The weather during the 15th annual Tunnel to Towers 5K was much like it was on September 11, 2001: brilliant sunshine, blue skies, with a hint of autumn in the air. My good friend Ron from Airborne Tri Team invited me to join his team and participate in the event. The 5K was established in memory of New York City firefighter Stephen Siller, who, having just finished his shift on September 11, 2001, heard on his scanner that a plane hit the Twin Towers. Stephen returned to the firehouse for his gear and drove to the entrance of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but it had been closed for security purposes. Determined to carry out his duty, he raced on foot through the tunnel to the Twin Towers, where he lost his life while saving others.
The course of this 5K event retraces Stephen’s footsteps. As it probably would be for many, I knew this event would be an emotional rollercoaster for me. However, I didn’t anticipate the reasons for two of my sobbing breakdowns while on this course. As I started walking through the tunnel, my tears expectedly flowed as I imagined what it must have been like for Stephen, not knowing what lay ahead of him, or if he thought this might be his final life-saving effort.
My Steve, who took his own life on March 15, 2015, was passionate about helping others and had passed the FDNY test in the 1980’s. However, he did not join when called, probably because I discouraged him. I told him I would always worry if he would come home alive after working a shift. Steve always had regrets about not joining FDNY, and ironically, I would try to console him by saying he may have perished on September 11 if he did join FDNY when called.
Steve was a Jones Beach lifeguard for many years, so when I saw someone who could have been Steve’s contemporary wearing a Jones Beach lifeguard shirt on the 5K course, I came alongside him and asked if he knew Steve. I was hoping perhaps he had a happy memory he could share with me about Steve. When he acknowledged he knew Steve and I told him who I was (Steve’s 33-year life partner), I sensed his immediate discomfort by the look on his face, and it seemed he couldn’t get away from me fast enough. For the second time on the course, my tears started flowing.
Of course, this lifeguard’s reaction could have been my imagination, as I was in such a highly-charged emotional state. However, I doubt it, because in my experience it is not uncommon for people to be uncomfortable when they are reminded of the suicide of someone they knew. To this day, I believe some former friends avoid me for this reason.
In speaking with other suicide survivors, I have learned this avoidance is more common than I thought, and it is always very painful for us. Many of us need reassurance that our lost loved ones existed. A hug or a simple “I am so sorry for your loss” is often more than enough for us. When people avoid us, it can be so heartbreaking. Many of us want to talk about our loved ones and hear stories from others about them. I know I still cry when talking about Steve, so many people may think talking about Steve is painful for me. However, I am like many other suicide survivors who want to talk about their lost loved ones.
As I exited the tunnel and was getting closer to the 5K finish line, for the third time, my tears started to flow. Once in Manhattan, members of the NYPD and FDNY were standing on the side of the course, each holding a banner with a photo of a 9/11 fallen first responder. So many lives were lost that day by those who selflessly sacrificed their own lives so others could survive.
My final tears fell at the finish line, but surprisingly, they were tears of joy. Seeing the resiliency and the rebuilding of lower Manhattan and realizing we will never forget those who lost their lives after such a tragic event touched my soul. My emotional experiences at the 5K turned out to be like a metaphor for me. I hope someday I can rely on my own resilience to rebuild myself after the tragedy of losing the love of my life — and that people will never forget my Steve.
Follow this journey on Slipped Away.