Bernice Yeung / Village Voice – 2006-09-17 23:14:16
NEW YORK (September 5th, 2006) — On September 11, 2001, Phyllis Rodriguez got out of bed before dawn. A part-time teacher with two grown children, Rodriguez, then 58, had recently enrolled in a graduate program in teaching literacy. She had an assignment due later that day: Parse the language in a Langston Hughes poem called “Mother to Son.”
After finishing her work at about 7:30 a.m., she pulled on her sneakers and went for a walk along the Bronx River near her home in White Plains. Her husband, Orlando, then 59, a sociology professor at Fordham University, was also leaving for the day.
The morning was clear, and Rodriguez, who grew up taking nature walks through the Bronx, became absorbed by the view of herons at a widening in the water a few miles north. She skipped her usual turn and didn’t get home for over an hour.
By the time she reached her front door, she knew something was off. The porter in her building told her there was a fire at the World Trade Center, and she hurried upstairs. Her son, Greg, worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 103rd floor of the north tower. She turned on both the TV and the answering machine.
To her relief, she heard Greg’s voice on the tape: “There’s been a terrible accident at the World Trade Center. I’m OK. Call Elizabeth.” Then there were messages from Orlando — something about a plane hitting the building and something about how he couldn’t get through to Greg. Rodriguez dialed Greg’s number herself but she couldn’t get through, either. More messages, this one from Julia, her daughter: “Do you know anything, do you know anything?”
Rodriguez finally reached Greg’s wife, Elizabeth, who had been on her way back to her office from a meeting when she saw a plane headed downtown, flying low overhead in the West Thirties. “I told everyone, ‘He’s OK, he’s OK,’ ” Rodriguez says. “I told them I’d gotten a message from Greg. I assumed he was out of the building. I had no idea.”
When she watched the plane hit the second tower on TV, Rodriguez knew that none of it was an accident. But the phone message from Greg had made her hopeful. She remembers calmly instructing Elizabeth to stay at work. Greg would eventually walk uptown with everyone else, picking up Elizabeth along the way, and then the young couple would take the train home to White Plains, where they lived about a block away from the Rodriguezes. But the afternoon passed, and then it was dark, and then it was night. Still no word from Greg.
Rodriguez says she suspected the worst, but she refused to believe it. “I can sometimes be ridiculously optimistic,” she says now, five years later. “Ridiculously. It’s my nature. For some reason, it reassures me to think that good outweighs evil, or that more good than bad happens.”
By the next night, Greg’s death was undeniable. Rodriguez shook uncontrollably when authorities announced that those who hadn’t been found should be presumed dead. Part of her still refused to believe it.
“What are we going to do without him?” Rodriguez asked her husband.
“Well,” he replied, “We’re going to do.”
Phyllis and Orlando tried to bury their grief in meetings with their friends and family, and with the families of other 9-11 victims. They saw counselors.
Given their lefty political leanings, they sent letters to The New York Times beseeching the government to not go to war in Greg’s name. They avoided parties and holiday celebrations. They stopped watching TV and movies — Phyllis says they were afraid of being “ambushed” by a memory of their dead 31-year-old son. They read books about sorrow and death. They slept.
No single act could, of course, resolve the loss. But in the end, the one thing that has given Phyllis Rodriguez the most palpable relief is that she has befriended A?Øcha el-Wafi, mother of Al Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.
For Phyllis Rodriguez, first there had been disbelief and an inability to speak. Then there was unfocused anger at the hijackers for their stupidity and cruelty. But wishing violence on the hijackers didn’t help – they were dead. Her anger eventually became more focused.
“I was angry at Osama bin Laden,” she says carefully, reclining into a seat in her White Plains home. “He plays fast and loose with lives, and not just the perceived enemy but also the people who are under his influence.
“And I became very, very angry at our government because I felt very early on that the government wasn’t going to make it better. I would have loved to blame the government for what happened, but I can’t, in all honesty. I think it was just safer. If I believed in everything George Bush was doing, then who’d I be angry at? My husband? It’s safer to be angry with the government than to take it out on your husband.”
