volunteers and sponsors, participated in the 425-mile ride from Boston to Ground Zero, including Project Rebirth’s Chief Bob Gray. Bob delivered a talk to the veterans about his own experience with physical and emotional trauma— he was a Battalion Chief with the Arlington County Fire Department and responded to the Pentagon after the attacks on September 11th, 2001. After he retired a few years later, he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after falling from a ladder. He lost a considerable portion of his brain and skull, was in a coma, endured numerous operations to combat the swelling and infections in his brain, and had to re-learn how to walk and talk again, all while coping with post-traumatic stress as his memories began to flood back in again. His story was the perfect example of triumph over tragedy and I listened through tears as he stressed the importance of talking about the trauma to little by little remove the “monkey on the back” of each of these wounded warriors.
Bob brought home my own unwavering belief that peer support is vital to our healing when we are struggling to cope with grief and trauma, and I couldn’t help but stand in awe of the gift of each other that these veterans had on this ride. One young Navy vet named Josh, paralyzed and in a wheelchair, profoundly touched us all when he talked about how hesitant he was to join the Ride2Recovery because in his prior experiences with other non-R2R rides, he would always wind up alone and finishing much later than the rest of the other riders. He talked about how great it felt to be helped along the way on the R2R with a push-bar, and to know he would start and finish the ride alongside his peers in spite of his limitations. He made me reflect on my own experiences with my support groups and at Camp Widow, and I was more convinced of the power in sharing our stories, with all of the setbacks and victories along the way, to reassure us that we are never alone when we are with others who truly understand what we’re going through.
My role that night was to introduce Tim Brown’s short film from Rebirth, which tracks his almost eight-year-long journey after surviving the collapses of both towers and the grief, post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt he grappled with after losing ninety-three of his friends. It was the first time I ever had the opportunity to address a group of veterans and I wanted to thank them for their service, knowing so many of them signed on to fight the war on terror as a response to the attacks which killed Sergio and the almost three thousand victims of September 11th. I’m usually pretty good at holding it together when speaking in front of an audience, but that night I barely got my words of appreciation out when a wave of grief washed over me, as I looked across the crowd and was confronted with the unexpected thought of the thousands of U.S. and Coalition soldiers who never made it home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tim helped calm me simply by telling me to “breathe”, and I pulled myself together and completed my task of introducing the film.
Seeing all of the vets engrossed in watching the footage from the day while hearing Tim speak triggered a flash of memory for me, and I was brought to my recent experience at Kinko’s just days before, as I was waiting to put the order in to print Sergio’s posters:
Two men and a woman were at the counter, and one of the men was almost screaming at the young woman behind the counter, the gist of which was
“I cannot believe the incompetence of someone who would DELETE files that are in for an order before notifying the customer!”
There were some mounted pictures spread on the counter, and the other man calmly said as he pointed to the pictures,
“Look, I’m his father…can you please double check and see if there isn’t an email or something with the files attached?”
The men went behind the counter to another computer with the Kinko’s rep and I stole a glance at the photos they were pointing to. It was Steven Sotloff, the U.S. journalist who had just been beheaded by ISIS the week before. His family happens to be from the neighborhood next to ours. Thankfully they were able to recover the lost pictures, and I wanted to offer my condolences when they were leaving but Mimi and Samantha were there, restlessly amusing themselves while we waited and I didn’t want to open that can of worms in front of them. Instead I approached the counter and presented the CD with the PDF file of Sergio’s poster for the rep to check over.
She casually said, “Oh. I remember this poster— I helped you last year.”
And with a lump in my throat I responded “Yeah, it’s that time of year again…”
I couldn’t help but think of how f***ed up it was that this young woman would have two back-to- back orders dedicated to victims of terrorism on a quiet Sunday afternoon. And how f***ed up it is that we are all still vulnerable to these horrific and violent acts of evil, thirteen years later. And I thought, how many of these brave healing warriors, on this Ride 2 Recovery, would answer the call again if needed? The grief over these thoughts sunk deep into my bones. No wonder I needed to sleep.
After the screening and during the morning after, a few of the vets sought us out to thank us for being there. It was very humbling considering their service and sacrifice for our freedom, and how moved I was by their camaraderie and spirit after surviving the horrors of war. One guy struck me with his very purposeful expression of gratitude to us and our loved ones for inspiring him twice- the first, when he was nine years old and 9.11 happened, to join the army when he turned eighteen. He did two tours and upon his return he was inspired the second time to join the Fire Department where he lived. We chatted about how awesome it was to have the Ride2Recovery available to the vets as a community of support and tool for healing. We also talked a bit about how difficult it was to come back home after war, and the countless numbers of veterans who are committing suicide because they feel they don’t have the ongoing resources needed to help them to choose to live. This man, just twenty-three years old and young enough to be my son, knew way too much trauma and pain, yet he was there, fighting to thrive and bring meaning to it all. Grief touches grief, and the grief I felt for all those vets who didn’t survive, or who were coping with devastating post-traumatic stress, was another reason why this anniversary hit me so hard. Even so, I am so grateful I was able to see firsthand, what an incredible resource the Ride2Recovery is in giving our vets hope for a better future.
I also had the honor of talking to a female vet, who specifically asked to speak to me. She had participated in another R2R/Project Rebirth initiative and told me that seeing my story in Rebirth helped her so much. It was yet another powerful moment for me, because I could never have imagined when I signed on to do the film in 2002, that sharing my pain would help others dealing with their own let alone a she-ro veteran. I asked her to share a little of what she had been through, and she bravely opened up to me even though we had just met and we were limited on time. I can safely say that it was healing for us both- “getting that monkey of our backs, little by little”, as Chief Bob said. And I realize more and more the power of sharing our stories through the film. Because of the long trajectory of grief and healing over almost eight years, the audience sees the sacred journey of us all go from the raw emotions stemming from the pain in those early years to the joy of embracing life again and the relief in healing. When others hear us talk about our pain, they relate to their own painful experiences and are reminded they are not alone; they feel more open to sharing their pain, carving a path to healing by getting rid of that monkey, little by little. When others see we have integrated our pain into a life filled with peace, love, and joy again, they are given hope. I think back to all of those long, hard days of the first few years after losing Sergio, and I remember constantly asking myself:
“What is the meaning in all of this pain and suffering?”
To fully realize I can make a difference now, by sharing my story and encouraging others to share theirs- it just doesn’t get more meaningful than that.