A Guardian Angel's Red Mustang
September 11th, 2001 began differently for each person who entered the World Trade Center in New York City. Some may have showered, made breakfast, or raced the traffic to clock in on time. For Francis Nazario, his Tuesday morning began in the exact way he preferred, holding his baby girl and cherishing every moment with her between his arms.
Fran's story began in the progress-driven environment of Jersey City, New Jersey. A town of more than 200,000 people, pushing for their piece of the pie, gave birth to a beautiful soul, who always had time to enjoy the moment. Some have the special talent of sparking a conversation with anyone, in any situation, whether friend or stranger. Fran was one of those. A people-person, one who was the first to volunteer in a time of need, and a hard worker, who made sure to give his all at the office. No matter the circumstances he may be facing in his life, Fran brought a smile to each person he interacted with. Every man, woman and child, graced with his presence and unforgettable smile, was better off because of it.
That smile won the heart of Francis' future wife, Juli. In the summer of 1989, a love at first sight romance was sparked between the two teenagers, and by October, Juli had transferred schools to walk the halls beside her man.
"We were kids, but we were so drawn to each other," Juli said. "He was my soul mate, everyone around us knew we would be married someday. Our parents knew friends knew, and even some of our teachers knew it would happen eventually. We were Juli and Fran, Fran and Juli, you didn't say one name without the other."
The two bonded over their love for rock music, going to concerts together whenever the opportunity presented itself. Their love for one another grew, as did their passion for Disney and the New Jersey Devils. On March 17th, 1996, Fran nervously got down on one knee and finally asked the only woman for him, if she would take his hand in marriage.
"He was shaking and tearing up, which always struck me funny as if I would ever say no," Juli remembered. " Two years later, in April 1998, we said 'I do' in front of 250 of our closest family and friends, even two tables full of Fran's co-workers from the World Trade Center. It was the happiest day of my life."
As the two began a life together, traditions began. Fall and winter were spent at New Jersey Devils games, while their Spring and Summer was full of activities at the shore, with Fran's family. Every chance they got, the two found an open road to cruise in Fran's 1991 Red Ford Mustang GT, which he bought in high school, just as his love for Juli took off, from tips he saved from working as a ShopRite delivery boy. As the baby of his family, over a decade younger than his siblings, his passion for cars and lessons of hard work was evident.
"Fran's childhood was spent with his dad who loved cars and his sister's boyfriend, who also loved cars. His Matchbox car collection could rival a toy store," Juli explained. "Fran always loved American muscle cars, and for as long as I knew him, he was a Ford guy, putting together model cars, all of them Mustangs, and of course, all painted red. Once he bought his very own Mustang, he washed it weekly and waxed it twice a month, religiously."
From the red of his Mustang to the red of the Devils' uniforms or New Jersey sunset, Fran and his wife made memories that could last a lifetime. The two were madly in love and spent every waking minute together, but there was still one piece of their fairytale puzzle missing, and her name is Lena.
Fran was such a family man and couldn’t wait to be a dad," Juli said. "It was during a hockey game that I realized I could be pregnant. Someone walked past me with a hotdog, and I immediately fell so ill. I mentioned it to Fran and his face lit up! The next morning we bought three home tests, and he was so excited. I let him read them first. Fran threw his hands up in the air and shouted, then ever so gently hugged me and kissed me like I was super delicate all of a sudden when we realized they were positive."
Lena came into Fran and Juli's life as the most beautiful addition to their unforgettable story. Her presence made Fran even more of what he already was; a hard-working, devoted family man. There was nothing he wouldn't do for his wife or daughter, a husband, and a dad that anyone lucky enough to know him looked up to. Fran dreamed of the day Lena would be old enough to walk so he could come home from work, throw the door open, and saw his precious baby girl run into his arms.
On September 11th, 2001, Francis began another day of work after spending the morning holding his eight-month daughter, on the 101st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
"I was awakened by a phone call from a friend telling me to turn on the TV, that there had been an explosion at the World Trade Center," Juli recalled. "I jumped out of bed and turned on the television. It was all over the news. I remember standing right against the TV and counting the floors from the top of the building down. Fran worked on the 101st floor. I wasn’t positive, but it looked to me that the floors where he sat had smoke billowing from the windows. I kept calling his office and his cell phone, but there was no answer. I was standing inches from the TV when the second plane hit."
As the events unfolded, it was clear to Juli and the rest of the world that this was no accident.
"I started to recall the '93 bombing," Juli explained. "It took Fran 2.5-hours to walk down the Tower. I thought he must be walking down again, and of course, he couldn't answer the phone."
Juli watched in shock as the South Tower began to collapse. She was thankful the North Tower remained standing, and Fran still had time to walk down, but the uncertainty of the moment was numbing.
"My mother said when the North Tower collapsed, so did I," Juli said. "At that point, I knew he was gone. My last memory of Fran is him holding Lena in the rocking chair beside our bed."