Amid the anger, pangs of guilt surfaced. She wondered whether there was something she could have done at some crucial moment in Greg’s life so that he never ended up in that building in the first place. “It was feeling that I should have had control enough to prevent what happened,” Rodriguez says, “my regrets about my lack of omnipotence.”
Then, one morning a few weeks after the attacks, as grief, guilt, and rage still bubbled, Rodriguez saw A?Øcha el-Wafi’s picture in the paper. El-Wafi’s son Zacarias Moussaoui was perhaps the most loathed person in America, the suspected so-called 20th hijacker. In the accompanying story, el-Wafi told the press that her son had been brainwashed by Islamic extremists in England. By November 2001, el-Wafi announced that Moussaoui had written a letter to her declaring his innocence, and she believed him.
El-Wafi would continue to stalwartly defend her son against both the charges leveled against him by the U.S. government and the public’s condemnation, and she told a British newspaper recently that Moussaoui “was the child I never had a problem with.”
But if one believes el-Wafi’s eldest son, who wrote a tell-all book about his brother Zacarias, A?Øcha el-Wafi was an austere single mother who headed – perhaps even created, he says — a dysfunctional family. In turn, she has dismissed these claims. (Moussaoui’s attorneys have blamed his father.) In any case, she has said on a British website, “Although I am not responsible for the choices my son has made as an adult, I still feel guilty because I gave birth to him.”
Phyllis Rodriguez says she hadn’t given much thought to Moussaoui’s mother until she saw el-Wafi’s picture that morning. The image shook her, she recalls. She recognized something familiar in el-Wafi’s expression. “I felt for her as a mother,” Rodriguez says. “I thought, ‘I’d like to meet her.’ I knew I would like to reach out to her because I felt sorry for her. And I also thought, ‘Good for her, fighting for her son.’ ”
Rodriguez considered calling Moussaoui’s defense attorneys to get in touch with her, but she was too consumed by her own loss. To her surprise, nearly a year later, the opportunity presented itself.
Renny Cushing, who ran an organization called Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, had found Rodriguez through an anti-war letter that she and her husband had written, and Cushing figured she would be sympathetic to his proposition of getting the two together. Cushing, in touch with el-Wafi through his work with French death penalty abolitionist groups, e- mailed Rodriguez to see if she’d be interested in meeting el-Wafi during her next visit to the United States.
Rodriguez was amazed and surprised by the invitation. Though she wondered if it would be too painful – and she wondered whether el-Wafi was going to ask her to sign up to help Moussaoui’s case, which Rodriguez says she would have refused – she immediately said yes to the meeting. She also helped Cushing find a few more 9-11 family members who might also be interested.
A few weeks later, in October 2002, Rodriguez, her husband, and four other relatives of 9-11 victims met at noon in an empty conference room at a local university. The group talked nervously among themselves and froze every time they heard the main door creak open. It had only been about a year since the attacks, and emotions were still raw.
Because the Rodriguezes did not yet know whether Greg’s remains would eventually be found, they had not even had a proper burial for him yet. She didn’t tell many others about her meeting with el-Wafi because she was afraid that people would react negatively.
After half an hour of nervous chatter, the group heard el-Wafi and her entourage’s footsteps echoing through the long hallway. Rodriguez and her husband rushed to meet her at the door.
A?Øcha el-Wafi entered the room timidly, almost catlike, Rodriguez recalls. There was a weighty silence. And then, impulsively, Rodriguez says, she approached el- Wafi and wordlessly embraced her in a bear hug.
El-Wafi spoke first, and she surprised her audience. “I don’t know if my son is guilty or innocent,” she began, “but I want to apologize to you for what has happened to you and your family.”
The group spent the rest of the afternoon together. Rodriguez was struck by el-Wafi’s boldness and her sense of humor. She was moved by el-Wafi’s life as a teen bride, domestic-violence victim, and single mother. The two also seemed to have a lot in common: cooking, needlework, and of course, the love and loss of sons. El-Wafi showed Rodriguez a snapshot of Moussaoui from his youth, dressed in a school uniform. Rodriguez told her about Greg. Before she left, Rodriguez asked el-Wafi to keep in touch.
