The Beginning…

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“I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, only more love.” – Mother Teresa

Twelve years. On one hand, a long long long long time ago. On the other, just yesterday…

Now that the girls are both in school full-time, one of my many goals for the next year or so is to finish my memoir, The Sky Won’t Fall Forever, which I started in 2003. The framework for my book is the two-years worth of e-mail updates which began on September 13, 2001. Recently I came across the first few chapters and feel like I’m ready to share the first few pages, which include my first hand account of what happened on the day and in the few weeks following as we waited for news about Sergio.

During that time I prayed and prayed for the miracle of him returning home safely. And while that miracle never happened, I am so grateful for the many other miracles which have happened along the way. The countless miraculous signs sent by Sergio to validate that love transcends death, and he is still with me on this journey. The miracle of having survived what I surely thought was the unsurvivable. And the many daily miracles, which shine through in the love and laughter I still get to experience through my relationship with Ray, and the two little miracles born from our love: Mimi and Sami.

Long live love. <3

Click for The Beginning

Rebirth and Full Circles…

“I believe we have all experienced Full Circle Moments.

They deepen our lives and, once shared, enrich the lives of others.

They are at once personal and universal.”

~ Jane Genende

I have had an extraordinary week. I celebrated my 45th birthday and received a beautiful phone message from my spiritual counselor/soul mother/astrologer Elaine telling me that the way my planets were lining up signified that this was one of my most blessed birthdays, and to be open to receiving a special blessing from God, while being willing to give a special gift in return.

Birthdays are always an especially reflective time for me, and looking at my life with forty-five-ulous years of wisdom and all of its chapters, good and bad, I couldn’t be happier. I have the most loving, thoughtful, and supportive husband- my Ray of Light, who has given me my life’s most precious gifts in our daughters Mimi and Sami. I have a treasure chest of loving and joy-filled memories of Sergio and my Dad. I have deep and cherished bonds with my hero of a mother, my siblings, and our extended family, including my BFF since childhood and her family, and Sergio’s family. I have various circles of friends that I enjoy spending time with and know that we are there for each other always.  And now, slowly but surely, I am doing soul-fulfilling work with Project Rebirth and the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation’s Camp Widow. Except for the fact that I wish there were more hours in the day and I could better manage my time–

I. love. my. life.

When I signed on to participate in the documentary, Rebirth, it was to ensure that viewers would get a personal connection to September 11th by sharing Sergio’s story. By the second or third year, when my life was slowly shifting, I realized the importance of sharing my grief story for other widows after me. Since the film’s release I have received many beautiful and affirming messages from viewers who said seeing the film enabled them to do just that. To read that people whom I have never met in person, wear Sergio’s name on a bracelet, or go to visit the memorial to find his name always moves me to tears. And to hear from other widows that seeing my story gives them hope that they too will get through it validates that all of the pain I experienced after losing him was not in vain.

While every day is full of blessings, I did have some that really stood out this past week, just as Elaine said would happen. First, I was able to spend some quality time with a young widow I met in April at Camp Widow East. Leah was twenty-nine years old, seven months pregnant, and caring for her one-year-old son when her beloved Gary was tragically killed in a car accident almost two years ago. I first met her when I facilitated the roundtable discussion for Unwedded Widows, and hearing her story was profound. Later she came to my workshop where I screened the footage which tracked my journey in Rebirth, and over the weekend we were able to spend a little more time getting to know each other. When I returned home from camp we began exchanging messages through Facebook, and here are some especially meaningful excerpts from her:

“…it was an incredible honor to meet you too and you’ve been such an inspiration to me. Camp widow has changed my life and I think I have been saved because of it as I can truly have some real hope for the days ahead. Being around everyone’s stories and feeling such a bond and having that feeling of being comfortable in my skin as a widow and not feeling guilt and no judgment was life changing. I look forward to next time I can attend and see you all!! Sending positive energy to you too that can hopefully give you a bit of warmth in your heart to see you through your journey too. I was able to laugh and also to cry without guilt for the very first time in 19 months since Gary’s death. Wow what a feeling! I hope you continue to share your story , as hard as it is for you, you truly have a gift of showing people life is about living, not dying. Sometime in the future I have always wanted to explore Florida and will for sure look you up. And will see you again at another camp widow, perhaps next year ! Keep in touch , many blessings to you and much love!! Xxx Leah

