The Long Goodbye

Jeff Gonski lost his fiancée during 9/11. Every September since has been an exercise in distraction—anything to avoid the memories. But with the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks this month, it's time to look his loss in the eye.

Illustration by Shout

Illustration by Shout

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.

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.

Amy’s art hangs on the Gonskis’ living room wall in Natick, just as Tom’s photograph hangs on the refrigerator of the Toyen home in Avon, Connecticut, the Hartford suburb on the Farmington River where Amy grew up and her dad gave an elated Tom his first-ever tractor ride this summer.

Theirs is a small circle of grace to emerge from a day of unspeakable horror, a quiet band of survivors stumbling forward out of the public spotlight, holding on and letting go in equal measure, year by relentless year.

It has not always been easy.

For a long time, Jeff Gonski and Martin and Dorine Toyen were too consumed by their own grief to see one another’s pain clearly. To her parents, Amy was the little girl memorialized in bronze outside the Avon Free Public Library, clutching a book in one hand and a teddy bear in the other. To Jeff, she was the emerging businesswoman memorialized in a scholarship for promising young women at Bentley.

She was both, of course, but it was hard, in the face of sudden, devastating pain, for either side to fully acknowledge what the other had lost. “Everyone was holding on to ‘their’ Amy,” Jeff recalls. “It took time, but we both got to stake our claim to our own Amy without hurting each other. I think we came to
understand that we both loved her and that she could live in all our hearts.”

Just how widely those hearts had opened to one another became clear at a Bentley dinner a few years later. That was when Jeff established the scholarship in Amy’s name, which he started with the insurance settlement he received for the engagement ring she was wearing on the day of the attacks.

At that dinner, Jeff introduced the Toyens to Stephanie, the Wayland Middle School teacher his mom had helped set him up with on a hunch — their quirky tastes in humor both bending toward Monty Python. If the moment was awkward for anyone, Stephanie did not feel it then and has never felt it since. Regular visits have evolved into a rich relationship with the parents of the young woman her husband had first planned to marry.

“I know it might seem strange, but to me, it is a gift to have the Toyens in our lives,” Stephanie says. “Amy is part of Jeff, so she is part of Tom and me, too.”

The man who married Stephanie in a small ceremony on St. Thomas in 2005 is not the same man who would have married Amy in a lavish wedding in Connecticut in 2002. That younger Jeff was singularly focused on his life plan — his career, his impending nuptials, the family and home he would build on that foundation. The older Jeff does not put as much stock in plans. He works hard, saves for his son’s education and a comfortable retirement for himself and Stephanie, but these days he acts more and plans less.

Blacksmithing, improvisation, creative writing, cooking, and photography are a few recent avocations. His cameras, especially, have allowed a verbally reticent man to express the joy that Stephanie and Tom have helped him rediscover in a life forever altered 10 years ago.

Not that it will be easy when he heads to New York this month. He stayed away from Ground Zero ceremonies for so long, he says, because he recoils at what he calls “professional 9/11 mourners,” those whose lives froze the moment the planes hit the towers, the Pentagon, or the soft earth of the Pennsylvania countryside. “I’ve often struggled with the public perception as to how someone who lost someone that day should act,” he says. “I feel as though it is healthy to miss someone, and I do miss Amy. The events surrounding that day were horrific, but we can’t live in that moment forever. We, as humans, aren’t meant to live in a perpetual state of grief.”

Jeff still has “the dream” occasionally, the one in which Amy returns to Boston from New York, unharmed, to ask how he could have gone on without her. It doesn’t upset him as much as it once did. “I think it’s because I didn’t go on without her,” he says. “I took her with me.”