And they did. El-Wafi would send Rodriguez a postcard from Morocco while she was there for her nephew’s wedding. Rodriguez would reciprocate by sending a postcard from her first trip to Cuba, her husband’s birth country. They sent each other family pictures with quick notes jotted on the back. There were sporadic phone calls and e-mails, simple exchanges of pleasantries since Rodriguez was forced to rely on her rudimentary French.
But in April 2005, when Rodriguez learned that Moussaoui had pled guilty to conspiring to fly planes into American buildings, she knew that her relationship with el-Wafi was about to change.
Phyllis Rodriguez realized that after Moussaoui’s plea, there would soon be a sentencing trial, and that she would be confronted by memories she’d worked so hard to keep tucked away. And Rodriguez sensed that if it were going to be difficult for her, it might be even worse for the mother of the accused.
She wrote el-Wafi, “I want to give you whatever support you need. Whenever you are in the United States, I will be by your side.”
“I was not thinking only about friendship,” Rodriguez says. “I was thinking about being true to myself. She was going to be in the United States under very difficult circumstances, and if the tables were turned, what would I need? Support. And friendship. So I appointed myself the head, the membership, and the steering committee of the Support A?Øcha Committee.”
Phyllis Rodriguez appears controlled and tough, and when she speaks about the murder of her son by terrorists, you can see, by the way her piercing hazel eyes begin to dart and lose focus, that she is fighting back a storm.
If she declines to get emotional with strangers, then there is something about the way that Rodriguez arranges a meal that betrays her attempts at stoicism. At the dinner table, her presence is like the warm glow of an incandescent light.
As was the case in her childhood, the dinner table is a place for current-events commentary, and there, she is more than willing to unleash a torrent of lefty political rants. It is at the table, too, that you come to know her barbed sense of humor, her throaty laugh, and the way she brightens in the company of others.
At the Rodriguezes’ summer home in a small town in the Catskills, she arranges simple feasts, reflecting her egalitarian politics: She assigns a task to each person, seeks opinions about cooking times, and guards against waste. In the end, she throws a bounty of roasted vegetables and chicken on a platter for a communal meal. We eat on mismatched plates and use cloth napkins, which, like the furniture in her home, reflect an artist’s eclectic sensibilities.
The Rodriguezes bought their country getaway – an aluminum-sided trailer home nestled in 30 acres of trees and greenery – more than a decade ago in what was historically a working-class and immigrant summer retreat. It is a natural choice for Rodriguez, who grew up in the ’50s as Phyllis Schafer in New York public- housing projects with quick access to parks and nature.
Her mother, a volunteer tenant-rights organizer, had become such a hell-raiser at the Queensbridge Housing Projects that eventually the housing authority offered to give the Schafers their pick of homes, if only they’d move away. So they left for the Pelham Parkway Houses in the Bronx when Phyllis was seven.
Her father, a letterer and sign painter heavily involved in union politics, often brought leftover paint and paper home from work for his two daughters. Phyllis, the eldest, became an avid painter, and she was sent to an arts high school in Manhattan, where she was happy to be surrounded by other children who came from unorth-odox families too.
In the Schafer household, politics was their religion. Social justice, equality, human rights – discussed in the context of the civil rights movement or the execution of the Rosenbergs – were their gospel. But she also came from an era when politics, no matter how radical, required a level of respectability. Whenever she participated in protests – like the time she went to stand in solidarity with black desegregationists at a Woolworth’s lunch counter during high school – she was always careful to dress neatly in her finest skirts and shirts.
In 1960, she became the first in her family to earn a high school diploma. With the family’s unspoken expectation that both she and her younger sister would become white-collar professionals, she dutifully enrolled in City College, where she met Orlando Rodriguez. After graduating, she became an elementary school teacher, got married, and had her first child, Julia, at age 24.
