My brother, Mark, was killed on September 11th, 2001. A year after he died I went to New York and made a documentary that was later bought by HBO and which screened as part of the Cinemax Reel Life Series. Below is a link where the documentary can be bought on Amazon.
Or, if you don't want to go through Amazon you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll send you a copy for the cost of shipping. Let's say, $10.
The film was made as a memorial to my brother. It is a series of interviews with 31 men from 25 families who also lost brothers on 9/11. My father gave me $30,000. I convinced my friend, Ray Chim, to travel to New York with me to be my cameraman. Another New York based friend, Stephanie Zessos, was the producer. Everyone worked for no money. We spent about 4 months doing the interviews. I spent another 6 months editing the material with my friend, Heath Ryan, who donated his time as well as his AVID editing system.
Below is an essay I wrote around 18 months after Mark passed away that was originally published in a small literary journal called New York Stories.
My brother died on September 11th, 2001 on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center. He was 26 years old. His name was Mark McGinly. He could be surly, was often impatient and especially as he got older, was just so unsentimental and hard-nosed. He was the type of guy that survives something like this. I remember telling my mother when she called, very upset, that morning, “Mom, he’s tough. He’ll climb over people’s heads to get out of there if he has to. He’ll be fine.”
I was in Los Angeles on 9/11/01, at my home. I held out some hope at first, but after watching both buildings fall and not hearing from my brother by that evening, I just knew he was gone. I cried that night like I’ve never really cried. I felt a pain that started in the base of my skull, traveled down my back and rested in my groin. I kept seeing him burning, his body being torn apart. I remember crying, “My poor brother. My poor brother.”
I rented a car the morning of 9/12/01 and drove to Houston, TX. There, I met my other brother, Drew, who had driven up from Corpus Christi, where he was training to become a Navy pilot. I dropped off the rental and continued with Drew in his car to our parents’ home in Northern Virginia. We arrived on Friday afternoon. The first night we all slept together in chairs in the living room. We left the television on, unable to stand the silence. The next morning, my mother called us together and said calmly that Mark was gone and it was time to make plans.
Of the ‘plans’ we made, the one that sticks out most is travelling to New York and clearing out my brother’s apartment on the Upper West Side. He had about 25 messages on his answering machine from friends, at first asking him if he had heard about what happened and eventually demanding, in the annoyed way friends do, for him to call, “Mark, come on man, call me. You got me worried.” My mother sat there and listened to every message and cried. My father didn’t want to come in. He sat at the curb next to a van we had borrowed and packed everything as my brother and I brought it down. I remember thinking how funny it would be if they found Mark alive at this point. He’d be furious that we’d emptied his apartment and I really wished I could see him get annoyed and impatient the way he often would, one more time. Within a few hours we were packed and ready to leave. As we drove out of the city I couldn’t stop thinking how strange it was that we were able to remove all trace of a man from a place in less than 4 hours.
The next few weeks were a bit of a haze. People were constantly at my parents’ house and I found myself in numerous conversations that went something like this:
DISTANT RELATIVE: I’m so sorry about your brother.
DISTANT RELATIVE (after an uncomfortable silence) So, how’s everything going out in California?
There was also a lot of eating and drinking. I put on 30 pounds. Drew had to leave and go back to flight training after about 2 weeks. I stayed with my parents until the end of October.
My mother had a group of 3 or 4 female friends who practically lived at our house. The most loyal was a woman named Sheila. Mostly, I remember her attending the phone, which was constantly ringing, and taking message after message on a small pad. Those who have been through something like this know that the day arrives when people stop coming over, bringing food, just sitting with you, and it’s almost a relief but it’s also scary because you know once you’re alone you’re going to have to face whatever grief you’ve been keeping at bay for the sake of those around you. Sheila never stopped coming. When I left for LA she was there, sitting with my mother helping her address thank you notes. Shortly after I left, Sheila, a healthy woman in her late 40’s, got sick. She was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and was given a 50/50 chance of survival. By Thanksgiving she was bedridden. Shortly after Christmas she died. I remember thinking that at least she had had a good life, way too short, but full, with children, almost grown. And at least her family had the chance to say goodbye, to touch her, to try to make her death peaceful.
As a child, our family was fairly religious. We were sent to Catholic school, which held mass for the students every Friday morning and we went to mass again as a family every Sunday. In the 4th grade I became an altar boy and would often be chosen to serve at a wedding or a funeral which meant I would sometimes attend 3 services in one week.