“…I also wanted to tell you that both my sisters watched your video with me after I got home , and one of my sisters, Lana ( who is engaged to be married) had an emotional release and vented to me how she has been feeling so guilty about being happy considering my situation, but that watching you on the video ” living life” I think gave her hope that I will be ” ok” once again, and she could say how hard it’s been for her ( as family) going through all this and seeing me have such a hard time, but that seeing you and your story of life can truly “rebirth”. we were both bawling , but it was good tears, and neither of us felt guilty about it. I think it’s the small things in life, truly, that take us forward. Not huge events or happenings, but the conversations we have, the people we learn from, the love we share, the support we gain and natures beauty. Thank you from the bottom (or top perhaps) of my heart xxxxxxx Leah”

“Am watching your documentary again tonight, thank you again for doing it, it truly gives inspiration and also gives even just that yucky feeling if grief that we need to go through now and again to help us to heal. I often don’t allow myself any time during the day, it seems, to just focus on myself and my own grieving, usually because so focused on my little sweethearts. Watching this I think allows me time to feel like crap but also to regain my thoughts and have some reassurance that I can see some light at the end of the tunnel :) And I mean crap in a good way you know what I mean!! :)…”

After weeks of back and forth exchanges where our friendship continued to blossom, she ventured here from Canada for a beach getaway, with her now 18-month-old daughter and two-and-a-half-year-old son (Super Mom!). Over two days this past week, we took all of the kids to the zoo, splashed around in the pool, and between snacks and playing, we were able to connect one-on-one on the significance of our losses and how Camp Widow was life-changing for her. To hear her say that prior to camp she was just “existing” and now she is able to embrace life again with hope for the future reaffirmed that Camp Widow is really helping those coping with the loss of their spouses and life partners. I am so deeply honored to play a small role in this, and more honored that she is a lifelong friend- blessing, blessing, blessing.

And yesterday, I received a message from a man I have never met, via my Facebook page, and so began this exchange:

Tanya,

Can’t even describe how inspiring your story is. I teach high school in Storrs Connecticut and have showed Rebirth to my students and we went down to NYC and I pointed out Sergio’s picture by the engine house (10?)across the street from the memorial. I remember seeing the sign you made I think it was in St. Paul’s Chapel a few years back. My students thought your story was so inspiring and it gives people hope.

sincerely,

Tim Bowen

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Thank you so much Tim for your heartwarming message- it’s been quite a ride and I’m so grateful for the ways the film has connected people to 9/11, especially those who were too young to know it at the time. If you give me the school address, I would love to send you a copy of Sergio’s tribute book to share with your students as part of your 9/11 lesson plan. Thanks again for reaching out. Wishing you all the best, Tanya

**********

Tanya,

You are very welcome Tanya. Thank you so much for taking the time to write back, this means a lot to me and will mean so much for my students especially those with me this past May in NYC. To everyone I know, I call the film the best documentary ever produced. I showed the film on 9/11 and showed it again on our bus ride down. Then pointed out Sergio’s picture and name at the engine house and memorial. It became personal for many at that point. That is so gracious that you would send us Sergio’s tribute book….thank you so much. I take quite a bit of time teaching about 9/11 so the personal stories are really what touch the kids and really what it is about. I am home this summer but stop at the school from time to time as I am 10 minutes away. You can mail to either address

School address:

Attention Tim Bowen

E.O. Smith High School

xxxxxxx

Home:

Tim Bowen

xxxxxx

Again thanks so much for your kindness Tanya. I am attaching a couple of pictures we took that day.