When their daughter was born, Phyllis Rodriguez switched to part-time teaching. With Orlando working toward his doctorate in sociology, budgets and schedules were tight. Rodriguez’s political impulses were set aside; there were diapers to change, papers to grade, and meals to orchestrate. For the time being, politics was reserved for the dinner table, as well as in the setting of it.
Gregory Ernesto Rodriguez, born on November 12, 1969, was a handful from the very beginning, a daredevil with charisma and a gleefully wicked sense of humor. As he grew older, he was forever surprising and exasperating his parents with an unceasing quest for adventure.
As his friends recall him, Greg inherited his father’s sensitivity and his mother’s gregariousness and impulsiveness. From both parents, he learned to question authority — especially theirs. Rebellious and moody, he began to push the boundaries. At 15 he came home with a mohawk that changed color and shape depending on his whim.
At 16, he took a bike trip around New England — by then, the mohawk was short and pink — and totaled his bike when he wasn’t watching where he was going. Rodriguez and her husband tended to give their children some latitude; they hoped he’d come around on his own. But when he called from an emergency room in Vermont, they ordered him home, grounded him, and forced him to get a job and shave his head.
But four months before he was supposed to graduate from high school, Greg packed a bag, grabbed his harmonica, and dropped out of school. He planned to hitchhike across the country. Within a couple weeks, he was back in New York because he decided that the trip wasn’t shaping up the way he thought it would.
“We used to say that he can’t be told something; he has to learn it for himself,” Rodriguez says. “He won’t believe the iron was hot. He has to burn his arm on it.”
“On the surface, it seemed that Greg had screwed up, thrown everything away,” adds David Hackenburg, a friend of Greg’s since middle school. “He would get impatient. He was a very smart guy with strong opinions, and his acting out, it had something to do with not wanting to be like anyone else and not doing something just because you’re supposed to. He wanted to make his own way on his own terms, and some of it came out naively.”
For the next couple of years, Greg worked odd jobs at restaurants, gas stations, and liquor stores. He eventually moved in with his sister in Staten Island. He took on more temp jobs. He met a young woman through a political organization that supported “an alternative to the oppressive U.S.-backed policies of the Salvadoran right” in El Salvador, and they were married soon after she got pregnant. His only son, Silvio, was born in 1991, just as the rest of his childhood friends were graduating from college.
Greg had earned his GED and he was trying out the New School, but he dropped out after a year, when he realized the effort it would take to support a family. But then, his marriage didn’t work out anyway, and he got divorced a few years after Silvio was born.
By his early twenties, Greg was starting to tire of driving cabs and working as a prep cook. He decided to explore his interest in computers. He landed a temp job at Salomon Brothers on the help desk, which is where he met his second wife, Elizabeth, in a department meeting. “When Greg walked into a room, he became the guy that everyone wanted to sit next to,” Elizabeth says.
Skilled and charismatic, Greg was eventually given a permanent position at Salomon, followed by a succession of promotions. After a few years, he landed a job as the vice president of e-mail security at the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald.
Greg’s friends and family marveled at his sudden turnaround – the former rebel with the pink mohawk was now wearing suits, traveling to South America on business trips, happily married, living in White Plains, and saving money for a house in Tarrytown.
During the Labor Day weekend of 2001, Greg and Elizabeth capped their summer with a vacation to Seattle to visit Elizabeth’s sister and Silvio. Greg, a scuba diver, went on a dive in Puget Sound. Elizabeth always worried that Greg’s diving was too risky and that he might hurt himself, but when he got back that day, he said it was the best dive of his life.
Back in New York, Elizabeth and Greg caught the train on the morning of September 11 as they normally did. Elizabeth recalls sleeping on his shoulder while he thumbed through the Times. They parted ways at Grand Central. Elizabeth walked on to her office in midtown, while Greg, as he had for the past four years, caught the train to the World Trade Center.