As early as the age of 7 or 8, I remember thinking that something wasn’t right. The whole mass felt like a play to me, like something fake. When I was about 11, I developed a kind of crippling, compulsive guilt. An impure thought, being present while a dirty joke was told, almost anything, would have me depressed for days, certain that I was bound for the suffering of hell.
At about the age of 14, I had something of a revelation which changed everything. It suddenly occurred to me that none of the people who claimed to know the truth about God possibly could. It just didn’t make logical sense. The rules of my religion were made up and other religions made up other rules. From that point on I thought less and less about religion and soon after, stopped going to church altogether, even on holidays. For a while, in high school, I called myself an atheist but somewhere along the line I came across the word ‘agnostic’ and found that more fitting.
In the months following my return to Los Angeles I realized that I had lost my brother; not in the sense that he was no longer alive but more that I had lost hold of my strong memory of him. In the days after 9/11 one of the most painful things was that I could hear his voice. At times I’d think that I’d seen his face in a crowd. I’d even dream about him occasionally. Somewhere though, in all of it, I’d lost my grasp on him.
All I could think of was his death. I became obsessed with it. I wanted to know what he had gone through. I wished that I could have somehow been with him. I fantasized about sitting next to him in his office when that plane hit, going through the whole experience with him. The violence of his death was maddening. I remember thinking at one moment that my brother had died like a pig, that all the men and women killed had died like pigs; and that we’d been forced to watch it, a multimedia event glorifying the randomness of existence.
We had no remains. Mark hadn’t made any calls out the morning of September 11th. In many ways it was like my brother had simply vanished. I developed a strong desire to know something concrete. I had comforted myself with the conclusion that Mark’s office was at the point of impact and he had died a painless, instantaneous death. I sensed this wasn’t true though and even if it was, I needed to know more. I had a burning need to know that Mark was OK, that he was at peace.
I started seeing a therapist, a psychologist. His name was Bill. He had one of those faces that good therapists have, open, compassionate. His office was comfortable and kind of dark, which I liked. He had a couch but I never laid down on it. I would sit across from him and put my feet up on the foot rest in front of his chair. Sometimes he’d put his feet up next to mine, which I also kind of liked. Bill encouraged me to continue believing that my brother had died as soon as the plane impacted the building. He didn’t see how anything else was possible given the size of the plane and the intensity of the explosion
I told Bill about my feelings, my desires to know something more. The logical, agnostic acceptance of the unknowable just weren’t enough any longer. Bill told me a story about a near death experience he’d had while a young man. In the throes of a very high fever he said that he’d actually felt his soul lift out of his body and begin to elevate towards the ceiling. He was above the room, looking down on himself. He could hear music. He felt at peace. Death wasn’t scary or painful, but quite peaceful. Then suddenly, he heard a voice saying that he wasn’t done, that he was being sent back to continue his work. Bill woke up, recovered from the fever. His conclusion from all this was that there might be something else beyond death and this possibility is really the most we can ever hope to gain. There are those who have unquestioning faith and that is a true gift but for those who don’t, they have to make do with that ‘maybe’.
In December, I went home for the holidays. It was my first time flying since my brother’s death and I was very nervous. I remember the date. It was December 19th, 2001. As I walked to my plane I stopped and picked up a copy of USA Today, hoping that it would distract me. I opened the paper to find a large article about those who had died in the World Trade Center.
There was a floor by floor account of who had died and who had survived. As it turned out, my brother’s floor was the cutoff. Almost all the men and women on the 91st floor, the one right below them, survived. They simply walked down the stairs. No one had lived from the 92nd floor up. Somehow, due to the structure of the building, they had withstood the initial impact, only a few stories above them. . They were trapped, according to the article, by drywall which had come loose from the wall and fallen into the stairwell, blocking the door. There were accounts of calls made out from the 92nd floor describing their situation, saying that they were all alive and waiting calmly for rescue. No one was sure if they’d died when the building fell, succumbed to smoke or God forbid, jumped.
The pain all came back. I was, irrationally, furious with Bill for encouraging me to believe that my brother had died instantly. I knew now that this wasn’t true. I cried. For a brief moment I had to concentrate on not completely falling apart in mid air.
After the holidays I returned to Los Angeles and discussed this with Bill. He seemed sorry but he dealt very much with the here and now. I kept bringing up my obsession with my brother’s death and the questions it was forcing me to ask about existence. Bill kept trying to steer me towards positive solutions and types of behavior that might help me to feel better, to get better. I think one time he said that my obsession was a way of not accepting my brother’s death.