All the best to you, Tim

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Oh Tim I can’t tell you how meaningful it is to see these pics- they brought me to tears, in a good way. When I signed on to do Rebirth it was so people would get a personal connection to the victims thru sharing mine and Sergio’s story- and your message just brings it all full circle. Would you mind if I shared them on our public pages? If you’re not comfortable with the ones of the kids I won’t post those and will keep your name anonymous. And, I will send the tribute book to your home address soon. Thanks again, so much! 😊

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I’m so glad to share them with you Tanya. Sorry if it was too much but at the same time I figured you would appreciate it. Because it is a personal story, you gave everyone an opportunity to learn about your life with Sergio and how you dealt with life after. Life just worked out that way so glad to bring it full circle for you. For me personally and my students this brings such a greater meaning of your story to me Tanya and really looking forward to sharing with my students next fall. Every time I speak of your story, think of or your story or see you in the film speaking about Sergio it is very emotional for me. I was teaching in class on that day on 9/11 in the AM and we watched the day unfold live so I always have this place in my heart for all those who we lost. Yes, absolutely you can share all the pics on public pages and you can use my name and the name of our school if you choose.

Thanks so much for sharing your life Tanya this means a lot to be able to connect with you. 

Best to you Tanya,

Tim

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Aw thank you so much Tim! I spoke with Sergio’s mom this morning and told her all about it- as hard as it will always be for her, she takes great solace in knowing that her son will forever be honored and remembered. You really touched my heart today and I am so grateful- thank you, and stay tuned for the posts on our pages! All best, Tanya

**********

That’s so sweet I’m sure she is appreciative Sergio is being honored. I’m glad I was able to talk to you to tell you all those things, you gave me something today with that and happy I touched your heart. Take care Tanya and thank you again. Will check out posts. Best to you .
Tim

As I write this post, I’m waiting for Sergio’s mom, Delia, to come spend the day with me and see Ray and the girls before taking me to the airport tonight– I am heading for Camp Widow West. Full, full circles and so, so many blessings…

I. love. my. life. :) <3

a decade and a day…

Whoa. A decade and a day…

I would have never imagined that I would have the visceral memory of tracing the letters of Sergio’s name at a breath-taking memorial for almost 3000 victims, a decade and a day ago.

A decade and a day ago, I would have never imagined the ultimate gift to Sergio of having him remembered and honored as a hero.

A decade and a day ago, I would have never imagined I would be in a feature film called Rebirth, and others would tell me that by sharing my grief and healing, I have connected them to the events of a decade and a day ago, enabled them to move forward in their own grief, and inspired them to live and love more fully.

A decade and a day ago, I would have never imagined I’d be on a plane flying from NY to my home in Miami, anxious to see my Ray of Light of a husband and our beautiful little girls, Emilia Grace of God, and Samantha Rae-diant Light of Love.

A decade and a day later, I would have never imagined how profoundly humbled I am and grateful for all of the love and support I’ve received from family, friends, and people I’ve never met…

From the bottom of my heart, thank you…

to repair lives…

Artist's conception of rebuilt World Trade Center

Image via Wikipedia

The documentary Rebirth begins with a sound familiar to New Yorkers. It’s the audio theme for the “all news all the time” radio station 1010 WINS. The temperature for the city on September 11, primary day, is given. Everything sounds normal — until the soundtrack shifts to sound bites from an unfolding news story of an unimaginable magnitude. An announcer states, “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” A woman’s voice says in disbelief, “Oh my God, the building fell.” There is an image of papers floating downward through an ash-filled sky.

read more on Huffingtonpost.com Marcia G. Yerman: Using the 9/11 Documentary Rebirth to Repair Lives.

one of nine subjects


Tanya Villanueva Tepper: One of Nine Subjects.
(reposted from huffingtonpost.com)

“Grief is like the ocean: it’s deep and dark and bigger than all of us. And pain is like a thief in the night: Quiet. Persistent. Unfair. Diminished by time and faith and love.”
—One Tree Hill

On the morning of September 11th 2001, I was blissfully painting my nails to highlight the bling — a diamond engagement ring my fiancé Sergio had given me a few months before on the seventh anniversary of our first kiss — sitting comfortably on my ring finger. Sergio was my everything, my soul mate, my best friend, all that I ever wanted in a man, a husband, and the perfect father for our future children.

