My big brother, Peter, was my role model, who taught me by example that life should be lived with love and compassion for others. He worked as a vice president and government securities broker with the firm Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of the North Tower in the World Trade Center. And he was among the nearly 3,000 innocent souls who perished in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Pete left behind a heartbroken family that included his wife and three children, both parents, and five sisters and brothers, including me, the youngest. In those early days, when his loss became too much to bear, I leaned on the one thing I had always relied on in good and bad times: my faith.
Who can forget those images, of fire and ash, depicting the horror endured by my brother and all those trapped inside the targeted buildings? The images are forever seared into the collective American psyche. How could God allow such a thing to happen? And why Peter?
He was the middle child in our close-knit family, the one we all looked up to, the positive thinker, the one we could count on to be there, no matter what. When I left the home where we were raised in East Williston, New York, in 1985 for The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Pete often made surprise trips to visit me and our brother, Tom, a fellow Catholic University graduate, who was in his senior year then.
Throughout my four years in college, Pete would fly down, rent a car — once even a limousine — drive my friends and me around Georgetown and splurge on us, often treating us to dinner.
When he was killed, I had many a deep conversation with God to help ease the pain and suffering. Slowly, anger and despair gave way to the peace that comes with faith. From my earliest years at Catholic University, I’d been instilled with an understanding of how vital faith is to life.
Almost as soon as I began asking why and how, my faith reminded me that the terrorist attacks were not God’s doing and that evil does exist in the world. But because of my faith, I know evil will not prevail. I clung to my belief that there is a God, that there is a better place, and that I will see my brother there again someday.
My faith helped me to heal.
Pete’s widow, Kathy, and their children have refused to allow grief to overtake their lives. Kathy moved into the dream home that she and Pete were in the process of buying in Mineola, New York, when he died, and she has kept his memory alive in her conversations, pictures and videos.
The children are pursing their dreams: Joseph, now 30, is working on a doctorate in music at Columbia University; Thomas (my godchild), 24, graduated from Notre Dame two years ago and works at the State Bank of Long Island; and Maryellen, 22, graduated from the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and is preparing to open a retail store that sells green products.
Their grace and dignity in the face of terror inspires me still. As we pause to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I am inspired, too, by my country. In my darkest days, it was not just my faith in God that helped to lift me; it was also a faith in my fellow man.
I was sustained by a nation that reached out, asked to share my grief, helped to bear my terrible burden, and vowed never to forget.
John Owens is a graduate of the Catholic University of America and works as a commercial real estate broker with a family firm on Long Island.