"Sometimes it feels like yesterday and sometimes it feels like a long time ago."
That sums up the 9/11 tenth anniversary for Joanne Foley Gross, sister of fallen firefighter Thomas J. Foley, an eleven-year veteran of the FDNY who spent his first nine years with Squad Company 41 and the remainder of his career with Rescue Company 3, before being killed on 9/11.
Her way of coping with his death was to create a documentary celebrating his life, titled "Thomas J. Foley: Legacy of a Young Hero."
"That's what I was able to do for my brother - something positive I could do out of something so negative," she said. "...Originally I started because I wanted something for my kids and nieces. I just wanted them to know him."
The Project is Born
At first Gross thought she would write a book, but then the idea for a movie took form three years ago during a function for her brother's scholarship fund, through a chance conversation and a referral to a filmmaker.
She called the filmmaker the next day, Gross said, and they did 86 interviews with friends and family. They also compiled video from home movies and from news clips, including some taken after Foley made a rescue shortly before 9/11. They even acquired an hour-long interview tape from Dateline, which they were able to use to let him tell his own life story.
And what a life story it is. In addition to his roles as a firefighter and family member, Foley was an accomplished hunter, bull rider, weight lifter, actor and more, having appeared on The Soprano's and Third Watch, and having been featured in People Magazine on two separate occasions.
"It gave me a connection and a purpose, and I wanted to do everything that he would have wanted," Gross said. "No steps were taken without him in mind. I want him to be proud of what we've put together."
The Documentary Wraps
The project just finished a month and a half ago and will premier at several New York venues during the 9/11 anniversary weekend. However, it wasn't originally planned that way. "It was supposed to be ready a year a half ago, but things happen in life, and I'm a perfectionist - and for my brother even more so," Gross said.
Throughout the process Gross had to make sure the entire family was on board and up to date with the project. Then, when she finally brought them all together to watch the pre-cut, "I was a nervous wreck," she said.
"It was a night that I will never forget. My 12 year-old son was the first to say something. He sobbed and sobbed... It's so emotional and so raw and so close to home, and I'm thinking, 'Is this the right thing? What did I do?' And at the end he said, 'Mom, that was so good.' And my strongest critic, who's my brother, stood up and said, 'That was better than good. That was great.'"
The Family Experience
As far as her experience over the last 10 years, Gross said, "I think that I have just done everything that I can with him in mind... Everything from his wake and the funeral to the movie... always with him in mind."
"It changes a family. We thank goodness we've become closer and worked through so many things, but it changes the dynamics of a family; there's always an absence, whether at Christmas dinner or when we're just together."
Gross explained that it's an absence that's different than after losing someone older, and different because it didn't have to happen. She said she often just finds herself thinking about where he would be, what he would be doing, and whether he'd be married or have children.
"It's difficult but you just go, and have in your mind: what would he want us to be doing? He lived his life and that's what this documentary is about, and what I want to get across. This is a short life that we live, and we need to remember -- and have a person like this to remind us - to live each day to the fullest."
Gross added that she's grateful for the people who came into her life to collaborate on the project, from the filming, to the website, press kit and more.