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9/11: 'Love leaves a memory no one can steal'

September 13, 2011 12:30 IST

After Joseph Mathai's death in the 9/11 attacks his wife Teresa found solace in doing service in his memory. Arthur J Pais reports

The World Trade Center had a special connection with Joseph Mathai, say his family and friends. He took Teresa, then to be his future wife, to Windows on the World at the World Trade Center and soon after started his first business enterprise at the WTC.

And he was at Windows on the World attending a financial technology conference on September 11, 2001. Mathai, 49, a technology executive who worked for some of America's leading financial and high-tech firms, made a last minute decision to attend that ill-fated conference ten years ago.

Thiruvananthapuram-born and educated, Mathai was an engineer and managing partner at Cambridge Technology Partners. He came to America to earn a master's in business administration from Columbia University, graduating in 1976. 

Apart from a short stint in Virginia, he stayed in New York for the next 17 years, working for Paine Webber, Merrill Lynch, and the New York Stock Exchange. He then moved to Boston to work for Fidelity Investments and subsequently Cambridge Technology Partners.

He read voraciously. As many as 40 magazines came to the family home in Arlington, Massachusetts, every week. 'He knew more about the underpinnings of the stock market than almost anyone I ever met,' Doug Brockway, an erstwhile colleague at Fidelity Investments told The New York Times.

Artificial Intelligence Applications in Capital Markets: State-of-the-Art Applications for Institutional Investors, Bankers and Traders lists Mathai as a contributing author.

The Boston Globe wrote 'his pleasant nature was matched by an insatiable interest in business technology.' Using algorithms, Mathai developed a system to detect insider trading after the New York Stock Exchange scandals in the mid-1980s, the newspaper said.

According to his brother Dr John Mathai, Joseph decided on the spur of the moment to attend the conference at Windows on The World (where he loved the sushi; Joseph was a sushi fan)  after a co-worker decided not to go. He was uncharacteristically on time. His four co-workers were late.

'He took the shuttle from Boston to Newark,' John said in an interview recently.

"He took the shuttle bus from Newark to the city and I always think 'gee if the bus was ten minutes late or if the plane was ten minutes late, this would not have happened to him."

For days, the family kept searching for him. "We were hoping we would find him somewhere. But finally they located him in a hospital in New York and he was in the morgue," his brother said.

He was mourned by his wife Teresa, son Robert, daughter Michelle, his mother Aleyamma, and four brothers, Cherian, Jacob, John, and KK.

And friends like Roy S Freedman. Freedman says, "I will never forget Joseph. He was a dear friend, a collaborator, and an important influence in my life.  His sense of humor keeps me going and I still hear his laugh.  There are no words to describe my feelings about his murder and the murder of thousands."

Teresa and her children have turned their grief into positive stories by offering their services. Their work has been profiled in several newspaper articles.

She has worked on installing a drywall, for instance, at a low-income home in south Boston with Habitat for Humanity, one of thousands of volunteer efforts planned since September 11 was declared a national day of service by President Barack Obama.

Teresa Mathai on keeping her husband's memory alive: I have said it several times: Everyone has a different way of mourning… Some people keep it absolutely sacred. For me, this is something that gives us solace.

"I didn't know when 9/11 happened and we knew Joe was not going to come back. What kind of solace I could have. I remembered Jackie Kennedy. She was grieving intensely and yet at the same time she had to take care of thousands of things including consoling the children and also made sure they would be going to school," she said.

"Over the years our children Robert and Michelle have joined me in doing service or they have worked independently. Much before Obama and Congress declared September 11 a day of service, we have been offering services through Habitat for Humanity and other organisations. My children have worked for camps for children who are undergoing bereavement," she said.

"It is good that the President and the Congress did not declare 9/11 a holiday. People would drink, eat and have fun on a holiday," she added.

Robert, 19, and Michelle, 21, joined The Children's Room camp in Berkshire in the summer of 2002, joining other children who had lost parents in the attacks. They went on to be counselors to students who had lost their parents in other circumstances.

