Lives lost and remembered in the decade since Sept. 11

The shadow of Chris Braman is seen at the entrance of the 911 memorial at the Pentagon, August 22, 2011 which is dedicated to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.McClatchy Tribune
The shadow of Chris Braman is seen at the entrance of the 911 memorial at the Pentagon, August 22, 2011 which is dedicated to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
McClatchy Tribune

By Nicholas Spangler
McClatchy Tribune

A black Gillette safety razor rests on the bathroom sink at Kenneth Fairben’s Floral Park home, its blade long-ago rusted. The razor has been in the same spot since Sept. 11, 2001, the last morning his son, Keith, used it before walking out the front door to his job as a paramedic in Manhattan.

Fairben sees it every morning when he shaves; he sees it every night when he brushes his teeth. He can’t bring himself to get rid of the razor.

It evokes memories and voices: “Hey Keith, can you give me a hand?” the father said to the son when there was work to be done in the yard. “Hey, Dad, a bunch of us are going to Great Adventure, what’s the best way to go?” the son asked when he was going out with his friends.

The things that the survivors of the 2,753 victims of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack keep to remind themselves of who they lost are myriad and varied. There are bills, birthday cards, books, bracelets, coins, driver’s licenses, hats, helmets, paperwork, photographs, record covers, skates, wristwatches, an answering machine that still bears messages left a decade ago that day.

In the manner of religious relics, they hold many meanings. They are mundane and disposable but irreplaceable and cherished. They are artifacts of late 20th-century American life and of a historic event that may mark the true end of that time period, but they also bear witness to the minute particulars of their owners’ days and daily routines.

They comfort but they also cause pain. The razor that reminds Fairben of his only child’s daily routines also reminds him of his murder.

“I curse everybody who was involved,” Fairben said. “It’s made me a very bitter, angry person. I hate when people say closure. There is no closure. When you’ve lost your child, there is no closure. … I hate the people who did this to him.”

For Fairben, the razor is a tie _ however tenuous _ to his son and to better times.

“It was something that was Keith, using it every morning,” Fairben says to explain why he will not part with this small reminder of his 23-year-old son. “It’s just something very tangible that I can touch in the morning. It’s like having a part of him with me.”

Together, father and son painted the family house and shoveled the walk in the winters. Together, they volunteered at the Floral Park Fire Department, the father as a chief and the son as an EMT.

Keith joined as soon as he turned 18, and Fairben saw a different side to his son. The son who had skated through most of high school was now a young man who finished at the top of his class in paramedic school, hitting the books with a seriousness that “surprised the heck out of us.”

Are the mementos they keep obstacles to moving on with life and letting go of the past? Or do they help in mourning?

“That item brings them back to a time before all this pain came into their lives,” said Dr. Thomas Demaria, director of C.W. Post’s 9/11 Families Center. But it can also “take them back to the moment when the tragedy happened and as such it is a painful reminder of that ripping or wrenching of their loved one from them. … Tragedies keep people fixed in a moment.”

So Geraldine Halderman keeps her 40-year-old son David’s answering machine in her Bohemia basement, having played its messages just twice in 10 years.

“David, this is Mom. … Please call me to let me know that you’re OK,” Halderman says in the first message she left for her son, an FDNY firefighter who lived in Amityville, on the morning of Sept. 11. An operator for the deaf calls from California, relaying two desperate messages from a hearing-impaired friend there.

A man named Jerry leaves a message that starts gruffly _ “I know you’re probably working your tail off” _ but ends tenderly. “Take care,” he says, then, so soft that it’s hard to hear: “Bye-bye.”

Those voices show the mark her son left on the world, Halderman said. “It’s all the people who loved him and were concerned about him. … It’s very hard for me to listen to. It’s as if the past 10 years never happened.” But she will never erase it. “Then it’s gone, it’s really gone. That’s something else that’s now gone.”

For families like the Anchundias of Syosset, something found and cherished can be especially comforting when there are no remains to bury, no cemetery to visit. That’s true of about 40 percent of those who died on Sept. 11.

Christine Anchundia, cleaning out her 26-year-old son Joseph’s Manhattan apartment after the attack, found a daily devotional book on the table next to his bed. Titled “Grace for the Moment,” the bookmark was on a Sept. 10 reading. “Who Can Fathom Eternity?” was the chapter heading, with a quotation from Ecclesiastes.

She and her husband had raised Joseph in the Presbyterian Church, but a year earlier, her son, an investment banker with Sandler O’Neill, had told her he was sleeping late Sundays instead of going to services and had stopped reading the Bible. Anchundia, a religious woman, was shocked when she saw the book, and also elated.

“It was so wonderful, to know that he had that in his heart,” she said. “It was a beautiful confirmation for me. God was almost preparing him.”

In the first, frantic days after the attack, “We didn’t really know if he died,” she said. But even as they posted Joseph’s picture around New York City and sought friends and witnesses who might have seen him, the devotional book was a reminder: “I had that sense he would not be found on Earth anymore, that God took him immediately.”

Without a body or remains, there was no funeral. There was, instead, a memorial service attended by 700. “We feel the public has to remember,” Anchundia said. “For us, we remember every single moment of every day.”

Anchundia, whose son Elias died in 2007 when a transformer exploded beneath him in Waterbury, Conn., donated the book to the September 11 Memorial and Museum. She purchased dozens more for her family and friends. She misses her son- the living, breathing boy who played ball and hugged his mother. That book is her proof that he was saved.

“Even though we’re separated, as long as I know my son is safe, that’s enough,” she said.

JoAnn Cross keeps her husband Dennis’ Ford F-150 truck and his wedding ring.

The truck is parked on the street in front of her Islip Terrace house.

When she sees the truck, bought two weeks before he died, she doesn’t think of how he died but of their 42 years of marriage.

“We were together since I’m 12 and he’s 15,” she said. “We had a great life.”

She wears around her neck his wedding ring, which was recovered from his body and returned to her. She will never, ever, let it go.

“He never took his ring off, and when they found him and brought him home, I got the ring and this has been on my neck for almost 10 years and it will be on my neck forever,” she said.