October 3rd, 2001, begins with no fewer challenges than the three Wednesdays that precede it. After I shower, dress and sit at the Gateway on my roll-top desk, I type a letter to a few political figures; New York representatives Pete King, George Pataki, Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton and President George W. Bush. Out of a loss for knowing how to take action, and a need to advocate for the love of my life, in his absence, in three tidy paragraphs, I describe our story and express my concerns for how our family, and the hundreds of families in the surrounding communities will move through the tragedy of 9/11.

At 10 AM, I stuff a yellow, letter-sized envelope in my bag containing mine, Dave’s and the boys birth certificates, our marriage certificate, a full-page missing person’s photo, and Dave’s proof of employment at the World Trade Center. My father arrives to watch the boys, and my cousin Pam picks me up for the forty-five-minute drive into Manhattan’s West side. We are like Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise, Long Island-style, 5’2 blond thirty-somethings in designer shades, motoring up I-495 (aka the Long Island Expressway) toward the Ground Zero Family Assistance Center in her pearlized Cadillac ESV.

We make our way to the Westside Highway and 52nd street and park in the VIP lot behind a tall chain-link fence beside Pier 94. “This should only take about an hour,” I said. My sole purpose is to file for a Certificate of Death. However, one step through the NYPD-guarded doors changes my illusion into the reality that would forever re-pave the path in my life, as I step from Manhattan Island into Fantasy Island, for a six-hour tour.

We are immediately met by an American Red Cross volunteer who asks about my story. She escorts us down a long corridor, between two tall temporary walls covered in photographs of the missing. “This is the ‘Wall of Memory’ for survivors,” she says, to hang pictures and write sentiments with a complimentary Sharpee. I walk through a 500-foot tunnel of a thousand faces, with eyes looking at no one in particular, flanked by uncountable Teddy bears sent from the people of Oklahoma City. This nearly ends my day. I clutch my envelope tight to my chest. The well-meaning and nervous Red Cross volunteer, about my age (which was 37), explains; “This is going to be very difficult for you, to answer the questions for the death certificate filing, and you and your children will be needing a lifetime of counseling, so I suggest you see a counselor here, before you leave.” I am scared sick. I can barely move forward, still praying that I am soon to awaken from the coma that is creating this nightmare, and return to my forever.

We emerge from the tunnel into what appears as an indoor flea market, dotted by rows of booths with printed signs and uniformed barkers, filling a hollow building the size of two football fields. Consequently, the death certificate process takes all of about twenty minutes. It is a unique Certificate of Death, of an unactualized death. Immediate Cause of Death: “Physical Injuries, Body Not Found”. Relatively speaking, it was cake!

The volunteer then advises we file paperwork with the American Red Cross where she leads us past dozens of booths to the area. Here, there is a complimentary dining area, so Pam and I take a break and lunch on turkey wraps and pasta salad.

Next, we meet another Red Cross volunteer who warns us that the wait is so long, we should leave and return tomorrow! Like it’s a single subway stop to Freeport, Long Island. Pam presses on and we proceed anyway. The wait is ten minutes, however, the ninety-minutes of torture put upon me by the hyperverbal, confused volunteer we were given, took all the blood out of me. Perhaps she became overwhelmed by the discovery that she had known Dave from his college days. She lives in Rochester, what are the chances?

Then we are directed to the Salvation Army. Ten minutes there. Then onto registering with FEMA, who hands me a checklist of eighteen booth sites to visit. The Tzu-Chi order of Buddhist Monks pray upon me, placing a $1,000 check in my hands.

We continue on, to the Worker’s Compensation table, a moderately bleak stop considering Dave was a contracted IT employee. Then onto the FBI, which turns out to be the most important place to visit. Dave is placed on the “Official Missing Person’s” list filed in Washington, D.C. The feeling of crossing the fifty-yard line, woohoo, I’m running with folder in hand, in the right direction. Yes, this is a comic relief, that provides me with a sense that I will no longer remain in the dark pursuing my lover’s murder. I am part of the action! They send us current news on leads and capture of the terrorists, and the federal government can direct all appropriate benefits to me.

Pam and I then make a beeline for the door at 5:30, grabbing apples, bananas and water bottles on the way out. I am home by seven. After being with the kids all day, my Dad scoots, and I still have to get the boys dinner.

Needless to say, October 3rd, 2001 was a challenging day in which I journeyed through many tunnels. Because of Pam’s fear-based water-crossing ritual, we emerge from the final leg of the one-and-a-quarter mile journey under the East River via the Midtown Tunnel, holding our breath.

From the last morning I kissed my love goodbye on the second Tuesday of September, to the re-telling of our story on the many stages set before me today, I have journeyed through dark tunnels of unknown destiny. Moving through the dark, I feel the reality of my decree crack open under my feet, and this is where the light shines through. For eighteen years, I have fought against the black holes that threaten to suck me into despair and I tell myself that I will keep alive what he believed. By keeping it alive and warm inside during the years to come, we will be able to return to creating the life we dream. Perhaps we can even constitute the World we conceive.

© Deborah Garcia 2020

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