The Genus of Tears: A Mohawk Ironworker's Widow Remembers 9/11
In the days and months immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the country was awash in tears of astonishment and horror. Thousands of people perished in four strikes against America. In one way or another everyone was indelibly touched, some more than others.
September 11th is one of those historic days of infamy never to be forgotten. Everyone old enough can tell you where they were and what they were doing.
I was two months pregnant with my daughter and rushing to drop off my three year-old at Nancy’s, my babysitter’s house before going to work at Cornell University. On the drive I heard NPR report a developing story—something about a plane crash at the Pentagon. When I got to Nancy’s she had an odd look on her face and greeted me with: “Did you hear?”
I followed her into her house where the television was on. Planes had crashed into the twin towers. We watched in disbelief as history unfolded before our eyes.
My partner Brad Bonaparte was one of those storied Mohawk ironworkers who shimmied up skeletal high-rise beams building skyscrapers in New York City like his father before him. When the twin towers crashed to the ground he was just leaving “the Hall” waiting to be called out on a job. He and his ironworker partner Andy Jacobs, also an Akwesasne Mohawk, were headed uptown to catch a train, but pandemonium ensued and they missed the last one. They became part of the masse that walked hundreds of blocks and across the George Washington Bridge to get off Manhattan due to the transit system lockdown. It took them the better part of that day to get back to their apartment in Jersey.
Two days later he and Andy reported for duty as part of the round-the clock ironworking crews enlisted to clear the wreckage at Ground Zero—a place that they would refer to as “the Pile” but was also “part hole and part hell” he would say. He was one of only a handful of Mohawk ironworkers who stayed on for any length of time removing the steel wreckage.
His very first night on the Pile he fell into “the hole” and was skewered through his side by a tie rod. The wound was serious and he was taken to Bellevue and admitted. He checked himself out hours later saying he felt as though it was a time of war and that he felt compelled to return to the battlefield.
He and his fellow ironworkers worked 12-hour, 10-day straight shifts, and in the more than three months that he was there he only came home maybe four times; each time for just a day and a half.
I worried myself sick about him night and day, sleepless and scared, my imagination running on all cylinders as I wondered what kind of impact that level of angst might have on my unborn child. I wanted Brad out of there, home and safe.
Every day the news reported on the biohazards and the air quality, the toxins and contamination at Ground Zero. Most of the reports focused on the police, the firefighters, the rescue crews and the New York celebrities that pitched in as volunteers to feed and serve those on site. There was little said about the ironworkers’ role.
When he came home for the first time after being there for 21 days he called ahead somber and serious and asked me to prepare a bowl of water with Osgwai’da (“Indian tobacco”) that he would need to wash with. The medicinal tobacco was used to cleanse away death and the remnants of unsettled spirits he had encountered. The tobacco is used in ceremonies and is believed to keep us and our children, who are most vulnerable, safe.
He arrived worn and unsettled, burdened with a haunted look of his own after witnessing and experiencing first-hand a tragedy few would know. He would talk about the smell of death, the haphazard respiratory checks and the lack of adequate face masks.
Just before Christmas he wrapped up his time at Ground Zero. CBS News’ 60 Minutes did a segment on the ironworkers that featured him. The Smithsonian American Indian magazine put him and his partner Andy on the cover and detailed their experience. My mom called him a hero. I was just grateful to have him home.
Along with full-fiber, deep-core exhaustion Brad brought home an unnerving, body-gripping cough that shook him awake at night. Between the nightly news reports that warned of unknown health implications and that disturbing, unmistakable cough of his, it was hard to ignore the alarm signals going off in my head.
I remember reading articles that suggested in 8 to 10 years, a wave of illnesses and conditions related to the hazardous conditions could surface among the first responders and workers at Ground Zero, much like the thyroid cancers that erupted in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the nuclear disaster.
So in October 2009 as Brad prepared to dress for my sister’s wedding, his shirt grazed a perceptible lump on his neck. He directed my attention there with a frown. I uneasily touched the undeniable growth. The first thing he said was: “It’s cancer and I’m going to die.”
