“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
“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:
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.
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
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
Attention Tim Bowen
E.O. Smith High School
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
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! 😊
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,
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 .
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
The official trailer:
A Behind-the-Scenes Look by Showtime:
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…
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.
For those that missed it this afternoon – here is my appearance on The Talk with Sharon Osborne & Julie Chen
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
“Both a work of art and of the heart.”
– Hollywood Reporter
When you were born, you cried, and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die, the world cries, and you rejoice… ~Indian Proverb
I took this photo at around 11 pm on September 9th, 2001, just after we got home from a friend’s party. Sergio left the following morning for his 24-hour shift at the firehouse…