I was watching NY1 when the news broke. Planes crashed. Towers fell. The world changed forever. And Sergio — an FDNY firefighter — was one of the almost 3000 victims who never came home. My beloved, and all the meaning to my life, disappeared into the twisted wreckage of steel, glass, and concrete. I was violently thrown into the deepest, darkest, and most treacherous waves of Grief Ocean. The seas swelled with my tears. Waves pummeled. Undertow yanked. It was excruciating to live.

Sergio, and the five other firefighters on Ladder 132’s truck that day were never recovered. His June 7th, 2002 memorial was held just eight days after a ceremony commemorating the end of the cleanup at Ground Zero. And while New York was rebuilding and recovering, I was in grief counseling with the FDNY three times a week screaming, “WHY IS EVERYONE FORGETTING ABOUT HIM AND ALL THE OTHER VICTIMS?!”

Tim Brown was our friend, a fellow firefighter, and a teammate of Sergio’s on the FDNY soccer team. He too wanted people to remember. Tim survived both tower collapses, lost 93 friends, and signed on as a subject in a documentary film to share his story. Danielle Beverly, the field producer of the film, was looking for more people to participate and Tim suggested we meet.

Danielle and I sat in a diner a few weeks after the memorial service and I gave her a tribute book I had done for Sergio. After flipping through the pages of photos and quotes, Danielle looked right at me and said, “I can tell how much you loved him.” With that one comment and at that very moment, she became my friend.

Danielle went on to explain what the documentary, Project Rebirth, was all about. Producer/Director Jim Whitaker had gone down to Ground Zero shortly after the attacks and in spite of his tremendous sadness and anxiety, had a sense of hope that the area would recover. He knew it would be important to capture it all on film and so in March, 2002, he received the go-ahead to set up cameras at different points around Ground Zero. His goal was simple: to track the evolution of the site’s rebuilding process through time-lapse photography.

Shortly thereafter, Jim decided to also document the lives of 10 people affected by the attacks by conducting annual one-on-one interviews and filming some “b-roll” (background footage) over an estimated decade. The goal of the film was to interweave the physical and emotional rebuilding after the attacks — hearts, souls, the WTC neighborhood — all rebuilding simultaneously.

It was a considerable commitment but I was intrigued by the scope of the project and hoped it would provide a platform to share Sergio’s story so no one would ever forget what happened that day. It would also be an interesting way to document my journey through grief — a journey which had made me unrecognizable to myself. Perhaps if I saw me on a screen one day, I could find all that was taken from me. I had a hard time imagining I could ever find happiness (much less love) again. But knowing there were other widows before me who had built new lives for themselves, I had hope.

My initial meeting with Jim was at a coffee shop near Pace University a few days before we would shoot for the first time. He was exactly what I hoped he would be: kind, soft-spoken, down-to-earth, and like Danielle, we clicked almost immediately. He spoke further about the importance of creating this historical record and the time commitment. Without hesitation, I told him I was in it for as long as he needed me to be.

The setup for our annual interviews remained consistent from the beginning. The chair I sat in was placed in a corner surrounded by black fabric screens with a wooden crate and a box of tissues and a bottle of water on top positioned within arm’s reach. Near the door, a large digital-film camera perched on a tripod with Jim in a chair alongside it. A boom microphone was suspended over the nine-foot-long camera path, and a panoramic window-sized box of light softly illuminated the space. Free of distractions, we would dive into the three, five-hour interviews with Jim’s simple direction: he wanted to know what my year was like, what I thought about when I woke up every morning, and even my thoughts when I showered. No moment or experience in that previous year was too insignificant or unimportant to share.