I rolled my eyes at him and told him he was full of drama.
Indeed, for him it was the beginning of the end.
Sadly on the day before Thanksgiving 2009 my 47-year old partner of nearly 14 years received a phone call from his doctor with very little detail attached to it. We had been anxiously awaiting the results of a biopsy. Brad came home from his new dream job he had started only two weeks before as executive director of a Native arts and cultural center in his home community of Akwesasne, sat down and quietly, and simply stated, “It’s cancer.” That was it. There were tears. He was told to call back on Monday, to schedule a follow-up appointment for more tests.
We spent the Thanksgiving holiday wondering in fear about what kind of cancer it was. There was no one to field our barrage of questions. Was it survivable? Was it burn-your-skin-and-make-you-go-bald kind of cancer? Was it kick-your-ass-and-kill-you kind of cancer? We didn’t know. The prospects weighed heavily on us.
We went to Montreal on a planned trip to shop, eat and have fun; but the laughs were few and forced, and neither of us had much of an appetite. I kept reminding him that people beat cancer all the time. But over the long weekend I would steal away to the bathroom to cry in private.
After Thanksgiving we returned to the Vermont Cancer Center. A team of doctors sat us down and told us they didn’t know what kind of cancer it was or where it was emanating from. The lead oncologist said, “If it is ‘primary unknown,’ that won’t be good. We’ll be reaching around in the dark and we’ll just throw Jello at the wall and hope something sticks. If it’s a testes cancer; that would be better because testes cancers respond well to treatment and you can get a couple of years out of that. If its colon cancer, the treatments are better now and you can get five years out of that.”
At that point Brad and I traded grave looks of concern and took deep breaths. The doctor said, “if it’s stomach, pancreatic or esophageal cancer…” he trailed off. He shook his head. He continued, “if it’s stomach, pancreatic or esophageal cancer, then we are looking at a severely diminished lifespan.” The words: “a severely diminished lifespan” was like a sharp punch to the stomach. I tried to blink back a rush of tears.
Several hours later I sat nervously by myself in one of the many waiting rooms while the doctors performed an endoscopy. I rocked like a child with autism, my hands tightly clasped, praying as I’ve never done, pleading to some unknown higher power, feeling all the while a touch of insanity as I hoped for colon cancer. I worked hard to force back the tears that were building inside of me.
Only an hour later the doctor called me in to join Brad in recovery. He was still delirious from the anesthesia. It was then that the tears unfurled. There would be many tears, so many tears that would flow and become lodged in the slim crevice of the next seven months.
* * *
Up in Alaska, in that wintry landscape draped white, urban legend suggests that Native Inuit speakers have 100 different ways to describe the many variations of snow. (Science, for its part, tells us that no two snowflakes are alike.) The truth is the Inuit have about a dozen ways in their Native language to describe snow. It strikes me that in the dark landscape of grief, tears are like snow; there are many different forms and numerous ways to capture the precipitation of tears that accompany sorrow and loss.
There is the nature of tears and the occasion of tears, the shock of tears, convulsive tears and fits of unrelenting, physically exhausting, emotionally depleting tears. There are tears that choke, tears that paralyze, tears that gut you and turn you inside out. There are tears of relief, tears of disbelief and denial, tears of sympathy, tears of fear, tears of contempt, burning tears of rage and recognition, tears of disappointment and betrayal, tears of dread and uncertainty, tears of regret and tears of hope. There are tears of letting go, tears of loss and devastation, and tears of complete bewilderment. There are quiet tears on automatic pilot. There are tears of gaping emptiness, plaintive tears of loneliness and desperation. There are doubled-over, gut-wrenching tears of pain, tears of a stunned, broken heart.
The tears of shock and denial I cried when Brad was diagnosed with all-guns-firing advanced, metastatic, inoperable, 4th-stage, terminal esophageal cancer—were different from the ones he and I later shared when we laid together in bed at night over the remaining months of his life. Scared in the darkness, holding each other tightly as though our bounded bodies could shield us from the inevitable, those tears throttled our throats and stung our lips as our faces, wet and slippery, pressed hard against one another.
