Friendship that exceeds all bounds

To help a stranger on the side of the road is admirable. All of us have been beneficiaries at one time or other, as when my pickup’s engine died recently 20 miles from home.

But to befriend a woman whose son was accused of being involved in killing your own son on 9/11 far exceeds such generosity.

Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez of White Plains, N.Y., lost their only son, Greg, on 9/11 at the World Trade Center. Later she befriended Aicha el-Wafi, the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker sentenced to life in prison without parole on the charge of being connected to the other 19.

The story of how the Rodriguezes dealt with their grief of losing Greg appeared in 2006 in New York’s Village Voice, entitled "Weeping With the Enemy," by Bernice Yeung.

Before moving to White Plains, the Rodriguezes had lived in our village, Croton on Hudson, and their daughter Julia and our youngest daughter Mary were classmates.

On 9/11, Greg, 31 and married, worked as vice president of e-mail security for the investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd floor of the north tower. Shortly after the first plane hit, he called his parents, saying he was OK. It was the last they heard of him.

Phyllis, at the time a part-time teacher, and Orlando, a professor of sociology at Fordham University, tried to bury their grief with friends and family and with the families of other victims. They met with counselors, stopped watching TV and movies, read books about sorrow and death and slept. They could not find peace.

The first stage for Phyllis was grief and the inability to speak, then anger at the hijackers, which did not help because they were dead. Anger then came against Osama bin Laden and against the U.S. government because she and Orlando did not think going to war in Afghanistan was going to make life better.

Guilt followed, as she wondered whether something she could have done could have prevented Greg from being in the north tower on that fateful day.

"In the end, the one thing that has given Phyllis Rodriguez the most palpable relief is that she has befriended Aicha el-Wafi," Yeung wrote.

But Phyllis did not give Moussaoui’s mother much thought until she saw her picture in the paper one morning and read that she told reporters her son had been brainwashed by Islamic extremists in England.

"I felt for her as a mother," Phyllis said. "I knew I would like to reach out to her because I felt sorry for her."

Eventually, she and several other 9-11 members met with el-Wafi through an organization called Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation.

Moussaoui’s mother told them: "I don’t know if my son is guilty or innocent, but I want to apologize to you for what happened to you and your family." After that Phyllis and Aicha exchanged postcards and got together in France in 2006.

Rodriguez resolved that the only thing she could do was not succumb to the tragedy and define herself through it. "I’m not miserable," she told Yeung. "As a matter of fact, the more good I can do that can come out of it, the better: by helping Aicha, by speaking out for more understanding between people, by trying to understand what makes people who do extremist acts arrive at that point. What can we do to eliminate some of the conditions that make people so angry?"

Such friendship is possible when you believe, as Phyllis Rodriguez does, that good outweighs evil or that more good than bad happens.

Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.

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