I didn’t cry very much at the funeral.
I didn’t cry very much in the days before, either, but that was due to busyness. There were plans to make, flowers to choose, a Mass to plan, a scurry to find an organist to replace the one the church has a contract with but I haven’t ever been able to stand. There was shopping for dresses for myself and my daughters, a new pair of khakis for my son. Details. It was all very busy. There was also the small matter of writing something, since I’d agreed to speak at the funeral. I might claim to be a writer but I am not a public speaker. I have been known to weep while giving poetry awards to middle school students.
Any tears I had inside me must be cemented away, if I was going to get through. Any leaking, the dam would explode.
On May 25th, we had a big party to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My brother Steve and his wife Trish arranged everything at their club in Riverside, Connecticut. It was an achingly perfect near-summer day, weatherwise. It was an achingly perfect near-family celebration, too — my cousin Maria and her family from Massachusetts had a conflict, as did my cousins Marcello and John, but nearly everyone else came, including Dad’s brother from Florida, Uncle Jack, who had been struggling with some health issues so the mere fact of his flight was more than remarkable, plus his daughter, my cousin Sue, and her husband, also from Florida, with their adorable daughters whom some of us had never me yet. Aunts, uncles, cousins, generations laughing together, a big blue sky atop a crystal water, all to celebrate my parents’ love story.
It was kind of idyllic, the oceanfront scenery and the kids frolicking and the grownups talking and everyone laughing and the picture-perfect day that lasted well into the evening. I could almost forget how, despite remembering every tiny detail for my little family’s outing, from bathing suits to changes of clothes and shoes and extra diabetes supplies, I actually forgot the insulin. So Ray had to do a 30-minute-each-way back to my brother’s house after Mitzi announced her pump was empty. Except for that, the day was nearly perfect, full of hugs and laughter and speeches and being-togetherness.
Mom and Dad glowed.
Dad’s cough didn’t seem to trouble him very much that day.
The cough started a few months before, I think. Doctors treated everything from allergies to acid reflux. Often keeping Dad from sleeping, my sister, who had been living with my parents in the past few months, confided that it sounded tubercular, half-joking. I know the cough was exhausting, even preventing him from traveling a few hours north to us in Massachusetts, for my Joanna’s first communion in mid-May. But by the anniversary party, he seemed okay. A rumble here, a rustle there. It didn’t stop him from standing up during the meal and, for the first time in my entire life, overcoming his introversion to talk about his love for my mother, the love they shared, the journey they travelled together.
No, the cough didn’t seem to be a problem whatsoever that day. May 25.
After that weekend, I settled back into the end-of-the-school-year routine at home. Tests, projects, field trips, six sports spread among the four kids. Schedules. A week after we got home, on June 9, Mom called to say Dad was in the hospital with extreme stomach pain. After four days of tests, heart issues, more tests, a couple of biopsies, Dad was released with a diagnosis. Liver cancer. On Monday, June 16th, a meeting with doctors resulted a treatment plan. The news was grim, but we are La Famiglia, and we all rolled up our sleeves. Life had never been easy for Dad or Mom or their road together, and they never did anything but work hard and believe in each other — and the rest of us, well, we were going to give some ass-kicking wherever required on our loved ones’ behalf. Liver cancer was no exception.
During that week, Dad was exhausted, in-and-out-of-awake, sleeping mostly in his office armchair. He had perked up on Father’s Day when some of the local grandchildren came by with cards and hugs, but was too exhausted to talk when we called from Massachusetts. Rest was what he needed, for sure. Phone calls could wait. Father’s Day was just another day, and another day was coming. We believed that.
A PET scan was given on Thursday, June 19, my kids’ last day of school. It was a struggle for Dad to get to the car, let alone into the machine, but surely it was the various medications interacting in bizarre ways. Of course. It couldn’t be more than that. A call was in place to the doctor. Obviously, an adjustment in meds was required, so we wanted to get on that right away.
All along, I talked with Mom every day, as much as I could. She was honest, ever faithful, and always stoic. Always the next step. Always the fight. Never the fear. Always the positive, the what’s next, the pull-up-your-bootstraps-and-get-it-done. Ain’t over till the fat lady sings. Always.
Almost always. I knew things might be serious one day that week when she almost cried. She almost said words of despair. Almost said words that were fatal but she knew if she said them she’d never get to take them back. Almost words. That’s when I started to get scared.
The kids had their last day of school on June 19. On June 20, the phone rang at 7 a.m. Now, in the school year, the phone ringing at 7 a.m. is commonplace. But that day? That day we had no school and the phone rang and the monotone phone voice said “call from CONNECTICUT” and Ray leapt out of bed before I had time to find my glasses on the nightstand and I knew some kind of shit had hit some kind of fan because no one ever calls at 7 a.m. on a non-school day. Ever.
