September 22, 2012

Meeting a 9/11 victim's parents

On a hot, sunny August day, I drove from my apartment in New Jersey into New York City to begin one of the more extraordinary days of my life

On a hot, sunny August day, I drove from my apartment in New Jersey into New York City to begin one of the more extraordinary days of my life. I had two interviews set up for that day. The first was with Sunil Gavaskar at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. I couldn’t sleep the night before and my palms were a little sweaty that afternoon, but not because of Gavaskar. It was the interview I had scheduled after Gavaskar that made me more nervous than perhaps I’d ever been before for a face-to-face chat. I was going to meet the parents of a person who died on 9/11, a cricketer named Nezam Hafiz.

After leaving Manhattan late in the afternoon, I got stuck in traffic past the Midtown Tunnel on the Long Island Expressway and began to sweat even more. It was Ramadan and that evening the Hafiz family was going to break the fast at their local mosque in Queens. The longer I took to get to their house, the less time I’d have to speak with them.

I finally made it to the house just before 5 pm. Cecil, Nezam’s father, came to the door to greet me and let me in. “How long do you need? 10-15 minutes? We need to leave soon,” he said. After lunch with Gavaskar, I had walked a few blocks away to the current headquarters of Marsh & McLennan, the company Nezam worked for at the World Trade Center. I wanted to take pictures of their 9/11 Memorial and find Nezam’s name on the memorial wall. While there I met a woman whose niece had died on 9/11 and listened to her own story for a good 20 minutes. I didn’t want to be rude so I chose not to interrupt her, but now I was kicking myself for not leaving Manhattan earlier.

“I was hoping to talk with you for a little bit more than that,” I told Cecil in reply. “Let’s see how far we get.”

Two hours later I had learned about Nezam’s life, about his death, about what it’s like to force yourself out of bed every morning in spite of unfathomable grief, about the best and worst of humanity. Sometimes I wanted to laugh when they talked about happy things, sometimes I wanted to cry when they talked about sad things, other times I was just speechless.

That’s especially how I felt when Bebe, Nezam’s mother, was talking about the day, August 7, 2002, that she got a call telling her that some of Nezam’s remains were found, almost a year after he went missing. She said the officer then asked for Bebe and Cecil to re-submit a DNA sample to confirm a match. The cleanup crew at Ground Zero never found Nezam’s body, just a bracelet he wore with his name on it, some of his credit cards and his ID card to access the World Trade Center for work in addition to some of his remains.

“It was terrible … It was terrible. I hold it you know. I hold it... I hold it,” Cecil said as a grimace came across his face, cradling his arms to demonstrate how he held ‘it’. “It was in plastic but I can see it. I hold it. And when you’re holding your son there … how would you feel? It was terrible.”

Did finding some of Nezam’s remains give them any closure? “You could never bring closure,” Cecil said. “We’re trying. It’s hard to bring closure to know that he’s still out there. If we have a body, it would have been good closure, but it never… his part is still out there.”

When programs and documentaries about 9/11 get shown on television, do they ever watch? “I never sit to watch the World Trade Center when it’s on fire,” Bebe says. “Sometime accidentally I would sit there and if they flash it, you know they’re flashing it, and if they do it, it affect me. So all the people running and jumping, I don’t watch. I hide my face.”

“So many people don’t like it,” Cecil says. “They would air it. They’re gonna do it, but some of the families don’t like it. We try not to watch, just shut it off … you just remember. They show you directly how the plane go in there. I don’t want to see it.”

Amid the tears shed at the dining table inside the Hafiz house, a few smiles were cracked as well, particularly when it came to talking about Nezam’s many girlfriends. Carl Hooper called him a “saga boy” and Lennox Cush says Nezam “was someone that would always attract the women” but his parents say he was stubborn when it came to finding a girl to marry, especially because it might interfere with his cricket schedule.

“He always say, ‘Mommy, you couldn’t stop me from cricket and no woman can stop me!’ He say when he’s 34, then he’s going to decide to settle down in life. But he died at 32,” Bebe said wistfully. “He loved that game so much, so much that I couldn’t get him from 12 years old, I couldn’t control Nezam from cricket.”

Eventually, Nezam’s sister Debbie arrived at the house. It was time for the family to go to the mosque and time for me to leave. Bebe kindly gave me a bottle of water to take for the drive back home to New Jersey on a warm summer night. An extraordinary day started with me talking to one of cricket’s living legends and ended with me listening to the legend of a cricketer whose life was taken too soon.

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey