It's Forever Personal: A Widow Remembers 9/11

Within a few moments Michael, in his office on the 84th floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower, would become a cherished memory. Days later, co-workers would tell her he probably could have escaped but that he had gone back to help a co-worker who, scared out of her wits, had taken refuge under a desk.

Along with a brother and a sister, Monica was raised in the Yorkville section of Manhattan's Upper East Side by a single mother. Monica would grow up to become a New York City schoolteacher and marry her college sweetheart, but for whatever reasons two people can't stay married, she was single again within five years.

But in 1983, Monica was a tall, skinny, energetic 13-year-old go-getter.

My wife would often sit on our stoop holding our 6-month-old son, taking in the afternoon sun while waiting for me to come home from work. And there would be Monica, stopping by with at least one friend in tow, "oohing" and "ahhing" at our son while getting in her pitch to babysit.

Eventually, but cautiously, Holly invited "Moni" to come on board, first as a "mother's helper," then graduating to babysitter, continuing when our daughter came along. As Monica grew older, Holly invited her to participate in childcare at Central Presbyterian Church. She ultimately stepped up to also teach Sunday School.

Through the years, the bond between Holly and Monica grew extremely strong. Both readily explain their relationship as mother/daughter close. Thus, it was no surprise that, on the morning after the attacks, when my wife answered the phone to the excited voice of a friend telling her that Monica was on TV outside a New York hospital holding a picture of her missing husband, Holly knew the only place to be that day was by her friend's side.

Monica's heartbreak and anguish were captured in a photograph that became the September 13, 2001, front page for Newsday, the Long Island newspaper.

She vowed that Michael—and everyone else who perished that day—would always be remembered, her gut instincts crying out to her that a memorial must be built on the 16-acre World Trade Center site.

"That site is very powerful. That's where he was—I'm drawn to it for that reason," she says. "For the group of us who don't have remains, not having a final resting place for our loved ones was so important in the beginning. My biggest thing was not being able to take Michael home, and I know that he would have wanted me to take him home."

A memorial project on the footprints of the downed towers became her mission. She established September's Mission, a not-for-profit organization that, according to its mission statement, works to ". . . support the development of a memorial park on the former World Trade Center site that ties into the overall redevelopment of Lower Manhattan" and is committed to ". . . working with the families, Manhattan residents, businesses and public officials to ensure that the future of the World Trade Center site not only honors the lives that were lost on September 11, but serves all New Yorkers for generations to come."

The foundation's efforts to bring about a bricks-and-mortar memorial began with a virtual one on its website, which allowed family and friends to post remembrances of their lost loved ones.

September's Mission also hosted and supported events such as Christmas and Halloween parties where 9/11 families—especially the children—could strengthen personal connections within this unique community, creating a positive, nurturing forum for healing.

Appointed to a seat on the board of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation with such luminaries as David Rockefeller, Robert De Niro, and NY Jets owner Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson IV, Monica weathered the frequent storms and uphill battles of the early stages of this process.

With simple and clear reasoning—"That site is powerful to me because that's where he was. I want to be able to go there and honor him in that place where he was, not some foreign place"—she was especially effective in turning around those who sought to redevelop the World Trade Center site while erecting a token memorial in another part of the city.

September's Mission ultimately partnered with other 9/11 family groups, such as Voices of 9/11, but Monica Iken's vision and voice remain clear and eloquent. Her efforts continue to be fueled by the same dedication, enthusiasm, and old-fashioned New York City chutzpah that helped her land those early babysitting jobs.

9/5/2011 4:00:00 AM
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