Found and lost

I thought I was one of the lucky 9/11 relatives: I had the remains of my husband. But then the medical examiner informed me I was grieving over only 40 percent of Eddie's body.


A.R. Torres
July 10, 2002 11:11PM (UTC)

Ten days after 9/11, the police came to my door. They wanted to tell me personally that they had identified Eddie's body. One week after that, I buried my beloved husband in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. In March, I received some personal property -- his three ID cards. In April, I got more news: They had identified a piece of his muscle mass. Suddenly, I had to ask a difficult question that I had previously avoided: "How much of Eddie did I bury?" The answer was 95 percent -- I was short by just a foot or two.

I've reacted to all the news about Eddie, his body and his belongings in the same way: I am seized by an immediate and intense spasm of grief, which spreads throughout my body, until totally absorbed. After that, to my surprise, I feel peace.

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I have tried to feel like a winner. After all, I was among the few who received so much from the recovery efforts at ground zero. According to the news, roughly two-thirds of the 2,823 dead vanished without a trace. Their loved ones still wait and hope that the medical examiner will call with the news that their loved one was "found" among the approximate 19,550 body parts still waiting to be identified. Meanwhile, of the 1,092 bodies identified, there were only about 300 whole bodies. Eddie, was one of them, less his feet.

As a winner, I was able to take control of Eddie's body, and in doing so, I could begin to retake control of my own chaos. Life left Eddie's body suddenly and violently. And, according to the grief literature, when someone you love dies in this way, you feel powerless and vulnerable. I did, and the rituals that came with possession of Eddie's body suddenly gave structure to my messy world. I compiled "to do" lists and relinquished very few tasks to others. By confronting the realities of retrieving Eddie's body, ceremonializing his death, and burying him, I anticipated some relief as payoff for my efforts.

But relief, and the widely advertised sense of closure, evaded me as I stumbled on my last duty. Since April, I've awkwardly tried to get a headstone for Eddie's grave, often losing the paperwork and forgetting to make the necessary phone calls. It's not that I haven't felt a certain urgency about getting this done. Whenever I visit the cemetery, I'm bewildered by the bleak dirt trail under which Eddie lays. The sight evokes the awful days when Eddie was equally ill-defined at death, identifiable only through dental records. My need to delineate his grave is so strong that I always end up ripping the heads off the roses I bring and throwing their petals all over his rectangular form. But the wind removes them and I am left where I began, with a dirt trail and a loss for words.

In May, I tried to take care of all the headstone business in one day. I came to the cemetery to look at other graves and their markers. The stone of one of Eddie's next-door neighbors, Ellen Jackson, 1874-1924, was the one I liked best. It was charcoal black, the kind of stone Eddie and I wanted to use for our kitchen counter but found too expensive. The marker was slanted and rough edged along the top, sides and back.

I wanted Eddie's stone to be different in just two ways -- I wanted to include the complete dates of his birth and death, even if this meant that passersby might wonder if he was "one of them." I also decided to leave space for another person on the stone, but not in a way that indicated he's expecting anyone else, just in case I don't get there.

But when the headstone salesman arrived to meet me, he drove up fast in a sleek new sports car with a vanity license plate that read PLAYTIME. As I gave him a haggard widow's smile to cover up my disgust, I knew that I wouldn't be doing business with him. His marker repelled me; I wouldn't give him the details of mine. I would wait. But, as strong as I felt about the legitimacy of my delay, I did wonder whether I'd been sabotaging this task that marks the official end -- for me, at least -- of this sad era.

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Still, for all my stress and equivocating, I believed I understood how lucky I was to have this choice. I thought I understood what distinguished me -- with Eddie's body uptown -- from those families with little or nothing of their loved ones around whom they might perform these rituals. It was up to me what Eddie's monument would be and who would make it; the other families couldn't determine exactly how their grave site -- ground zero -- might be transformed. By that time, members of the general public had submitted 19,000 plans for ground zero to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.

But last week, I was suddenly kicked out of the winner's circle. Just like that. The medical examiner provided me with information that was different, and more accurate, than what I had earlier. It turned out that I never had control of Eddie's body -- just his head, upper torso and left arm. His right arm and hand were at Memorial Park, in one of the refrigerated trailers that contain all the remains of 9/11 victims that have yet to be released to the families. In total, I had accounted for only about 40 percent of Eddie's body.

As I sat in the medical examiner's office, I tried to understand it all, all over again. Although the worker sitting in front of me was prepared to tell me anything I wanted to know about Eddie, it all depended upon how prepared I was to receive these many awful truths. She sat with a file turned away from me, to shield me from seeing anything I didn't want to see. This included a manila envelope with postmortem pictures of Eddie.

As we talked about the cold science of Eddie's body, actual percentages and other grim details, I saw tears in her eyes for just a moment. It's strange to see a professional lose the composure. It is the grieving widow who's expected to break down, not the person in the crisp white coat. But these tears, from the least likely people, clarify the tragedy for me more than anything else. Even if I am too numb to feel my own pain, I see its reflection -- and its enormity -- in these encounters.

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Now I have joined the other families in their efforts to have a say about the future of ground zero. This is the new task that helps reorder my new chaos. I know that, in the competing voices, there will be some that belong to people who own shiny cars with cheesy vanity plates. But I am equally certain that some will belong to other people who just can't get through the days without crying, just like me.


A.R. Torres

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