Of Pain and place

Documenting devastation near and far-of the body, the mind, and the soul

Close to Home
They met at Victory Hospital back in August 1962. My mother had just given birth to me, but owing to problems during the delivery, she needed to be hospitalized for more than a week after I was born. One of her roommates was Rita Grady, who was expecting a son of her own. Although they lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, the two women didn't know each other but quickly became friends. When Rita's sister would visit, she'd offer back rubs to both Rita and my mother. And even after Rita gave birth to her child, Chris, and left the hospital, she'd still call my mom's room to see how she was doing. "We kept in touch a little bit after I came home," my mother recalls, "but we never got together the way we wanted to."

A few years later, my mother was waiting in line inside the auditorium of St. Patrick's Elementary School to enroll me in kindergarten when she spotted Rita Grady waiting to sign up Chris for the same class. "I tapped her on the shoulder, and we became friends again," she remembers. And naturally Chris and I became friends. We went through elementary school together. His dad, Donald, was one of the Little League coaches.

Chris was a great ballplayer. I was lousy.

We went our separate ways in high school, but our moms remained friends. Every so often, when I would talk to my mother on the phone, she'd suddenly interrupt the conversation with a burst of energy. "Oh, I saw Mrs. Grady the other day ...," she'd begin, and then I'd hear the latest news on Chris. That's how I learned that Chris's father had died and, a few years ago, that Chris had gotten married.

Typically this is the way news travels in my old neighborhood of Bay Ridge. And whenever I would hear an update from my mother or my sister on one of my childhood friends, I couldn't help but think about the small-town nature of this big-city neighborhood where generations of large families have lived for years -- the Mayroses, the Olivers, the Cappellinis, the Abdallahs, and, yes, the Gradys. My sister's husband is close friends with Chris's two younger brothers, Patrick and Brendan. If I thought about it, I could easily find another dozen ways in which the lives of all these families are connected. That's just the way Bay Ridge is.

It's probably been fifteen or twenty years since I've actually spoken to Chris Grady. But when my sister called last week to tell me that Chris, who works in the World Trade Center, was missing, that time disappeared, and I was surprised by how it hit me.

My muscles became weak, my arms grew heavy, and I could feel my body slump forward. I was suddenly very tired. I'd been watching the images of destruction for more than a day on television, and through it all I'd managed to remain relatively detached, more stunned than horrified. But no more.

"It's so sad," my sister kept saying.

Chris was working for the brokerage firm of Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the north tower when the first plane struck. Fire engulfed the floors just below him, and smoke filled the stairwells and offices around him. Unsure what to do, Chris called his father-in-law, a retired captain in the New York City Fire Department, for advice. His father-in-law told him to wet a towel or some clothing, use it to cover his head, and try to breathe through it. He told him to stay calm and try to make it to one of the exits.

That was the last anyone heard from Chris. His sister, who was working in the other tower, made it out safely. As I mentioned earlier, Chris was married a few years ago. I learned last week that he and his wife, Kelly, have two young children.

Two days after the towers collapsed, Chris's family printed up flyers with his picture and vital statistics and delivered them to area hospitals hoping for a miracle. And then, knowing that such miracles are unlikely, they drove Chris's medical records to a makeshift morgue in lower Manhattan in case authorities need them to make an identification.

Chris's wife sent along his hairbrush; the strands of hair within the brush may be needed for a DNA sample. More than 5000 people are now missing from the World Trade Center, including 700 employees of the New York office of Cantor Fitzgerald. "Every time you pick up the phone," my sister tells me, "it seems like you hear about another friend, another neighbor who is missing."

We now know the plane that slammed into the first tower was almost certainly flown by Mohammed Atta, who trained for this unimaginable evil on a flight simulator in Opa-locka. Suddenly the world seems so small.

As a child, my vision of the world consisted of nothing more than my neighborhood and the families within it. Then I grew up and decided that "the world" actually consisted of everything outside the old neighborhood, that in effect, the world was out there, beyond the borders of Bay Ridge. Now I'm not so sure where I stand. And today my footing seems uncertain.

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