In a small apartment located in a public housing complex in the Bronx, Emily Torro celebrates Memorial Day differently than most. It all changed after Isaac was killed.
The Bronx neighborhood I met her in was a little rough around the edges but tons of character. I walked passed piles of trash being devoured by fat squirrels who were not bothered by me. They actually turned to look at me, shrugged and kept eating.
I buzzed passed the thick outer door and walked passed the "cigar" butts in the hall way into the 1st floor apartment that belonged to her mother, prepared for the apartment to be just as cold and hard as the exterior.
The apartment was warm. Her mother was beautiful, one of these old Puerto-Rican grandmothers with silver hair that always offered you coffee with with milk, caffe con leche... and after you accepted the coffee, turned around and made you a pile of pancakes with what little she had. The walls were covered with photos, puerto-rican flags, and little trinkets that most Puerto-Rican grandmothers collect. A large freezer was in the corner, storing the pastels she would make on the weekend for a little extra money.
We sat down at the kitchen table, a small American flag taped to the window outside, and Emily told me about Isaac.
PVT Isaac Cortez, a Puerto-Rican kid from the Bronx that loved the Yankees and hip hop, especially Biggie Smalls. He grew up with his younger brother and sisters. He got a job at Yankee stadium working security because he loved the Yankees. He loved his mom and his daughter that he raised (who was not his biological daughter but that didn't matter to Isaac) and was protective of both. As Emily told me story after story I couldn't help but imagine this kid, a big kid, who wanted nothing than to join the NYPD or the Army. He lost 50 pounds to enlist and picked his new army job. The infantry. "I want to protect my country," he said. And before he shipped off, he called his mother and told her not to worry.
"I told him I wanted to hear from him every week."
But the week he was killed she knew something was wrong. The weekly phone call was distant, and for a boy who never said "I love you" more than once in a conversation, he repeated it over and over again during that last phone call.
"I now know that it was my goodbye phone call. Something in that conversation was different. I had a dream that he was killed before he shipped to Iraq. I woke up in a sweat and found out later his daughter had the same dream. That last conversation just sounded different. I knew, as a mother, something wasn't right."
"There were a lot of kids in Iraq, He asked what he should do if he sees a kid holding a gun, what if Ill have to shoot a little kid? he asked me... I told him if he had to make a choice it would be the right one."
PVT Isaac Cortez was 26 when he was killed on November 27 2007 right after Thanksgiving. He was the driver of a convoy in Iraq, one of two killed that day.... and like so many kids killed before their time, his dreams of becoming a police officer ended the afternoon Emily received the phone call that changed her life.
As we made our way to the Long Island National Cemetery that Isaac was resting in, she told me what happened after his death. Isaac opted out of the additional life insurance coverage, so the money for his insurance went to his brother and daughter. Emily, on disability, was recently kicked out of her apartment and was staying on her mothers couch in the Bronx. She spends 5 days a week volunteering at Fort Hamilton and has attended the memorial service of every soldier killed in the New York area.
Emily was strong, telling me story after story of Isaac, until we stood in front of the headstone where Isaac's name was written underneath the cross. She started to tear up and choke on her words. "Even though it was five years ago I still feel it. Ill sit here all day during the summer and talk to him, I tell him what the girls are up to, I tell him the things Im doing in his name. I miss him everyday."
Emily volunteers her time now, welcoming soldiers when they come back from Afghanistan and Iraq.
"The homecomings are the hardest, because Ill never get that. Ill never get to see Isaac coming off of the plane and come into my arms."
Emily still has questions. Why was his body in tact after an IED blast? Why don't the soldiers in his unit keep in touch when they can? She looks for the answers in the homecomings, the wakes, the funerals, and the fundraisers she attends.
This time of year is the hardest. Driving past flower shops with mothers day greetings, walking past Memorial Day picnics, and remembering his birthday. His birthday often fell on Memorial Day.
"Memorial day will never be the same. He was a Memorial Day baby. People sacrifice and give everything. It has become more than the picnics and ballgames for me."
And as Emily looked down thinking of Isaac, I walked away, letting her alone with Isaac. She sat with him, cleaning up his grave, looking around the cemetery where over 30,000 veterans have been laid to rest. Some died sleeping softly in their beds, some taken at the young age of 18 in Iraq or Afghanistan, and some, like Isaac, will always in their mothers minds still be the same 26-year-old kid they sent off to war.
He will still love the Yankees and still love hip-hop especially Biggie Small, and in Emily's eyes, will be waiting to meet her on the other side some day.
And as I left that small apartment in the housing projects in the Bronx I couldn't help but think of the sacrifice paid by the many who willingly gave their lives, and the sacrifice of those mothers who never got to see them come home.
Underneath a street sign marked Pvt. Isaac Cortez Way in the Bronx lies a photo of Isaac in a small garden next to his old apartment. You would pass it and miss it if you weren't looking.
"I know he is watching, when I see a rainbow, or a flower, somewhere in the middle of the Bronx, I know its him." Emily said.
Flowers seldom grow in the Bronx, but every once in a while, you'll see one. When you do you can believe Isaac is smiling on the neighborhood, still rooting for the Yankees and listening to Biggie Small.