When my brother died I had been in the early stages of obtaining financing for a film that I’d been trying to make for 4 years. In February of 2002, it all came together and suddenly I was in pre-production. The process of making this film completely occupied my thoughts and lifted me out of the depression and obsession I was in. The film finished production around the end of April. Anyone in the film business will tell you about the post-movie depression that one can fall into when production ends and the engine that has been driving you to work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, suddenly stops.
My obsession returned with a vengeance. The thoughts of my brother and his senseless death returned stronger than they ever had previously. Life felt very dark. This was really the first time that my brother’s death really felt real. The weeks and months following September 11th had been a blur. The constant work and excitement of the film had been a brilliant distraction. But now all I had to do was sit with it.
A friend told me about an experience he had had with a psychic. He urged me to meet the man and try it. I had never engaged in this sort of thing and a year before I wouldn’t have even considered going. I was searching though and if this man had anything to offer, I wanted to hear it.
He lived in a nice house that overlooked the San Fernando Valley. The inside of his house was a terrible mess and he told me that he was moving. His name was Michael. He looked exactly the opposite of what I had expected. There were no turbans or crystal balls. He wore shorts and a T-shirt. The most striking thing about him was his voice, which was really impressive, deep and commanding. He spoke of having been a psychic advisor to different celebrities, including John Lennon. However, he looked like a man born to operate a barbecue, just a normal white guy living a normal suburban existence. We sat out on his back porch and as he began laying down Tarot cards I could hear his wife washing dishes in the kitchen.
We just talked, mostly about my film, which was in a crucial stage of editing. I withheld any information about the death of my brother because I was curious to see if Michael would somehow be able figure this out on his own. Michael insisted to me that the film wasn’t as important as I thought it might be. Finally, with time running out, I told him about my brother’s death and he pounced on this. The reading said that my brother’s death was going to be a life changing event. For the most part my experience with Michael was uninteresting and unimpressive until a very specific moment.
MICHAEL: How does your brother’s death make you feel?
ME: Very sad. I feel very sad, mostly because I know he’s gone and there’s nothing I can do about it and there’s no way to make me feel better about it.
MICHAEL: Death isn’t real. Are you telling me you haven’t learned this yet? It’s not real. You don’t know this?
A chill went through me. It was very much what I wanted to hear. Everything that Michael said from that point on struck me much differently. Michael’s main point seemed to be that I needed to change my perspective, to look at death differently. He said I had to look my brother’s death as what it really was to me; a gift. I didn’t completely understand this but I appreciated how different Michael was from Bill. I sensed that he held some key to this unknowable truth I very much wanted.
My meeting with Michael left an impression. He had made a tape of the session and I listened to it again and again. I remember telling a friend that I felt there was now, at least possibly, something more to life than what I had previously acknowledged. I was determined to explore this possibility and find out all I could about what life is, what existence is, and if death really is… real.
But life has a way of rambling along and my resolve soon faded. I had made plans to shoot a documentary film in New York for 3 months which I thought might be something of a catharsis. I was going to interview about 30 men who’d also lost their brothers on September 11th. It was an idea my mother had suggested to me. I mentioned it to a friend in New York and the next thing I knew she had the whole thing set up. Each day we’d drive out to a different part of New York or New Jersey to speak to a man whose brother had died, like my own, in the World Trade Center.
It was a rewarding experience and it was a good opportunity to visit some friends in New York. Many of my college friends from Villanova had settled there. One in particular was an interesting guy named James. He’s a painter who sells pot on the side to pay the bills. I’d known his parents since college. They’re a very sweet Italian-American couple, Dom and Betty.
One afternoon I was invited to have dinner with James and his parents out at their home on City Island. We ate and then I fell asleep on the grass of their back yard just off the Long Island Sound. When I woke up it was almost dark. Dom told me a story about his brother, who had died a natural death a few years back. Dom said that one morning he was outside his house smoking a cigarette when he saw his brother sitting out by the water, holding his trumpet. Dom looked at his brother and said something to the effect of, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You’re dead.’ His brother simply answered, “No Dom, I’m fine. How does this sound?” And he played a few notes on his trumpet. Dom told this story out of the earshot of Betty, “My wife thinks I’m nuts with this but I saw it. I don’t care if anybody believes me”.