It was my sister. Dad was back in the hospital via ambulance. Unresponsive. No word about anything. No, you don’t need to come yet. I told Ray to get in the shower to go to work. I smoked a cigarette. I made Ray his breakfast and lunch and had some coffee.
Forty-five minutes later, the phone rang again. My sister again. She spoke a bunch of words that made no sense to me, words like system fail. No recovery. Come now. I wasn’t sure if it was her tears that muddled the meaning of her words, or my own mind. I made her put Mom on the phone. Mom didn’t cry or falter. The words were the same as my sister’s had been, but Mom’s words were clear, bold-printed.
Come now. But don’t drive yourself. I don’t want to worry.
Two hours later I was on a train. Three hours after that, I stood in the ICU at the hospital, staring. Dad was hooked up to 19 different tubes. I knew he would be; my brother Harry had told me what was going on when he picked me up at the train. But hearing and seeing were different things. I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what to say or do. Then Mom leaned over and kissed Dad and said, “Honey, Jennifer is here, and look at all her curly hair, and do you know she came down all the way from Massachusetts just now just to see you” and Dad rolled his eyes in my direction and sort of sat up and maybe he saw me so I kissed his forehead and I said, “Hi Daddy. It’s okay. It’s. Okay. I’m here, it’s Jenny and it’s okay.”
Ray drove down that night with the kids. In the meantime, Mom, my three siblings and I had met with doctors and with the hospice team. Dad’s liver was so far gone and his other organs were slowly shutting down that there was nothing left to do but keep him comfortable until the end. Later that evening he was moved to hospice. Until the end.
Less than three weeks earlier we’d been toasting 50 years of marriage. Less than three weeks since we’d spoke and loved and hugged and been alive together.
The next day, my mom’s sister and brother-in-law came down from Massachusetts. Mom’s little brother came up from New Jersey. My kids came to the hospital too. By then, Dad was comfortable, tubeless. He looked like he was sleeping, even snoring hugely from time to time, which made my kids laugh. They murmured to their Pop in varying awkward kid ways, first unsure what to do, then seeing it was okay to give him a kiss and laugh and tell him a story or two. There were muffins. The kids were okay — hugging and touching and awkwardly stroking Dad’s arm — even if the adults were less so. The nurses said Dad wouldn’t last the weekend. But they were wrong.
He was waiting, it was clear, but what for? My oldest nephew, Dad’s oldest grandchild, aged 15, with whom there was a tremendous bond, finally visited, after an understandable internal struggle. My mom’s littlest sister, who was only 12 when Dad and Mom married, and who barely remembered a life without Dad, was able to talk to Dad on the phone. So did Dad’s brother in Florida. Finally, my niece went to the hospital. The same age as my Mitzi, my niece and Dad had more than a tremendous bond, and I know she also struggled with going or not. How to see him last. How to remember him. My heart broke for her.
And yet Dad waited. There were a couple of times in the next day that he stirred and I smoothed his forehead and he opened one eye and seemed to see me. “It’s okay, Daddy. It’s okay.” And then he’d settle back into a silent sleep, until the next time he stirred and someone else — Mom, Michelle, Harry, Steve — would comfort him once more. Sleep was easy with morphine and Adavan. Michelle and I played the Eagles on our phones propped on his pillow, and the five of us laughed and told stories to Dad (with Dad?) for hours. It was the longest period of time the six of us had been alone together since the summer days of New Hampshire.
On June 24, we half-heartedly wished my brother Steve a happy birthday. I meant to get him a Hostess cupcake from the convenience store on the way to the hospital that morning, but got distracted. By then, the days were weirdly the same, at least for me. The kids and I were staying with my brother Harry and his wife, Michele, since Ray had returned north for work that couldn’t be put off. Harry, Michele, and I would wake up, get the seven kids ready for the day, and take care of morning business. By noon, Michele would take the kids to the pool and Harry and I’d go to the hospital. Around 7, I’d return to give her a break. Harry would usually stay for a bit longer.
On June 24th, Steve’s birthday, Dad had developed a rattle in his throat, due to the failing of his swallowing reflex. I thought he looked uncomfortable; the nurses acknowledged my concern, though all agreed that the brow furrow was a natural wrinkle in his forehead, nothing new, but if it continued and I was still concerned, they’d give more Adavan. I didn’t argue. Usually, Mom and my sister left around 6 p.m., as they’d been there since around 8 a.m. That night, on June 24th, no one seemed eager to go. Finally Mom and Michelle left, Mom remarking that maybe she’d come back with Michelle that night. (Michelle had taken to returning around 9 p.m. Sometimes Steve was there and Harry. Or Michele. The hospice floor had no visiting hours — you could come and go 24/7, because the death watch had no time frame and even the security guards knew it).
