In May of 2001, I had started dating a girl named Giovanna. The last four digits of her phone number were 0911. A few months later, in September, I was ready to teach English in my first year at the high school I graduated from - John Adams High School in Queens, New York. My alarm clock went off, and there was breaking news that an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center buildings. I stood up, listening attentively to the report. Soon after, another report came in, that a second plane had crashed into the other tower. My first thought? "What the hell is happening?" I jumped out of bed and turned on the television to watch the horror that was unfolding.
My teaching schedule permitted me to watch the news until about 10:50 a.m. When I saw the towers fall down, I was obviously in shock. But for some reason, I didn't have the impression that so many people had been inside. I thought that most, if not all, had gotten out and that I witnessed the death of the Twin Towers. This was clearly terrorism, and the terror extended to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and an open field in Pennsylvania.
Like it or not, I had a responsibility to get to school. I was confused, afraid and deeply saddened by what I witnessed on television, but the young teens at John Adams didn't feel any different. As I walked quickly to the school, with the black smoke still floating in the distant air behind me, I entered the building and soon found myself comforting students, trying to address questions with answers I didn't have and, when possible, watching the news on television in the school library.
The sadness was soon accompanied by anger once I found out, like every other American, that more than 3,000 people died from the worst attack on American soil. It was either one or two days later that I was told my cousin Mary's husband - Captain Thomas Farino of Engine Company 26 of the NYC Fire Department - was among the missing or the dead.
Thomas was a soft-spoken man who cared deeply for his family. He was also a smart and dedicated firefighter who rose quickly through the ranks (from firefighter to lieutenant and then captain). Following the tragedy, Tom was posthumously promoted to Battalion Chief. He was only 37 years old, and his body was never recovered. He left behind Mary and their two wonderful children, Jane and Jimmy.
It would be an understatement to say that I changed since that horrific day. I began giving a smile or a thumbs up to every firefighter that I saw. My patriotism for America tripled when I saw how people stood in unity and waved flags at the same time they were feeling so much pain and grief. And it was the time of my life when I personally had gained a hero in my life. Every September since the tragedy, I conduct a lesson with my students in which we discuss heroism and who our heroes are. We write friendly letters to our heroes (some choose to express their gratitude to the local police and fire departments, and I deliver those letters to them).
In 2006, my wife (yes, Giovanna), gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Although we played around with different names prior to the day he entered the world, we didn't need much time deciding on his middle name. We wanted his middle name to stand for something, to have relevance. Hence, we decided on Matthew Thomas.
From the time Matthew was born up until about the age of 4, we read many beautiful stories to our son. But in the past year, we have told him a story unlike the ones he heard before. This one is not filled with fantasy and doesn't contain fictional characters. It's the story of our family's hero. It's about someone who sacrificed his life in order to do all he could to save the lives of others. And it's a story that Giovanna and I hope Matthew carries with him forever. It's called "Tom."
"I want to see Tom," Matthew said to me recently. "Can we visit him?" I stared at him with such joy and pride, and replied, "One day, later on in life, you will, Matthew. You will."