After Zacarias Moussaoui admitted he was guilty for conspiring in the 9-11 terrorist plot, it took nearly a year before the sentencing trial was held at a federal court- house in Alexandria, Virginia. A few days before the proceedings began, A?Øcha el-Wafi traveled to the U.S. from Narbonne, France. On her lapel, she wore a Japanese peace crane pin that Phyllis Rodriguez had given her.
When el-Wafi emerged from the terminal, Rodriguez hugged her and linked arms with her, and together they marched through a phalanx of TV cameras and newspaper reporters to the car.
Rodriguez says she tried to be a calming presence for el-Wafi. The day before the sentencing hearing started, the two women visited the courthouse together so they wouldn’t get lost on their way to the hearing.
They drove past the federal prison so el-Wafi could see the blocky fortress that housed her raving and angry son. Rodriguez was in el-Wafi’s hotel room when the Frenchwoman saw Moussaoui in a news clip on TV. “He looks thinner,” el-Wafi remarked.
Rodriguez’s husband had agreed to testify in the sentencing hearing on behalf of Moussaoui’s defense because he, like his wife, didn’t believe in the death penalty. In order to prevent an appearance of conflict of interest, Phyllis Rodriguez and el-Wafi were not public about their deepening bond. (Orlando Rodriguez says that he consciously avoided contact with el-Wafi once he agreed to testify in the hearing.) It was mostly was out of the camera’s glare, says Phyllis Rodriguez, that the women’s friendship blossomed.
Mostly, Rodriguez and el-Wafi provided each other with much needed distraction from the weight of the events unfolding in the courtroom. They met for breakfast each morning and dinner each night and talked about the minutiae and the mundane. They took walks near the courthouse when the legal circus became too intense.
On the second day of the trial, when el-Wafi retreated to her hotel room after Moussaoui refused to acknowledge her presence in the courtroom, Rodriguez rushed to her side to comfort her. As the days passed, they swapped and shared clothes. “They were like girlfriends or sisters,” says Renny Cushing, who had introduced them.
Overwhelmed by the events, el-Wafi had already returned to France when the verdict – life in prison — was returned. Rodriguez says she called el-Wafi as soon as she heard the news. “Even if it doesn’t sound that great, this is the better option because he’s alive,” Rodriguez says she assured el-Wafi over the phone. “Now, take care of yourself and try to get some sleep.”
They also made plans for Rodriguez to visit el-Wafi. Rodriguez began improving on her French, and she used it when she spent three weeks in France with el-Wafi this summer. During the trip, they took walks through Narbonne, had hilarious nights out at bars in Paris, and because their unusual friendship cannot be extricated from politics, became the subject of numerous French newspaper articles and a German documentary that showed them chatting animatedly in the shade of a monument at a seaside village.
“Neither of them is innocent about the political aspect of their friendship,” notes Joe Agne, a pastor at a White Plains church who has met both women. “But it’s not a political calculation. They are two women who are really connected.”
After the trial, Rodriguez was no longer secretive about her friendship with el-Wafi. She was also starting to feel less concerned about people’s reaction to it. “How I grew up, in the ’50s in a left-wing family, I saw the fear that McCarthyism and the Cold War and the Red Scare engendered,” Rodriguez says. “And when I found myself, through an accident of history, being in a very political position about a friendship with A?Øcha, I was scared. But I’d say no, I can’t let the fear stop me.”
Some friends and family have openly expressed their support, while others privately shake their heads in disbelief. “I was surprised,” says Ben Waltzer, a longtime family friend of the Rodriguezes’. “[Phyllis] has befriended the mother of a man who aspired to be part, but couldn’t make the cut, of the fascist gang of thugs that murdered her son. But it’s also indicative of her struggle to construct some meaning out of the event. I respect her for it. I’m unsure I’d be capable of that, though.”
Others are less diplomatic. “I haven’t heard Moussaoui’s mother denounce her son’s actions,” says Peter Gadiel, whose 23-year-old son worked on the same floor at Cantor Fitzgerald as Greg did. “If [el-Wafi] hasn’t admitted to her son’s barbarity, then she’s unworthy of any attention from any 9-11 family.