Those tears were different from the ones that tumbled out only eight days after our January 2010 wedding when I received the phone call informing me that the tumors in his super clavicle had strangled the nerves to his left arm rendering his limb all but dead.
The tears were different when his pee turned the color of iodine and the ER doctors informed me that tumors in his kidneys had grown like ivy vines and choked his organs preventing them from functioning properly.
The tears were different when the oncologist told us in a somber tone, yet face unflinching, that there was now a tumor in the brain.
The tears were different when we were given the “You-have-fought-a-really-valiant-fight” speech and the doctor transferred us to hospice care and tried to make “maybe three months” sound like an optimal remaining timeline. In a blur of tears I remember firing a dirty look his way and thinking loudly in my head: LIAR—I knew we didn’t have three months.
The tears were different when the daily dose of round-the-clock meds climbed to 18 different prescriptions and he became confused.
The tears were different when the hospice nurse came to the house on a Monday and stated the obvious—“He’s having some ‘changes,’” and said he would not likely make it to Friday, when our daughter would have a featured role in her second-grade spring chorale program.
The tears were different when the social worker told me we had to break the news to our two children that we would lose him—the most painful and difficult conversation I would ever have. For months we had told them that Hahni (“dad” in Seneca) was very sick and that we were doing everything we could to help him get better. The week before I finally broke down and told the kids that Hahni was not going to get better. My 8 year-old daughter’s face contorted as she cried out, “Not next week? He’s not going to get better next week?” I never felt so helpless, so broken, so unable to protect her from the oncoming train of pain that would run us all down.
The tears were different when the very next day at his bedside he grabbed my arm and pulled me close to him, as he coughed and struggled out his last breath, his eyes wide and searching.
The tears were different when, on Father’s Day 2010, as we prepared to return his body to the earth, I sat in the Akwesasne Mohawk Longhouse gripping my children tightly against my quaking body to keep from visibly shaking.
The tears were different when in February, on a brutal, late Winter day my 11-year old son sad, angry and confused told me he missed his Hahni and had nothing to live for, then grabbed his BB gun and told his sister “You’ll never see me again!” as he headed out the door in the freezing rain.
The tears were different on March 12, 2011 when I had the kids take Windex to the dry-erase calendar that for nine months remained untouched on the refrigerator door in a state of frozen time, locked on June 2010 when we lost him. For nine months June stared us in the face every time we went to prepare a meal or quench a thirst. Three squirts of Windex irrevocably erased the names of people who would visit, the places we would go, the events we had planned and intended; things we did and things we didn’t get to do and the day his proverbial battle with cancer came to an unavoidable end.
Some might argue that tears are all the same, but as with snowflakes, in the land of loss and grief, I believe that no two tears are alike. They are all related, rooted to a similar source, deep and familiar, yet varied according to a range of emotions. In our case, as with so many now across the country, our relapses and lingering tears flow back to the incident in lower Manhattan.
Ten years after Ground Zero, I am rattled with disbelief that my Mohawk ironworker failed to live to see the 10-year 9/11 anniversary tributes that are dominating the headlines. This week my children are riveted to the television, unable to escape the replay of images of that day. My son is transfixed by the coverage and inconsolable as he watches the news. He says, “If only Hahni never went down there, he never would have gotten the cancer…”
Brad was widely known for being a storyteller, something of an old-school Iroquois orator, gifted with a quick wit and a smooth ability to draw in listeners to the details of his experiences and delights.
We miss his stories, his levity and his voice. The terrorists unwittingly have had an even deeper far-reaching impact that continues to this day with a death tally that grows exponentially. As a country we were all affected by 9/11; there are literally thousands of stories of loss and some of us have felt the devastation more intimately than others.
As with all cycles, there is change. The warmth of the sun melts the snow-covered terrain in Alaska, and in the season of mourning, the tears eventually dry and a new, different vision of the future unfolds. For my small Seneca family, as with an entire country affected by 9/11, we have learned to live with the loss; still we are strengthened by the knowledge that our lives were made better by the sacrifice and conviction Brad and others demonstrated in a time of national crisis and need.