"Look at him with his cell phone, calling everyone and announcing that his baby girl had been born. He was so happy," remembers his mother Sophie. "That photo was taken at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, minutes after you were born Rebecca," adds Paul Sr.. Their granddaughter listens carefully to her grandparents’ stories, placing them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in her mind and heart.
The agreement was to always do this without pressure, the grandfather later explained. "We don’t impose anything. If she asks us a question, we answer it. And if we see that it makes her sad, we change the subject,” says Paul. “But almost always, she is very glad to hear us speak about her father.”
Sometimes, the discussions are sparked by Rebecca’s curiosity. "Grandma, why did I weigh only five pounds when I was born, but my daddy weighed more than nine? What did he like to eat?"
It’s an exchange that allows them to continue narrating the story of who her father was—a charismatic and enterprising youth, always cheerful and ready for adventure. "We’ll go camping, which was something he loved to do— setting up a tent, sleeping in the middle of nature," says Sophie.
The conversations happen informally and the main protagonist is the young man who is greatly missed by his daughter and parents. Seated at the living room table of Sophie and Paul Sr.’s home in Burlington, NJ, each contributes some anecdote to help recreate “Paulie’s” effervescent personality. “Remember the time he jumped into the river with his clothes on to save someone?” Rebecca reminds her grandmother. "And he liked computers, too, right?" she asks, as if seeking approval.
In fact, Paul Ortiz Jr. was so passionate about computers that he earned his living as a programmer for Bloomberg L.P. Every day, he would leave his home in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and head for the company offices in Midtown. Every day, except Sept. 11, 2001. From the early hours of that morning, Paul had been on the top floor of the North Tower, setting up monitors and computers for a convention meeting at the Windows on the World restaurant.
"He called me around nine and said 'Daddy, I'm here at the World Trade Center and something happened—but I'm fine. Tell Estrellita [his girlfriend] not to worry.’ I was shocked," explains his father. "I had no idea he was in the WTC but I managed to say to him, ‘Well leave, get down to the ground floor right away.’ I never heard from him again."
His son’s remains were never found but the family agreed to keep his memory alive by making a promise: Rebecca would know who her father was.
She lives in Tampa, Florida, with her mother, Estrellita, her new companion and their two sons. "My mom gets very sad when we talk about my dad, so I only speak of him with my grandparents, when I come to visit them each summer," says Rebecca Briana. For a full month, the girl rejoices in seeing the little treasures that fill the house: "This is the trophy my dad was given in sixth grade, for being the best student in his class. Here in this photo, he is with my mom at her baby shower. Then, here is another, where we are together; he is holding me in his arms,” she points out. “On the right is my dad, and the one next to him my Uncle Jonathan, his younger brother."
In the basement, a projector shines images on the wall. Rebecca has seen them hundreds of times but still smiles as if it was the first time she was seeing her then-7 year-old daddy as a little boy dancing in a school show; then riding a bicycle; and later, in his cap and gown at a graduation ceremony, always laughing. "He was so fun and he also liked ice-skating. I would like to try that though I’m a little scared,” she admits. ‘What if I fall?’"
The end of this story is not a happy one. Rebecca is aware of this. "I know what happened. One time, I read in a newspaper about how my daddy died. It was because of some men who don’t like America.”
“Sometimes," she continues, "my friends at school will say, 'that’s sad what happened to you.' but I tell them that I’ve had to put that aside. Now I am okay and happy with my life."
Every 9 /11, Rebecca stays home from school to be with her mom. Together, they sit glued to the TV, watching the news in silence. If she could break this silence and actually speak again with her father, what would she say? For a moment, she is pensive. "That I miss him and love him.”
Thin and with thick glasses just like her father used to wear, 10 year-old Rebecca is a replica of her dad. "People say I look like him,” she says. That undeniable resemblance is a source of both joy and sadness. "When she arrived from Tampa and I met her at the airport," says Sophie, "there was there was this brief moment when she was standing there that I saw my son's face. It was the same. I had to wipe my tears, because I didn’t want my granddaughter to see me like that. In a way, having her is like having Paulie."