That kind of relationship is beyond comprehension. It’s more than odd; it’s nuts. That kind of attitude is pacifism gone mad. It’s turn the other cheek until the other side destroys you. It’s blaming yourself instead of them. If Moussaoui became a terrorist, then his mother had something to do with it.”
But those close to Phyllis Rodriguez say the solace she gets from her friendship with Moussaoui’s mother requires no justification.
“I was a little surprised when I found out,” admits daughter Julia. “Not because it was out of character but because it’s such a big thing, and I was afraid it would be painful for her in some way. But it’s proven to be a great thing for my mom, a way to focus her energy in a positive direction.”
The two women have also recently joined a touring British art-photography exhibit called the Forgiveness Project, a collection of photographs and stories of two people from opposite sides of a conflict who have chosen to come together. “Desmond Tutu says that it seems like an altruistic thing to do, but forgiveness is actually in one’s own self-interest,” Rodriguez says as a way of explaining her relationship with el-Wafi. “Because it kind of lifts a burden or anger and hatred from you — I’m not saying you don’t flip back and forth, but it feeds something very deep.
“And there are different definitions for forgiveness. It doesn’t mean, I forgive you for killing my son. It’s saying, ‘You did something that’s really awful, but I want to see what makes you tick as a human being.’
“I’ll never face the murderers of Greg and all the people on that day, but that first meeting with A?Øcha, I was so shocked when she asked for forgiveness and she apologized for what had happened to our families even though she wasn’t responsible for what happened.”
But ultimately, for the two mothers who find themselves at the opposite ends of a historic tragedy, a nagging guilt was what initially tethered them together. In very different ways, both Greg Rodriguez and Zacarias Moussaoui were confused and brooding young men searching for something that their mothers didn’t understand.
To Phyllis Rodriguez, that Greg chose to find his answers through wacky hairdos and dropping out of school rather than by joining an extremist sect seems more a matter of luck and circumstance than a triumph of her superior mothering. “We don’t really know how our children are going to interact with the world, or how they’re going to internalize experiences,” Rodriguez says.
Her friendship with el-Wafi, she says, has dissolved her guilt. “In trying to help A?Øcha overcome the terrible feelings of guilt that she has from her lack of ability to prevent bad things from happening to her son, I am explaining these things to myself, too,” Rodriguez says. “I tell her things like, ‘You did the best you could.’ But I’m also telling it to myself.
“Greg didn’t have the easiest time growing up. At the end, he was a solid, centered person, but he had some rough times. And I wish I could have done better, understood him better, and been a better mother. I don’t beat myself up that he was at the Trade Center on that day anymore, but I have asked myself, ‘What did I do wrong as a mother so that his life followed the path it did and he ended up working there that day?’ ”
The Rodriguezes’ mementos of Greg are subtle but omnipresent. On their right wrists, both Rodriguez and her husband wear silver bracelets engraved with Greg’s name, a parting gift, of sorts, from Cantor Fitzgerald. Photos of Greg posing on a hiking trail or in a snowy forest are arranged in the study and on the refrigerators of both their White Plains home and their summer retreat.
And in nearly equal number, there are pictures of A?Øcha el-Wafi: one tacked to the refrigerator, a framed photo on a bookshelf, a snapshot of the two women together in New York that serves as the background to Rodriguez’s computer screen.
The photos of Greg can be harder to look at for Phyllis Rodriguez. In contrast, the photos of el-Wafi are like a shield from grief, a reminder that Rodriguez has tried, in the name of her son, to always do better and to push the limits of grace and generosity.
“How do you accept death when you don’t believe there’s a heaven or an afterlife?” Rodriguez says. “It’s a fact of life. It’s an end. It’s a loss. The only thing I feel I can do is to not succumb to the tragedy and define myself through it — always be the long-suffering mother. The loss will always be there. But I’m not miserable.
“As a matter of fact, the more good I can do that can come out of it, the better: by helping A?Øcha, by speaking out for more understanding between people, by trying to understand what makes people who do extremist acts arrive at that point. What can we do to eliminate some of the conditions that make people so angry?”
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