From the moment filming commenced, I instantaneously felt comfortable with Jim and his crew. Tom Lappin, (the cinematographer) and John Zecca, (the sound director) were guy’s guys — easy-going, unpretentious, and always laughing at my attempts to lighten the mood with potty humor. After my agonizing, tear-filled first interview when I recounted what “that day” was like, they had become my brothers, bound by hearing the testimony of my unimaginable experience.

In a strange, yet not uncomfortable way, our annual sit-downs had become like therapy for me. Even without a couch for me to lie on, or a bookshelf filled with psychology books, or a degree hanging on the wall, there was “Doctor Jim” — engaged, yet not overly eager or pushy, compassionate, empathetic, non-judgmental, and patient — safe to share my innermost thoughts with. Because the interviews always took place on the anniversary of the attacks, my feelings were always razor-sharp, and at the forefront of my mind. And, since my grief counseling was ongoing, I had become adept at digging deep and expressing what I felt. Jim would simply turn on the camera and document my stream-of-consciousness monologue. If I said anything which struck him, he would ask me to expand on it much like the way my therapist would do. Several of my journey’s “Aha!” moments happened during those interviews. And I will always be immensely grateful to Jim for that.

It was one thing to be in a private room with the crew during the interviews, and a totally different experience being followed by cameras in public capturing the “b-roll”. Trying to be inconspicuous while being conspicuous took a little getting used to and I can vividly recall many passersby pointing and wondering what it was we were filming. If only they knew, I would think to myself before refocusing on whatever I was engaged in at the moment.

Besides following me in the days leading up to the anniversaries, the crew filmed me riding my motorcycle in Miami, renovating the Queens gift shop Sergio and I owned, and planting a memorial garden in his honor. As the years passed and I had the gift of a second chance at love with Ray (a fellow biker I met in a gas station in May 2003), the crew filmed our wedding in Maui in May 2006, and Jim signed as the witness to our blessed event. They captured me reading Sergio’s name during the fifth anniversary ceremonies, on the official start-date of my first pregnancy. In June 2007, the crew was in the delivery room with us as our daughter Emilia came into the world — thankfully, via c-section. And the crew was there again in 2008 when our second daughter Samantha was born — sharing our joy not just as bystanders, but now and forever as our extended family.

It was right around the seventh anniversary when I received a phone call from Jim telling me he felt that the film was announcing its own ending. Jim explained that all of the subjects, now down to nine because one dropped out early on, seemed to have reached a place in their lives where there was some sort of resolution. I knew exactly what he meant as I felt I had gotten past the intensity of my grief and was at a peaceful and joy-filled place in my life with Ray and the girls. While I was not surprised that the filming would be ending, another part of me felt nostalgic. I would be sad to see them go.

We had our last interview in March 2009, and being in the position again of reflecting about my grief, I realized I had some added anxiety about “letting go” further in having to say goodbye to the Project Rebirthteam. I never imagined that this would contribute to another wave of grief, but I felt like they were the last tangible connection to my identity as Sergio’s widow, and there was pain in having to close this chapter of my life. As with all of the other grief waves, I pushed through it and gained comfort realizing that my experience with Project Rebirth was not solely about my being a widow, it was also about my ability to rebuild in spite of such an enormous loss.

Once the interviews were done, Jim left his long-held position as president of Production at Imagine Entertainment to dedicate himself fully to editing and finishing the film. With almost 1000 hours of footage to sift through, it took him and a team of editors lead by Kevin Filipini over a year to complete the task. In early August 2010, Jim called me with the news that I was one of the five participants who made the final cut, and he wanted to fly to Miami to show it to me.