I left around 7, knowing Michele needed a break from parenting my kids. She brought my brother dinner and some ice cream. They sat with Dad and talked softly with him for awhile. When the nurses came to adjust Dad’s body position, Harry and Michele left to give the nurses space. They probably hung out near the elevators, away from the patient rooms, softly chatting about everything and nothing. A few minutes later, an orderly ran up to them. Come. Now. So they did.
And Dad drew his last breath.
My sister Michelle was on her way to the hospital when Harry called with the news a few minutes later. So Michelle turned around on the highway, to go home to get Mom, who only ever wanted during all of this to be with Dad at the very end.
And Harry called me, too, as I was wrangling a houseful of kids to their beds. When my sister-in-law came home I went to the hospital. Mom and Michelle were already there. I held Dad’s hand until the warmth faded and his skin was cold and still I could not let it go, kissing his forearm repeatedly, like I do sometimes with my children when they let me. And then a few minutes more than that. I finally suggested Mom wanted privacy with Dad. So we all left.
I have no idea what a person says to someone who has been the bulk of her world since age 15 or so. Is there any way to say goodbye to half of yourself?
It was June 24. Less than a month since celebrating 50 years of marriage, plus a few years of love before that. Dad was only 71 years old.
The next day I told my kids.
Then there was a lot of busy, including the pressure of writing and speaking. As usual, I wrote until the last minute.
I had yet to really cry. Even at the wake, when I watched the grandchildren finally take my advice of writing notes to their Pop — thankfully, Mitzi knows I always keep a notebook in my oversized purse — one by one tucking them into the pocket of his suit coat. At the wake, where so many people came to share their love and shock, some from so very far away it was almost ridiculous and yet so very touching I couldn’t catch my breath.
I had yet to cry.
Even at the funeral. Watching my husband and cousins and friends carry Dad’s coffin to a hearse. Spreading a cloth on the coffin. Listening to the prayers and songs I’d helped to choose, all expressed with supreme love and compassion by people who actually cared about Dad and me and my sister and brothers and mostly my mom. I had yet to cry, even when I had Ellie on my right, silently bawling, and Joanna on my left with her own quiet nonstop tears and next to her was Cooper and then Mitzi and how could my arms ever be that long and strong to comfort them? So I stretched and they cried, and I curled around their tears so tightly that I couldn’t shed my own.
My brothers spoke, at the end of the service, and oh my gosh, so eloquent and they too cried without shame but continued their words even through their tears and those words leveled me. And they broke my heart, with their words and their tears and their nakedness.
I still didn’t cry.
I’m supposed to be a writer. Not a speaker. My dad wasn’t much of a speaker, but he was overflowing with emotions and words that begged to come out. The only time I heard him talk in front of a crowd was the month before, on May 25th, to honor and express love for my mother.
My dad died on June 24th.
I had to speak. I had to be as brave as he had always been.
So this is what I said. I wrote these words and I stood up and read them out loud and I did not cry.
I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted to say today, and some wise writer friends, who have come to know Dad a little bit through Facebook and my own stories, suggested that I just write him a letter.
So I did.
As I write this, I am sitting on Harry’s deck just after I woke up. It’s the sort of early morning you’d really enjoy. The landscape is glistening with last night’s rain, and the air has a chill that belies the predicted awful humidity. The sun is starting to peek over the tall trees Harry keeps threatening to cut down, and there’s a faraway sound of a neighbor doing yard work. It’s the sort of morning where you’d be up early, as usual, and if you had no appointments or clients, you too would be outside, blowing the mess off your deck, or maybe just sitting, as I am, watching the sun climb in the sky, thanking God for another day to enjoy and for all the people we’re lucky to love.
I was trying to think of my earliest memory of you, but very old memories are my brothers’ area. Sometimes I think I write in order to find my memories, every word scribbled in hopes of unlocking moments in time from long ago when I was very young. It’s often hard to separate true memories from family legend — all the stories told so many times that they have a life of their own, or from the hundreds of familiar photographs in albums or in slides that are burned in my mind
I guess it doesn’t matter how the memories were created, just that they exist.
I seem to have more of a sense-memory, feelings, recollections of touch and sound. For instance, I remember you hardly ever got to sleep late, but when you did, there was nothing better than to crawl into bed with you, to be silent and close against your still form. Even in those quiet moments, I knew you would always protect me.
