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Eleven Years after Sept. 11: A Sister's Snapshots of Grief

"I saw Sept. 11 unfold as if one of my eyes were looking through a microscope, and the other looking though binoculars."

By Taciana de Aguiar

It has been 11 years since that terrible morning, referred to now simply by the date on which it occurred: ‘Nine-Eleven’. This thing that did not have a name was an event so huge, so shocking to the American people, no one word could describe it. Attack? Hijacking? Accident? Tragedy? All of those words and none seemed sufficient or comprehensive enough to describe what happened. But on that morning the world changed, and with it, all of us.

Sept. 11, 2001 began for me with an early morning telephone call. It was our cousin Michael, calling from L.A.: “Can you believe what’s going on? A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” he said, sounding something between bewildered and conversational.

I snapped awake and quickly calculated: if it was early morning here in California, it would be mid-morning in New York, and ... oh god! ... J.J. would be in his office by now.

I flipped on the TV. I recall watching images of the first tower in flames. I strained to get as much information as possible out of the minimal commentary offered. Which building Jay worked in. North? South? The building with the antenna? Or without the antenna? I couldn’t remember. ‘Jay’s in the other one, Jay’s in the other one,’ I repeated to myself as a silent mantra.

All I could do was to try to telephone somebody: his girlfriend Lisa in New Jersey, or our parents in Europe to see if anyone knew his whereabouts. I made the calls, but got busy, busy, busy signals. All East Coast lines were down. Communication was cut off, which made it feel indeed like a national emergency. Being 3,000 miles away, I felt completely powerless.

Meanwhile, the stations began reporting that a second plane had hit the other tower. Surreality kicked in. I knew my baby brother was in one of those buildings.

Inexplicably, my right hand started shaking uncontrollably, and I remember dropping to my knees as I watched the even more graphic footage of the second plane smashing into the south tower, in exactly the spot where we later discerned J.J. must have been at that moment, where he was last seen alive, waiting for an elevator. At that moment, on some very primal level, I somehow instantly felt, I just KNEW, that he was gone from this world.

We found out later he acted heroically. J.J. worked at Keefe Bruyette & Woods, an asset management firm on the 88th and 89th floor of the South Tower. He witnessed the fire and smoke pouring out in the first tower, not realizing the cause. In a flash, he intuited that they were in danger, and urged all his workers out of his office, despite the P.A. system admonishing everyone to keep calm and stay put. He made sure the colleagues in his suite left the building. J.J. himself was last seen waiting for the next elevator. If not for his insistence to get out, they might all have perished as well.

J.J. was about to become engaged and to be promoted, pending the completion of the requirements to become a Chartered Financial Analyst. He was our family’s answer to JFK Jr., another tragically lost son: a handsome, energetic, strong-jawed, wavy-haired, vibrant New Yorker, dashing around Manhattan. He was the favorite of my parents, having been born into a European family where male primogeniture rules. He was the only boy, the youngest, the most materially successful of the siblings. My brother’s death had a negative effect on the relationship between we that were left.

After the shock and grief, we remaining family members splintered from each other, to heal our wounds separately. I watched our emotionally closed and remote father, now softer, and at times weepy and maudlin, actually opening and growing spiritually as a result of the loss. Our mother, doing the opposite, closing inward and becoming bitter, buying herself a new life in Florida, distracting herself and assuaging her pain with food and television and playing bridge.

Our cousin, who’d called me to tell me the news that terrible morning, the same age and like a brother to J.J., made use of our handiest family tool, denial: “I'm just going to think of him away on a long, long vacation, rather than accept that he’s dead and gone forever.”

Perhaps the most tragic part of it all is watching my son, J.J.’s nephew, who was 9 when he lost his only uncle, and my sister’s son, subsequently born a few years later, whom he'd never meet, exhibit characteristics that they’d inherited from an uncle they could never get to know: amazing physical agility, an incredible quickness of mind, and in recent years, my son's fascination for global economics. To lose my brother’s influence on the next generation, as well as the children he himself might have had, seems the biggest loss of all.

But in the end, J.J. was less a hero, and more a martyr for political reasons I must resign myself to say that we may never fully know. He and the others were merely victims, bystanders, caught in the international crossfire of the battle over oil and power and control on a murky world stage, of which we can only make a guess as to who are the true players. Now I see clearly that although my brother's beloved New York represents indeed the pinnacle of what western civilization can produce: commerce, architecture, culture (as do London, Paris, Brussels, Geneva), these places have a more sinister identity as well: they are seats of world's power, the “belly of the beast.” Like the engine of an automobile, it propels the rest, but is also the dirtiest part. To me, now, New York is the embodiment of the biblical phrase "the love of money (and power and prestige and status) is the root of all evil.” My brother was killed simply because he happened to sit everyday for eight hours shuffling money upon the intersection of the ley lines of this power grid.

What has been the aftermath for me, personally? Beyond, obviously, the death of my only brother in a horrific and surreal way, I can faithfully count on all major networks to annually re-trigger my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To this day, images of the towers burning make me sick to my stomach. I now avoid watching television entirely on the anniversaries of 9/11, when all media incessantly replay those iconic images of planes flying into the buildings, bursting into flames, towers collapsing suspiciously, soot-covered people in shock fleeing the scene.

It was impossible for me to experience 9/11 only as a national or global tragedy. I experienced it on a microcosmic, as well as a macrocosmic level, simultaneously. On the day my brother died, which was a very personal thing, the entire world knew about it; it was the most public of events. I saw Sept. 11 unfold as if one of my eyes were looking through a microscope, and the other looking though binoculars. It was a very strange sensation, and it still is.

And now, 11 years later, the pain has dulled, but the loss never will.

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