"The Children's Room is important to us. TCR has been an important part of our lives. It is the first place we turned to for advice and help in September 2001. We have kept in touch with them over the years. I have joined their memories walk committee to help organise annual fundraisers," she said.

"We support TCR fully because it continues to help children and their families who have suffered the death of a loved one by offering them solace in a safe and caring community. It has over 100 volunteers and staff who help the grieving families. It also offers professional workshops, consultation, resource and referral services," she said.

"Joe would have been so happy that something so good could come out of something so senseless and tragic as his death. As I have said in interviews, 9/11 not only means all those vivid pictures, the tragedy, and the horror -- we revisit it every year -- but there's a new sense of new beginnings, of getting together, community spirit, of helping other people and all that is also what was meaningful about 9/11 to us," she added.

"It's a very special day. And we do the service not only in Joe's memory but also thinking of countless people who consoled us and offered friendship and help," she said.

"As I was going through bank statements and other papers, I noticed he had been withdrawing a certain sum every month. He had not spoken about it. I would soon find out he was helping a new immigrant family from India who had financial problems," she added.

"On a Christmas day, he suddenly announced we would be having a guest. What a surprise, I thought. 'Was it his best friend?' I asked him. It happened that Joseph had met a man from India at a bus stop. This visitor had come to see his brother who had surgery. Joe spontaneously invited him home. This was typical of my husband," she said.

"Unlike many other 9/11 families who did not get back any remains of their loved ones, we feel we were blessed that they found his body. Joseph is buried at the cemetery in Arlington, Massachusetts. We visit it often," she added.

"When his favorite team, The Boston Red Sox, won the World Championship in 2004, we took him a rose. On special days, every year, his birthday, March 27, September 11, Valentine's day, when there are milestones in the children's lives, their graduation day, etc, we pay him a visit and remember him for the wonderful person he was, and share our moments with him, in silence," she said.

"Each time his brothers and their families visit, we take a stroll to the cemetery. On May 2, when we heard of Osama Bin Laden's death and the press came knocking on our door to talk to us, I took them to the cemetery, a place that is sacred for us, where we can go to reflect on the times and events of our lives, as the years go by." She said.

"We think of our lives and the events going on in the world around us, in the context of whether he would have liked it, whether he would have been proud of his children, or whether he would have solved a problem for many with his skills and knowledge," she added.

"When we were selecting a headstone, we found one we liked immediately, but we were shocked to hear that it was more expensive than others as it came 'all the way from India and had to be shipped!" she said.

"We decided to go with it as it was exactly what we wanted. We loved the black granite and picked a high-tech shape. Joseph always loved using cutting-edge technology. When it came to the inscription on the headstone, our extended family made many suggestions and this one, from his then 19-year old nephew Adithya, was unanimously selected by the whole family. The tombstone reads: Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal.

'We keep his memory alive'

Cherian Mathai keeps his brother's memory alive by emulating his generous spirit

By the time I grew into a teenager, my older brothers except Joseph had left our home in Kerala.  Joe and I were more (like) friends. Later, both of us went to Columbia University. In his personal life he was often laidback.

People who knew him only professionally did not know about it. I used to tease him about being laidback. In the terrible aftermath of the tragedy, I could see his wife Teresa was a woman of immense faith.

His body was found in September itself. They found a few things intact: his Metro card, credit cards, a few personal items and a few coins (61 cents for which Cherian was given a check that he has still not cashed).

My children are close to Robert and Michelle, their cousins. They know what happened to their uncle. On the anniversary of the attacks, when blue light floods the Ground Zero area which we can see from our apartment, they think of their uncle Joe.

For many years when they saw the light, they used to say, 'It is Michelle and Robert's dad.'  I have often wondered why innocent people die. There are many explanations. Some people say God takes those who are dearest to him fast.

But I have no answer. I don't know why Joseph had to die so soon, but in living our lives well, keeping his generous spirit in mind, and offering a helping hand to people, we keep his memory alive.

Image: Teresa with son Robert and daughter Michelle

Arthur J Pais In New York