Like many families, Juli, Lena and the rest of Fran's loved ones had to go on with little-to-no closure. Forced to carry on with what little strength they had and process what had happened. Life moved painfully slow for Juli and her infant daughter, Lena, until nearly a year later, when two New Jersey Troopers showed up at her front door.
"I was living in Sayreville, NJ, to be closer to family," Juli recalled. "My first thought, when the troopers showed up, was of something happening to my mom. She had gone to Jersey City that day. The troopers expressed their deepest sympathies and handed me a piece of paper saying that they had positively identified Fran, as one of the victims."
Juli, Lena, and their tight-knit family had a memorial for Fran nearly a year to the date of his passing, on September 11th, 2001. Fran was cremated and buried alongside his mother, with Juli and Lena both receiving heart lockets containing his ashes, as well. Juli returned to New York City for the first anniversary of the attacks, showing yet another example of her courageousness in the eyes of this unimaginable tragedy and the fear that came along with it.
As time went by, Juli and Lena grew stronger, but Francis made sure to make it known that he was still right there with them. Juli often hopped in her car, to take a long drive and try to come to grips with what had transpired, oftentimes making her way to the park where she met Fran, in Bayonne, NJ. During these drives, Juli noticed a familiar sight, which brought a smile to her face and a warmness to her heart, that she yearned to feel again.
"Each Red Mustang brought a smile to my face and a little comfort," Juli remembered. "I started noticing them more and more, especially when I was feeling overwhelmed or extremely sad. As Lena grew up, it became our thing. I would point them out to her, and she would point them out to me."
When you lose a loved one, whether sudden or not, life goes on. You may not be ready, or in some cases, you may not even want the sun to rise the next day, but it always does. God and those looking down on you give you the strength to fight your sadness, depression, and negative thoughts. For Juli, when something came into her life that seemed too much to shoulder, Fran was there to take some of that load off.
Fran helped Juli get through a health scare with their beloved daughter Lena, at the age of five, when a tumor on her neck ended up being benign, as three red Mustangs made an appearance on their way to the doctor's office. On her first day of school, a Red Mustang passed Lena and her mother on their journey to class, and during Lena's bike trip to Washington DC, a Red Mustang parked behind them as Juli unloaded her bike. When Juli was faced with the biggest decision of her life, to date, the love of that life and soulmate in paradise made his presence known once again.
"My mother was there for me in the biggest way after 9/11," Juli noted. "I could not function without her, and when the time came to make a decision about her health, Fran was there in the biggest way he ever had been. The doctors had pulled me into a hospital hall and explained it was time to decide on her care; that she wasn’t going to get better. I looked outside the window and in the parking lot were not one, not two, but three Red Mustangs parked next to each other! That was the most difficult day of my life, and he was there with me every second. Each Red Mustang still brings a smile to my face."
There are thousands of people across this beautiful country with family members who passed away on 9/11, and that day means different things to each when it comes across the calendar each year. For Juli, it is an unknown each year. Not knowing how she will feel or how she should feel dominates her headspace. Whether to be sad, if she should answer every call, text, or message at once, and worries if this would be the year some would begin to forget. One thing is for certain, Juli, Lena, their family, and every soul who had a relationship with Francis, ponder over his contagious smile and laugh every day, not just on the one his spirit went Home.
"Fran spoke to a gentleman named Dean, in London, nearly every day for over eight years," Juli recalled. "They shared a love for cars and so many other things but never met in person. After 9/11, Dean left messages for Fran each one sounding more desperate and pleading. By the time I got to them, there were several and my message back to him was probably the hardest thing I ever had to write. We became really close friends, though, and Dean, his wife, and his children surprised me by coming to Lena’s first birthday in January 2002. Lena and I went to visit them in England that summer and became the best of friends. I am their son's godmother, and we go on a trip to Disney together every couple of years. They have come to New York and I have gone to the UK. Although Fran and Dean never met, their friendship will remain forever, through us and our children."
Francis Joseph Nazario may have left the world physically on September 11th, 2001, but he remains everything to so many. Fran was someone you were better off after meeting. A man's, man; one the generation after him looked up to, and someone his loved ones cherished every moment with. The attacks on 9/11 took a lot from Juli, Lena, and their family. Many memories waiting to be made, hugs left open, and a lifetime of what-ifs, but their hearts will never be cold.
Last year, Lena followed in her father's footsteps, getting her very own Red Mustang. Even though she never learned to drive with her dad, he rides right beside her, now, shotgun through every turn, back road adventure, and late-night cruise. Whether through memories, his possessions left behind, or signs sent from above, Fran is a guardian angel, looming large over many.
When I miss a loved one, like my grandfather, I think about him tearing up the clouds on his Harley. Though I was never lucky enough to meet Francis Nazario, there is no doubt in my mind that he is behind the wheel of the fastest, shiniest, and best handling 1991 Red Ford Mustang GT, accompanied by his co-workers and Juli's mother riding alongside, pushing the limits of gold roads and cherishing how he gets to watch over his two precious girls, with God as their witness.
Open the throttle up, Fran, you deserve it.