The Long Goodbye

By Eileen McNamara | Boston Magazine |

HER CELL NUMBER REGISTERS as vividly in his memory as it did a decade ago on the caller ID of his desktop phone at the Boston office of the investment firm Brown Brothers Harriman. The silence at her end of the line when he picked up echoes as clearly in his ear now as it did then.

Jeff Gonski does not need a network television special or a commemorative newspaper edition to remember what he cannot forget: It has been 10 years since Amy Toyen, his 24-year-old fiancée, vanished in a cloud of toxic smoke and twisted steel at the tip of lower Manhattan. When American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Amy was on the 106th floor preparing to make a presentation at a trade show for Boston-based Thomson Financial.

Every year, Gonski’s body alerts him to the approaching anniversary of 9/11 before his conscious mind, or Diane Sawyer, can. By mid-August, he begins to sleep fitfully, to withdraw emotionally, to steel himself for solicitous inquires from the well meaning and the merely curious. By early September, he locks the TV on ESPN; video clips of careening airliners and collapsing skyscrapers are less likely to appear in the middle of SportsCenter.

[sidebar]This year will be worse, the milestone anniversary unleashing even more than the usual torrent of insipid commentary and sentimental speeches. But this year, Jeff, 36, is determined not to look away. This year, for the first time, he is going to the ceremonies at Ground Zero with Amy’s parents. His wife, Stephanie, and their two-year-old son, Tom, are going with him.

I first met Jeff Gonski on September 12, 2001. In the long, aching aftermath of tragedy, Jeff’s has been a life renewed. Gone is the dazed young man who kept his eyes fixed on the live television images of burning rubble and frantic rescue efforts while he told me about his college romance with Amy at Bentley and their engagement trip to Ireland. Gone is the Watertown apartment where we spoke back then, replaced by a trim white cottage on a suburban cul-de-sac where robust tomato plants grow alongside a swing set in a tidy backyard.

Gone, too, are the antidepressants and the more-than-casual reliance on alcohol and food to smooth out the rough edges the drugs did not reach. “I had my own trauma team,” he says of the friends who appeared after a respectable interval to say it was time to emerge from self-imposed isolation, to pull up the shades, to pour out the bottle that, for a while, he had crawled inside.

“At the time I needed them, my parents were my parents again, in that way your parents are when you are in high school or middle school. My mom called every day to check in with me. They invited me out for dinner every Sunday, and when the time came, without my saying anything, they knew to pull back,” he says. “They had been holding me up, but eventually they had to let go of that, and they did.”

It did not happen overnight, but Jeff got his life back from those who irretrievably stole Amy’s that impossibly sunny Tuesday morning.

He has an MBA now, and a new job as a systems analyst at Bain Capital. He rides the commuter rail to work rather than the express bus he and Amy used to take at the end of the workday to separate apartments on opposite sides of Exit 17 of the Mass. Pike.

His hair is a little thinner and his waist a little thicker than they were 10 years ago, when he used the present tense to describe the missing bespectacled brunette he’d first met at a business fraternity on Bentley’s hilltop campus in Waltham. He uses the past tense when he speaks of her now, but Amy Toyen is a permanent presence — not only in Jeff’s life, but in Stephanie’s and Tom’s, as well.

Illustration by Shout