My mother died in 1976, after suffering a massive heart attack in the middle of the night. She woke my father to tell him something was wrong. One look at her and he knew what was happening. He somehow managed to pick her up, carry her down the steps and get her into his car.
Running red light after red light and stop sign after stop sign...speeding through the deserted streets of our little town, they arrived at the emergency room at 2:45 in the morning. She collapsed in the doorway in full cardiac arrest. Sixteen hours later she was gone. Her life was a short one...a mere 52 years.
By 1976, my sister and I had both gotten on with our lives. She was living what she believed to be a happily married life with children...I was just out of college and fearfully wondering where mine would take me.
As much as I loved and missed my mother, it was best that I did not live there any longer. Life with my father had not been easy for any of us when I was growing up and it had become downright impossible once I had tasted the freedom of being out from under his authority for those four years.
And so it was just her and him left together in that big house. I dropped in to check on her when I could...mostly when he wasn’t there.
My mother was never sick a day in all the years I knew her...at least none that I can remember. It would not be until I spoke with her mother and sister at the funeral, my nonna Rosa and zia Giuliana, that I would learn she had rheumatic fever as a child.
Her heart attack, the one that came out of nowhere in the middle of the night and took her life, was no doubt brought on by the damage the rheumatic fever had caused to the muscles of her heart. Why had no one ever told me this?
I’d been back from college for only a year or so when she had that heart attack. I’d tried living at home for a month or so while I pondered my nebulous future, but as I said...it was best I got out on my own.
I visited as often as I could and never turned down an invitation to her incredible Italian dinners. Though she was obviously getting older, there was never a time when I noticed she was slowing down or losing her love and zeal for life.
There was a great deal of mutual affection between her and me. I adored her and she was beginning to respect the young man she had raised. That meant the world to me but sadly, much of what could have been said to each other remained unsaid. It is one of the few regrets I carry.
I remember very well the exact moment my life would forever change. It came in a dimly-lit, wood paneled chapel in the same Catholic hospital in which I was born. Talk about a circle of life!
In the wee hours of 9 November my brother-in-law was standing in the dark, knocking loudly on the front door of my little apartment at 4:00 in the morning. I struggled to wake and make sense of what was going on. Once I answered the door and he told me what had happened and that my mother was dying in a hospital bed as we stood in my doorway...well, nothing at all made sense after that.
There is a whole long, heart-breaking and tremendously dramatic story that surrounds my mother’s final hours in this world. But many of you have already heard it from me and others may not be interested. So instead, I want to tell you of just the last conversation I had with her. Telling you this part of the story will lead me to my message today, so please...if you will, indulge me for a few minutes.
My mother was an intensely religious woman but if you did not know her well, you would never have known this about her. Her relationship with her God was very personal and profound and as tangible as anything physical in this world. I credit her solely for planting the seeds of my own faith and nurturing them right up until the moment she passed.
I was kneeling at her bedside, holding on to her hand and trying my best not to cry. I was telling her that she was going to get better and in no time she would be back home. But she made it perfectly clear that my thinking was wishful at best...
“I died this morning Jimmy,” she said to me. “It was everything I thought it would be...and I am not afraid any more! I am no longer frightened or sad and I want you to understand that I will be leaving soon. I need you to take care of your father for me. I need you to put away all this foolish arguing. He loves you. He always has. Will you do this for me?”
Of course I agreed. I would have said anything to her at that moment. I begged her to stay but she couldn’t. It was her time to go and it was my place to stay. The monitors at her bedside started buzzing and chiming. The nurses rushed in and I was escorted out.
I ran directly to that chapel and standing in the very front row of pews, looking at His crucified body and staring right into His eyes, I began vehemently arguing about the unfairness and injustice of taking this woman from the world.
“I will never be able to trust you again if you take her,” I shouted. “Take him! Take me! Let her stay!”
It was at that very moment the door in the back of the chapel opened. It was my sister. She’d come to take me back to my mother’s room to say goodbye. Without turning I knew my mother was gone. That was the very moment my life was forever changed.
Now let’s speed ahead thirty years...to another hospital bed. In it lays my father. As a result of his advanced diabetes, he’d fallen and broken a vertebra in his back. The trauma had caused a portion of his lower bowel to collapse and he was not doing well.
The orthopedic surgeon argued with the internal surgeon that the bowel needed to be repaired before he could operate on the broken back. The internal surgeon argued the bowel could not be repaired until the nerve damage caused by the fall was repaired. In the meantime, my father was sinking deeper and deeper into his pain and despair.
Though incredibly weak, he was exceptionally happy to see me. Our conversation was minimal. Quiet time predominated. He seemed surprised at my visit, since I lived 1500 miles away and hadn’t seen him in quite a few years. The last time we’d been together was seven or eight years before when I showed up at his home to surprise him.
Now it was as if he knew why I had come. He knew how bad things were for him without saying he knew. We passed the time talking about stupid thing...the weather and of course baseball. Him and those damn Red Sox!
Our meeting was, on the surface, indistinguishable from any of the other times we’d sat across from one another. Neither of us was able to find a voice or the words for what we ached to tell each other. But it was obvious that we should probably get around to saying our good byes.
I'll never really know if his saying good-bye touched him as deeply as my saying good-bye to him. I could see the unspoken desperation in his eyes and I felt so small not knowing how to respond.
My father did not die that day. As it turned out, his doctors told me that it was my visit that helped him turn the corner and begin to cooperate with them. Though I still feel small for that weak good-bye, his recovery caused me to rejoice in a way I’d never experienced with him before.
In July of this past year I did in fact lose him. His body weak and his spirit spent, he was placed in hospice on a Tuesday evening and by Friday morning he was gone.
My father had lived a long life and he had been a modestly happy man. His health was precarious in these days and I knew his time to go would come soon. His sufferings had been prolonged and rather intense. In secret, I prayed that when he died, he would go quietly and painlessly. I am sure that in those moments between this world and the next, he was relieved that his long ordeal was over.
I will be honest with you...though it has been seven months, I still hurt. I will miss him. Terribly so! My tears come to me as I write this piece, but they are strangely comforting to me too...just like the ones I cried when my mother left me.
I knew and loved my father for sixty-five years. I realize how fortunate I am to have had a father like him in my life and to have known a person like him at all. But the most difficult part of his passing is that I would have wanted to know him better than I did.
He lived the greater part of his life without me in it. He was twenty seven when I was born and forty seven when I left home for good. He was 91...just a few months short of 92, when he passed.
Much of his life's story is obscure to me. I know some of the major events. But there were, and still are, large gaps of things I do not know about this man.
I knew, and still know, little of how he experienced those events or how they made him who he was. He never talked much either about them or what was going on inside his heart and mind as he was making his way through this life.
When my mother died, my young head filled with questions.
What did her fifty-two years mean to her?
What was it like for her to realize that her life was coming to a close as she lay in that hospital bed?
Did she sense that she was saying good-bye to everything and everyone she ever knew or cared about?
What did our twenty-three years together mean to her?
What did they mean to me?
I was determined to have answers to those questions before I ended up having the same questions of my father. But they are both gone now and the answers went with them. I wonder if everyone leaves as much unsaid as we did?
I guess what I am trying to say...what I am trying to make you see, is that life is transient. It is so ephemeral. We may not be here after another breath.
So think better. Think deeper. Think with kindness. And act with love so that when you are gone, you might live on in the hearts and minds of the people you’ve touched in your lifetime.