Dom and Betty also spoke about Dom’s recent cancer surgery. Their daughter, Alison, had visited a psychic/medium who advised her to tell her father to get his lungs checked. Dom got his lungs checked and found that he had a very early spot of lung cancer. They removed the growth and he was likely to be fine. The doctor told them that if he hadn’t caught it when he did, it might have killed him. The psychic/medium’s name was Leo.
I asked James if he could set me up a session with Leo. I was dying to see what he was all about. One morning, about a month later, James and I drove out to the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn where Leo was giving readings. James went first and I walked around the neighborhood. Old men played dominoes in a park and spoke only Italian. I was on edge, quite nervous. When my time came to meet Leo I was surprised. He was in his mid 30’s, a Russian Jew with a past in drug dealing and hip hop. He wore one of those stylish sweat suits. He’d immigrated from the Soviet Union, just before it collapsed. He had intense eyes and an insect-like head. I don’t know for sure but I’d guess that he wasn’t as intelligent as Michael or Bill.
We sat down in a small room that had only a desk, which Leo sat behind and a chair, which I used. The whole place smelled a bit like a dentist’s office. Leo had an enormous amount of confidence. He said that the only thing James had told him was that I had lost my brother and wanted to contact him if it was possible. He explained a little bit about himself; most notably that he sees, hears and speaks with the spirit world, who hang out in another state approximately 3 feet above eye level. I thought was an interesting detail to include but I suppose if he’s seeing them, that’s where they are when they show up. Leo said that if no spirits came he would refund my money and if they did come it was simply to communicate with me. They would speak to him and he would repeat it. It would make no sense to him whatsoever, only to me. We began. He looked at my watch and said that he was being asked about it. Leo asked if it was my brother’s watch? It was. Leo said my brother was in the room with me.
I know this sounds a little silly but I have to admit, I felt it. The session continued for an hour though and what followed was a long series of questions which seemed to prove that either Leo had an amazing talent to read the subconscious mind or that he actually had made contact with the spirit of my brother.
Some of the things he said made no sense. “There’s a Sylvia here.” “Your brother is asking about a chipped tooth.” I knew no Sylvia. There was never a chipped tooth, at least that I could remember.
Other things didn’t make sense at the time but did later. “Your brother is worried about your mother’s high blood pressure.” At the time I said that was surely incorrect because I knew that my mother had always had low blood pressure. However, on a trip home the following week my mother announced to me that she had recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure for the first time in her life. “Your brother is asking about a time he nearly drowned in a pool.” Once again, this didn’t make much sense at the time but I later remembered that I had saved my brother from drowning in our grandparents’ pool when I was about 5 or 6 and he was only 2 or 3. At the time it was an extremely proud moment for me that was spoken about frequently for a few days afterwards.
There were other things that hit me like a punch in the stomach. These were moments, questions, memories that Leo couldn’t have possibly known about. “Your brother is asking about a problem with your father’s right foot.” My father had had an operation on his right foot the past July. “Your brother is asking about a problem with the front door of your apartment. Is it broken?” A few weeks before there had been a fire in the unit below my apartment when I was out. The firemen had knocked the door down and it was still broken. Leo said that my brother had been watching me.
At one point Leo concentrated for a few moments and then asked me what Scudder was. At first the word made no sense but then suddenly I remembered. Scudder was the company that handled the retirement account that my brother had left to me. Since Mark’s death there had been numerous letters and statements sent to my house with the word Scudder on them. Tears came to my eyes. Not only was ‘Scudder’ a word that surely made no sense to Leo when he said it, it wasn’t a word that was in my conscious mind at the time. More importantly, it was a very real connection between my brother and myself.
I was able to ask questions through Leo. I asked my brother if he was OK. Leo concentrated and said, “Your brother says he doesn’t need a watch any more”. Leo explained to me that the physical world we live in is a place of limits and resistance and that the next world is the opposite of this. I asked my brother how he had died, if he had jumped from the building. Leo said very definitively that he hadn’t jumped. Once again he concentrated and told me that my brother had died because he couldn’t breathe, but that he hadn’t been scared. He didn’t have time to be scared.
There were many other things, too numerous to recount. By the end of the session I felt that this is what I had been searching for all along. I had made contact. For that one hour I felt closer to my brother than I had at any time since I’d sat in the same room with him.
