It’s been 19 years since the terrorist attack that brought down the Twin Towers. The 9/11 Memorial Museum will reopen to 9/11 families on September 11, for the general public on September 12. Because of the pandemic, this year’s observance will be more low key, but the Tribute in Light, where two blue ghostly towers are beamed into the sky over the city, will still happen.
We continue to see the lasting effects of that tragedy that took nearly 3,000 lives. First responders who did heroic work at Ground Zero, continue to suffer serious health effects, many dying. That so many in our country discount their contributions was on full display last summer when Republicans tried to block passage of the Never Forget the Heroes Act. After the former Daily Show host Jon Stewart appeared before Congress, blasting the lawmakers’ “callous indifference,” Senate Republicans finally approved the bill.
But there’s another group that continues to suffer – young people whose mothers and fathers died on that day. SNL star Pete Davidson has spoken about how the death of his father, a New York City fire fighter, has affected him, the theme of his semi-autobiographical film, The King of Staten Island. (See the review.)
Now another family member, Matthew John Bocchi, speaks out in his memoir, Sway. Matthew’s father, John, worked on the 105th floor of Tower One, a managing director for Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial firm that would lose 658 employees on that day. Matthew was a fourth grader, his brother, Nick, a second grader at Harding Township Elementary School in New Jersey. (The family also included two other younger boys, Michael and Paul.) At 9 a.m. on 9/11, Matthew and Nick were taken out of their classes. They were told that there had been an accident at the World Trade Center, but it was nothing to worry about.
When Matthew arrived home, he found his living room filled with relatives and neighbors, the TV playing an endless loop of video showing the towers in flames, people jumping from windows. Matthew knew it was bad, but believing his father to be invincible – a real life Arnold Schwarzenegger – assumed John would walk into the house at any moment to show everyone he survived. He kept calling his father’s cellphone, imploring him to pick up. “Come home soon. I love you,” he said again and again until there was no room for any more messages.
On September 18, several police officers, along with a priest from the Bocchi’s local parish, came to the house. One of them said: “They’ve identified John’s remains.” Matthew’s mother, Michele, collapsed. But the news was even worse when they explained that only parts of John had been recovered.
When Matthew finally accepted that his father was gone, he became obsessed with discovering how he died. He watched endless videos showing the destruction, focusing on the people who jumped from windows. Did his father jump? He asked his priest, was that considered suicide? He tried to piece together his father’s last moments, questioning his mother and his Uncle Tony, his father’s brother, about the last phone calls they received. How did his father sound? Was he calm? Panicked?
The adults around Matthew should have picked up on his despair and try to help. His mother “was physically present…emotionally, not so much,” he writes. The one who did step forward only made matters worse.
Uncle Phil wasn’t a blood relative, having married into the family. He began to show up to take Matthew places and encouraged him to talk about 9/11, unlike the other relatives who, perhaps sensing the teen’s obsession, discouraged such discussions. The conversations took a dark turn and before too long, Uncle Phil was sexually abusing Matthew.
As with so many victims, Matthew, out of shame and guilt, told no one about the abuse. His mother and other relatives, oblivious of what was going on, didn’t stop Uncle Phil from arranging times to be with Matthew. By the time he was 16, Matthew was smoking pot. His drug use accelerated when he became a freshman at Villanova. With a generous allowance and his own car, Matthew found it easy to afford and arrange drug buys. His drugs of choice included painkillers, Xanax, and cocaine. As his habit grew, so did his tolerance and he needed more drugs to obtain that high. Amazingly enough, he managed to stay in college and graduate. He even landed a job on Wall Street, one of many he would cycle through as his addiction impacted his job performance.
By this time, his mother was aware of his drug use and insisted he go to rehab. But the short stays he agreed to – usually 30 days – were never enough to seriously deal with his addiction. He had several accidents, somehow escaping serious injury or death. And there were arrests, although he avoided any jail time with the help of his Uncle Tony.
Many 9/11 families talked about spiritual signs they received from their loved ones. For Matthew and his mother, that sign came in the form of a fly that stayed in their house for six months after John died. “Each time a fly showed up in my life, a feeling of peace and tranquility swept over me,” Matthew writes. “At that point, I began addressing the fly as Dad.”
Matthew hit bottom and accepted the help he needed. When the truth came out about Uncle Phil, those around him began to realize the pain he was in and how the drug use was a way for him to self-medicate. To his credit, he doesn’t make excuses for what he did, but once sober and inspired by his father’s legacy, makes changes that will ensure a better future.
Matthew’s book resonates on many levels: for 9/11 families still grieving their loved ones: for survivors of sexual abuse; and for those battling addiction. This memoir should be required reading for any health professional serving these communities.
Matthew John Bocchi
Top Bigstock photo: 911 Light Memorial in New York City