When people would ask Jillian Suarez how her dad died, she would lie. He had a heart attack, she’d say.
The truth — that her father, Ramon Suarez, a career police officer with the NYPD, died while saving others during the 9/11 attacks — was just too much to bear.
But Jillian, who lives in Glendale and is just a few days shy of her 19th birthday, has been working hard to come out of her shell and talk about her feelings.
It started when her mother Carmen saw that WNYC, the public radio station, was calling on young people affected by 9/11 to submit their stories for a special series of 10th anniversary broadcasts as part of its “Radio Rookies” program. Carmen put her daughter’s name forward.
“I didn’t know I was doing it,” Jillian said of her being chosen as one of six young people by the radio station.
“My mom planned it without telling me.”
The two women sat side by side at WNYC’s office in downtown Manhattan with Sanda Htyte, a Radio Rookies associate producer who worked closely with Jillian to help tell her story through audio.
Both Htyte and Carmen talked about how difficult it has always been for Jillian to discuss her father’s death. Once a medal-winning relay racer, Jillian stopped running after her father died, Carmen said. He had loved the sport.
“They were very close,” Carmen said of her daughter and husband.
After producing the five-minute segment, in which Jillian interviews her mother and talks about her father — “my best friend,” she calls him in the piece — Jillian said she felt better.
In fact, this girl who once hid the details of her father’s death recently got a tattoo, just a few days before her audio story aired, commemorating his life. She’d been thinking about getting it for a year.
The twin towers rising above a cityscape sit perched on her left shoulder, the word “Daddy” etched underneath.
“You’re one of the few people I know that have a tattoo that really means something,” Jillian said her friends have told her. Now when people on the street ask her about the tattoo, she tells them about her dad.
Despite the strides forward, recovering from the loss is a long process. Both women seemed to think they might never fully “heal.”
“You can’t move on from something that comes up in your life 24/7,” Jillian said. Whether it’s been one year or 10, she added, makes no real difference.
Jillian’s 19th birthday is on Sept. 9, which has made her last nine birthdays extremely hard.
The hardest part about interviewing her mother, Jillian said, was knowing she was going to cry. Her mom and dad were married in 1999 after being together for 10 years.
“I could have never asked for a better husband,” Carmen said of Ramon, who is buried at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. “He was a great father.”
This coming week, both women said, would be difficult, but they would get through it.
Jillian has just begun her sophomore year as a transfer student at Queensborough Community College, where she hopes to graduate with a degree in social services.
“I want to be able to help people,” she said. “I know people go through a lot.”
To hear Jillian’s story and those of the five other “rookies,” visit wnyc.org/shows/rookies/2011. All six stories will be broadcast on Saturday, Sept. 10.