During September 2001, Michael Armstrong was busy. Then 34 years old, he was preparing to get married in October. He planned to be out of the office at the end of the week of September 11 for his bachelor party. On Monday the 10th, he attended a funeral Mass for a friend’s mother. But on Tuesday he was at work at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of One World Trade Center.
Sometimes his sister Laura, nine years his junior, thinks about Michael’s schedule that week. What if the funeral had been held on Tuesday? What if the terrorist attacks had taken place at the end of the week? Any number of events could have spared Michael’s life, and spared his family the pain of losing him. “There are always those what-if moments and the whys,” she says now. “Whys were directed toward God. A certain degree of anger is only natural, but I think what I felt was more hurt and sorrow than anger, and I don’t feel like my faith was altered.”
Laura, a fourth grade teacher in Westchester county, was emerging from a meeting when she overheard a secretary say that one of the twin towers had been hit. “Which one?” Laura asked, immediately worried. But the secretary didn’t know. Laura began shaking, and when the school’s principal came out of another meeting a few seconds later, he asked Laura to come into his office, where he told her both towers had been hit.
“Are you sure he works at the World Trade Center and not just in the Financial District?” he asked. Laura was sure he worked on the 104th floor of one of the towers. She called her mother, who reported that she had received a phone call at 9:26 a.m. but could hear only static and noise. It was Michael, she thought.
Coworkers offered to drive Laura home. She declined, but complied with the request of her principal not to listen to the radio on her drive. When she arrived at her parents’ house, her sister was already there. It was then that Laura began listening to the radio. On television, images of the burning buildings, of the falling buildings, of the ash in the streets played over and over, but Laura and her family didn’t see them, didn’t want to see them. The television remained off all day, while the family sat together and listened to the news on the radio. Occasionally the phone would ring, and everyone would jump. For a split second they’d think: it’s Michael. Let it be Michael. An aunt called to check in. Someone called with a relief number for families of Cantor Fitzgerald employees. It was never Michael.
That night, Laura got into bed and thought to herself: Oh my God, my brother died today.
Four days after the attacks, the Armstrong family held a Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola parish attended by Michael’s family and close friends. In the back of the church Laura looked at the list of readings, and noticed the words at the top of the page: “Mass of the Deceased.” Her feelings of grief mixed with disbelief. I can’t believe I’m doing this, she thought. I can’t believe this is a reality.
A Jesuit priest who was a friend of the family would say of her, “Laura is a pillar of strength.” And Laura tried to be just that. But she didn’t always feel like she lived up to the title. “I think we put on an incredibly good show,” she said. The strength that she was able to demonstrate came from her faith and from her mother’s example. “To this day I could only count on two hands how many times I’ve seen [my mother] cry,” Laura said. “She’s just an incredibly strong individual. My mother has such a strong faith, and through the years we’ve been able to continually recognize her strength.” Laura’s mother organized Masses on Michael’s birthday, and they attended Mass each year on Sept. 11. “Mass has always been part of who we are,” Laura said. “I don’t feel like I turned away from the church after the attacks; I feel like our faith is equally as strong, if not stronger.”
Laura has talked with her older siblings, Gerard and Marian, about their shared grief. They all agreed that their weakest moments were moments when they were alone. Laura would think about what her brother experienced, about how long he had to think about what was to come. In addition to the call their mother received on Sept. 11, Catherine, Michael’s fiancée, also received a call at 9 a.m., and their uncle at 9:14. In his last moments he’d tried to reach out to the people he loved most. “That breaks my heart,” Laura said. “I hate that he knew his fate for an hour or whatever amount of time it was. And sometimes I think it’s not fair he never got to marry Catherine, and he never got to have his own children. And I think of the things he was robbed of.”
Laura, of course, was robbed too. She keeps one copy of her brother’s prayer card in her wallet, another on her computer and a third on her refrigerator. She thinks of him every day, talks to him. “Every day I wish we could have him back,” she says. “And there are times that are more challenging than others. He was incredibly strong; I think of things in life that would be easier if he were still here.” Things like their father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. “I think, Mike could handle this better,” Laura said. “Mike would be our strength. Mike is the one we would turn to. I certainly did look up to him. And I don’t doubt he knew how much I loved him, and there’s comfort in that.”
In the ten years since the attacks, the Armstrongs have also found comfort in working to maintain connections with the organizations and people Michael loved. In the days after Sept. 11, some of Michael’s friends from his undergraduate days at Fordham University approached Catherine with the idea of creating a foundation in Michael’s memory. Ten years later, the foundation continues to hold fundraisers that honor Michael’s life and, in particular, his passion for Fordham basketball by donating to the university’s athletic department. Laura is grateful that Catherine, now a married mother of three children, has remained close to the Armstrong family. “Having the foundation has been a way to channel emotions and focus our intentions and to look at what we’ve been given,” Laura said.
Within two weeks of Michael’s death, the Armstrong family also set up a scholarship at Loyola School in Manhattan, of which Michael was an alumnus, in his remembrance. The family is still close to the scholarship’s first recipient. “Those things we’ve been given as a result of the foundation and scholarship, those are gifts from Mike,” Laura said. “They help give us the strength that we need to somehow accept [what happened].”
Still, these things help only so much. “Would I give up the fact that we have the foundation and that we have our relationship with Fordham University? Yeah, in a heartbeat, if it meant we could have him back. But given the reality of Sept. 11, I don’t have any regrets about anything we’ve done as a result of losing Mike.”
In addition to the foundation and the scholarship, Michael’s memory is also preserved in gold letters adorning the wall outside a Manhattan pub at the corner of 1st Avenue and 19th Street. At the time of the attacks, several of Michael’s friends were in the process of opening the bar. In August 2001, Michael had stopped by the site, which was still under construction, to wish his friends the best of luck. A few days after his death, the friends called Michael’s parents to ask if they could name the pub M. J. Armstrong’s in his honor. Laura loves the fact that Michael once walked in the place that has become so familiar to Laura and the Armstrongs, and where they’ve met so many friends, new and old. “So much of our strength came from the support of family and friends,” Laura said. “I think of the phrase Ex fide fortes, from faith comes strength, and I think there’s truth in that for us.”