As a child, I took you for granted, as children do. As an adult, I can look back and truly appreciate all the amazing sacrifices you made, your uncomplaining energy and commitment to whatever you were doing. I took for granted that you left the house every day by 6 a.m. to go to work, and didn’t get home again until around 8 p.m. The five-hour-each-way trips you made to New Hampshire every weekend in the summer, just to be with us. I know that you weren’t always able to be there for every performance or field day or tennis game or band competition, but I never resented that, because I knew that you’d be there in a heartbeat if you could, and you were with me in spirit. Because there were so many times you were there for real. The New Hampshire moments, the times at Indian Lake where you pushed me back and forth in that red plastic boat, the time that you and Uncle Jack built the deck and we had lobsters in the wading pool, weekends of raking leaves when we “helped” and you didn’t care that we made a bigger mess for you to clean up, the way you brought me things like Swarovski crystal figurines whenever you took a faraway trip.
You were also there for the middle and high school years, when drama overflowed in my world. You didn’t always understand what was going on, but you always gave me a hug and assured me that, whatever it was, it was going to be okay. Especially if I went in another room and talked with Mom. Despite the drama, I think it always made you happy to have so many of our friends in and out of the door – especially if it meant that you could advise them on their future, or tease them mercilessly – especially to tease them.
What a teaser you always have been! That sense of humor! It’s hard to picture you without a smile on your face. From corny jokes, to quoting goofy movies with us ad nauseum – there was always a laugh to be had with you. And you took it as well as you gave it, whether it was when we were little and discovered that it REALLY bugged you to have your socks pushed down, so we sat on the floor in front of you and pushed them down. You pulled them up. We pushed them down. This could go on for hours, it seemed. And you never complained! At least to our faces. Or when we were older, and we would brush out teeth in any other room but the bathroom, because it drove you absolutely bananas – it was especially effective if you had your back to us so we could gesture at each other while you pretended not to notice.
No joke ever got too old with us.
And so it went, through my college years (yes, I know, who can keep track of my colleges, ha ha ha) and through first jobs and various moves (let’s not ever speak of Miami), until I wound up in Boston and started a new chapter. For every step you were there, not judging, offering advice when asked (and sometimes when not). You never forgot to remember – every time the mailman brought a white envelope with your caps-only handwriting, I couldn’t wait to see what article you’d clipped from the New York Times just for me. There would also be a short note of love and a sage bit of wisdom – plus a $20 bill, because you not only believed in supporting my spirit, you also believed in supporting my “miscellaneous fund” account.
By the way, I don’t think that any of what I just said is proof that I am your favorite. I know that, like all parents, you never actually had a favorite – you were most happy with whoever was bugging you less at the moment. So, I won’t even mention the idea that you had a favorite, because I know you have always loved us all equally. There are no favorites. [points to self]
So, okay, I really did enjoy the occasional $20 bill, but especially over the last fifteen years, I mostly enjoyed your words of inspiration. It’s kind of funny how your journey of recovery almost exactly aligns with my journey as a parent and as a serious writer. No one has been a bigger cheerleader for me – not only for my writing, but more for “me.” You learned some tough lessons about taking care of yourself, and you always shared them – you were the first to tell me to leave the dishes or laundry, and go for a walk. Forget the vacuum – work on my books. You always knew I’d be responsible, but you never wanted me to forget myself in the process. You became a person who tried to live entirely in the moment, and how I loved that about you! Especially when it meant a daily Buddha quote in the family email. (Though I really loved it when you started sharing bad jokes, especially the lawyer ones, but don’t tell Ray that.)
I hope that right now you are enjoying an endless Christmas Eve dinner with all the grandparents, and the Christmas Day dinner too, with Mom’s cioppino and manicotti and bracciole, with Grandpa’s unlimited spoonfuls of pasta, and walnut-stuffed figs and filled cookies and a little anisette in your coffee, and there is card-playing and tons of laughter — and if possible, that this all happens on a forever lake where the sun shimmers off the water and the breeze tickles your face and the air is soft all around you. And even though we never won a single Christmas game as partners all those years, if they have those too where you are, I hope you continue our tradition of always being one of the pair with the best sense of humor. Also that pugnacious thing for which Uncle Frank always threw an award our way. Wise-cracking and never-giving-up, that is us. I couldn’t have asked for a better kindred games spirit.
Oh, Daddy, how lucky I was to win you and Mommy in the cosmic parent lottery! How lucky my kids are to have you as their Muggy and Pop – and not just for the goodbye Oreos or for the unlimited computer time or the nonstop pool time or Chinese food for twenty. I know you didn’t always think the sun rose and set on the 10 of them, at least not every day, but danged if you and Mom didn’t always made each kid believe it was so.
There is so much to say, Daddy, a million moments to remember…but I think you already know. I think you always did.
And you know what? It turns out, I remember them too.
Huh. Imagine that. I remember.
Daddy, I love you.
Take it easy.
My dad died on June 24, 2014. He was 71 years old.
The tears have come a bit, here and there. But I’m afraid to let them flow, unchecked. Because if they come, I don’t think they’ll ever stop.
Maybe I just miss him too much to cry.
Or maybe right now, tears are not enough. Not nearly enough.