I walked out of Leo’s office into the dreary air of Brooklyn and it was all I could do to keep from breaking down. I felt a sadness like I hadn’t felt in a long time. I loved this sadness though because it made me feel closer to my brother. One thing that Leo and Michael both said was that I should talk to my brother, that I didn’t need them, that he was around, watching me, listening to me, and even able to help me, with anything.
Right before I returned to Los Angeles my father came up to New York. He was doing poorly and at times I felt like he came to New York just so he could feel closer to Mark and so he could cry. I sensed that he liked talking about Mark and reminiscing about him. My father was also drinking a lot. The first night there he had about 7 bourbons with dinner and then passed out at about 9:30 in my apartment. He coughed and hacked all night long in his sleep.
The next day we went to a party. Two good friends of my brother had run in the New York City Marathon that day and had somehow finished. They had used the occasion to raise about $20,000 for a scholarship fund that my parents had set up in my brother’s name.
There have been a few things like this done since my brother died and I hate being at them. There was a golf tournament in April of 2002. Shirts were made that said, ‘The Mark McGinly Memorial Golf Tournament’ and there was something so sad about seeing all these shirts being worn with my dead brother’s name on them.
The marathon party had me in much the same mood and I sat alone on the sofa trying to keep a low profile. There was a man sitting next to me and he introduced himself as the stepfather of one of the friends that had run in the marathon. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and I saw a flash of shock register on his face when I told him who I was.
The man told me that he was a rabbi. I’d never met a rabbi before so I began asking him about his life, how he got into it, what his beliefs were. As we talked, I was surprised at one point to hear him say that he believed in God very intermittently. He went on to explain, saying that he looked at life like a lightning storm. He said that for the most part he found true belief to be very difficult, but every once in a while there are brilliant, almost violent flashes, where God is so real and present it’s undeniable. The rest of the time, it’s darkness and often difficulty and sometimes calm, though rarely easy.
On Thanksgiving of 2002 my parents and my brother came to Los Angeles. A day or so after they got here, the phone rang. It was a friend of my mother’s who had been house sitting. She said that a policeman was at the house. They had identified Mark’s remains. I had been dreading this day. In fact, over the past year I had said several times that I hoped they didn’t find anything. I just didn’t want my family to have to go through any more pain. I spoke in more detail with my father later. They hadn’t found much of Mark; a few pieces of bone from his skull, his back, his leg. The only piece of his anatomy found in whole was one of his feet. Surprisingly, this didn’t have the impact on any of us that I feared it would. But in a way, that was even sadder. After the beating we’d taken for the past year it was like there were no tears left to cry. At the very least, I knew now that it was over.
Later, when I thought about the entire experience it was clear that I had been on a search for truth, for illumination. I simply had to believe that my brother was more than the possessions we removed from his apartment, more than pieces of bone found laying on the ground. I suspected, deep inside, that this search was probably futile and possibly part of a neurotic, even unhealthy grieving process. However, there were moments when I came much closer than I ever dreamed I would.
The rabbi’s appearance and our short conversation felt like a flash of lightning in itself. It was as if he looked into me and read what I was feeling but couldn’t express. His vision of the world was honest and realistic and to me, more complete than anyone else’s. I simply didn’t have the faith that Michael or Leo had. I couldn’t see my brother and the logical part of me had difficulty accepting something completely without that sensory knowledge. At the same time, agnosticism wasn’t enough either, not nearly enough.
The rabbi’s vision of the world accepted the emotion I had been feeling most consistently, that of despair and difficulty. It felt good to just accept this. It was how I felt and no philosophy, no religion, no change of perspective could alter the fact that my brother was gone and I missed him terribly.
The rabbi’s metaphor for God was perfect though. It rang true; lightning bolts, quick flashes, undeniable but by nature momentary. I had felt this. The reality of the human condition seemed to be that it was impossible to remain, to live, in the light of these moments. Eventually, they recede back into darkness. When they appeared though, they were undeniable. Bill’s steady encouragement, even insistence that I face the here and now, kept me functioning. I felt my brother’s presence when I sat in that room with Leo. Even if it wasn’t real, and I believe it was, the experience meant a lot. Michael said that my brother’s death was a gift and if I live a better life, more open, less fearful, maybe it is.
Somehow, these experiences added up to a narrative or a system that I carry with me. Life can be difficult and events can unfold randomly without any sense of reason or order. Fortunately though, there are glimpses, brilliant flashes of grace that transcend the chaos, if only for a short time. These brief moments are important though, because they give me the strength to hope in my heart that some day there will be a flash of light that in a second becomes eternity and I will see my brother again.