I have had many surreal moments in my life, but nothing compares to the almost two hours spent watching almost 10 years of my life in a feature film. I cried watching me cry. And my angel of a husband held me close while I cried for my late fiancé. I cried tears of joy watching our wedding, and I was again moved to tears at the synchronicity of seeing that they filmed a rainbow in the sky over the hospital the day Emilia was born. In between, I was moved by the music and in complete awe of the other four participants of the film now called simply, Rebirth.

To watch my story unfold on screen in the context of four others who were also affected by the events of 9/11 was humbling. Seeing my friend Tim grapple with survivor’s guilt after losing his closest friends was heart rending, yet enlightening. Ling, who survived the carnage of one of the impact floors but sustained second and third degree burns, undergoes countless surgeries and is nothing short of a superhero. Brian, a construction worker who lost his younger brother, is all heart as he works to rebuild the site and cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. And seeing 15-year-old Nick navigate the murky waters of grief over losing his mother while growing into a man was especially poignant to me, now that I am a mom myself.

When the credits were finished I wanted nothing more than to meet and get to know all of them, including the four who didn’t appear in the feature film. The nine of us had all gone through such solitary journeys, yet we were all tied together in this parallel experience of the parent entity called Project Rebirth. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, I was honored to finally meet Ling, Nick, and Brian, and stand in such inspiring company. Along with Tim, I consider them friends for life.

After reflecting on the seven years I spent with Sergio and seeing my journey through grief into healing in the film, I am drawn to a quote by Mother Teresa:

“I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, only more love.”

I find solace in knowing I have no regrets about my relationship with Sergio. There was nothing left unsaid between us, nothing to forgive. We loved each other completely as if each day were our last. There were many layers of hurt I worked through, but the greatest I experienced was the pain in thinking I had to “let him go” in order to find new love again. But love found me in spite of myself. And what I’ve found in Ray and our two daughters is that the heart is ever expansive. It grows and grows in direct proportion to the amount of love you give and let in.

Even so, this does not mean my grief over losing Sergio ends. As anyone who has experienced loss can attest, there will always be triggers to bring on the waves of pain. This is the paradox within the paradox. And when it happens I tell myself, I hurt because I love, and I hold my sorrow gently.

The greatest validation so far for my participation in Rebirth happened at the Sundance Film Festival. Two women approached and thanked me for sharing my story, and told me it will help so many people. They introduced themselves as Bonnie Carroll and Kim Ruocco, from the organization The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which helps families of fallen military personnel. Bonnie founded TAPS following the death of her husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll, in an Army C-12 plane crash in 1992. Kim, a social worker, lost her husband, Major John Ruocco, a decorated Cobra gunship pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps and father of two sons. In 2005, Major Ruocco had returned from a tour in Iraq and 10 weeks later was preparing for a second tour when he lost his life to suicide. Meeting them had such a profound effect on me, as they transcended their grief to help others who suffered as they had. I am hoping to follow their lead by continuing to work with Project Rebirth the non-profit organization in their initiatives to educate people about grief and resilience.

What I want most from the film is for people to have a connection to September 11th and to remember the victims who were so senselessly taken that day. I am further humbled knowing the film and excerpts of it will be a permanent installation at the September 11th National Memorial and Museum which officially opens this year. As time continues to move forward it is important to honor all of the victims by remembering and being grateful for how precious life is. We owe it to them to be the best we can be by living with intention, integrity, compassion, and love. We owe it to them to never, ever forget.

Since some degree of loss and heartbreak is an inevitable part of growing up, I imagine my daughters having to confront their own pain in life one day, and I pray that it will be nothing more than a break-up with partners who don’t deserve them anyway. Whomever the culprit or whatever the situation, I will tell them first and foremost to live through the hurt one moment at a time. Hold on to hope, even if the situation seems hopeless. Grab joy wherever they can. And if they tell me there is no joy to be found, I’ll encourage them to cry, find support, and promise them that time and change will carry them through. And if they refuse to believe me, I’ll show them Rebirth.

[Tags: Project Rebirth , Rebirth 9/11 , Rebirth Documentary , Rebirth Film , New York News]